by Grace Topping
I met Nupur Tustin virtually through the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime and have followed her career with interest, particularly enjoying both her Celine Skye Psychic Mysteries and her Joseph Haydn Mysteries. Her books are intelligent and sophisticated—and page turners. Her latest book, Forger of Light, which continues Celine Skye’s attempt to solve the Gardner Museum heist, was recently released and is an outstanding addition to her series. It was a pleasure talking to Nupur about Forger of Light and her career.
Forger of Light
Welcome back to Writers Who Kill, Nupur.
Your series focuses on the Gardner Museum robbery, which actually happened and has never been solved. Why that mystery?
Because in terms of intriguing unsolved mysteries, this one is second only to the Jack the Ripper case, and we know more about the Ripper’s identity than we do about this heist. As a mystery writer—and as someone who likes closure—I wanted to come up with at least a plausible theory of what might have happened.
About the time I heard about the Gardner Museum theft, I was also learning about Robert Ressler’s work in the FBI. Ressler—an FBI profiler and the agent who initiated the Behavioral Science Unit and the VICAP division—had an intriguing method for coming up with uncannily accurate criminal profiles simply by studying crime scene photos. I wanted to make a similar attempt.
Yes, it would be fiction, but it would give me and everyone else who’s learned of this outrageous robbery some sense of closure. And it would keep the story alive, which I thought was vital. I was a student in Connecticut about ten years after the robbery, and in my two years there, heard not a word about it.
It’s mind-boggling that over thirty years after the incident no one seems to know a thing about it. Who perpetrated the heist? What motivated it? Where are the works now? Not one has been recovered.
We have countless theories. For the longest time, many were convinced Whitey Bulger had the art. If you found Bulger, you’d find the art, they said. But Bulger was arrested not very many years ago in Santa Monica, California, and he didn’t mention the stolen art at all.
You would think that with the loss of a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and a Manet more effort would’ve been expended to find the paintings and the thieves; that we’d at least have some answers.
The only theft that comes even close to this one is Martin Cahill’s robbery of eighteen artworks from Russborough House in Ireland in 1986, and that case has been solved and the paintings recovered.
Do you mention real people from the museum in your books?
For the most part, I don’t. Although I have named the thieves. That’s because law enforcement officials determined fairly on—based on the composites drawn from the guards’ descriptions—that the two men who broke into the museum were most likely Lenny DiMuzio and George Reissfelder. Others have suggested David Turner and Bobby Donati might be more likely candidates.
None of these people were directly connected to the museum; they were members of Boston’s criminal underworld. So I’ve mentioned DiMuzio and Reissfelder in the book. Celine even sees both men in Forger of Light.
Richard Abath was the guard on duty on the night of the crime, and a lot of attention has been focused on the role he played—letting in the two “police officers” against security protocol. I’ve mentioned him and allowed Blake, my FBI agent, to voice the theory that the guards or other low-level museum employees might have been involved.
But otherwise, I’ve steered clear of naming real people associated with the museum. All the actors involved in Celine’s psychic reconstruction of the theft are figments of my imagination. But I’ve tried to dovetail my theory with the strongest prevailing theories about the theft.
When Celine is pulled into the mystery surrounding the robbery, she draws on her psychic abilities to help solve events that are related to the missing artwork. How is it that Celine has psychic insight into some things and not others?
Psychic communication is a lot like tuning into a radio with terrible reception or like having a long-distance phone conversation with a lot of disturbance over the line. Much depends upon the individual’s native ability as well as the extent to which they’ve honed it. Celine is a fledgling psychic who’s spent her entire life discounting and tamping down her abilities. She’s forced to come to terms with them when her employer, Dirck, is murdered, and now, called upon to help the Gardner, she’s trying to focus her abilities.
But even the best psychic will have bad days or have health or other emotional and psychological issues that cloud her judgment and her ability to interpret the symbols she’s being shown. Gary Schwartz’s Afterlife Experiments—a scientific study of psychic ability—indicates that psychics, like other experts in other fields, only have to be right fifty percent of the time to be considered above-average in ability.
In addition to the psychic’s own abilities and state of mind and health, there’s the state of mind and ability of the dead person to be considered. The more forceful they were in life, the more forcefully they’re able to get their message across in death. If they were cagey, taciturn, and uncommunicative in life, that’s what they’ll be like in death. To what extent have they finessed their abilities to communicate with the living? We don’t automatically turn into gifted communicators when we die.
Then, of course, there is the question of the symbols the psychic receives and how easily they might be interpreted. Psychic Jeffrey Wands tells of receiving this message from a client’s father, “I like your lemon.” Neither Wands nor his client could make head or tail of this message until the client recalled that her hairdresser’s sign had a lemon on it or had ‘lemon’ in the name—I forget which. Her father was saying he liked her new haircut!
We see this phenomenon in Biblical prophecy all the time. Jeremiah is shown a pot boiling over in the north. That spells trouble coming from the north. But is the trouble civil strife that spills over into Jerusalem or is it—what it was, indeed—a conquering army from the north? Jeremiah interprets the image correctly, but you can see how a slightly different interpretation might be equally plausible.
Daniel sees a figure made of different metals, and that represents different empires that come after the Babylonians. And who would imagine that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat kine represented seven years of plenty?
Like the Biblical prophets, Celine has no control over what she’s told or when. Eve was told her son would destroy the serpent and deliver humanity from the curse of death. The Messiah came from her line, but he was a descendant, not a son as she’d hoped. Abraham is told all nations will be blessed through him, a promise that makes no sense until several hundred years and many books later when the prophets predict the coming of a Messiah, a Lamb of God, whose sacrifice will bless Gentile and Jew alike. A psychic, like a prophet, can only know what’s communicated to her.
The books in this series are real page turners with intricate plots that keep the pace moving. Did you plot each book and the series before you began writing?
I wanted to do something different with the Celine Skye series. I wanted the series to have an overarching story in addition to the story in each book. This concept will make sense to anyone who’s watched either “Person of Interest” or “Burn Notice,” both compelling TV shows that have an overarching story that connects each season to the next.
I have the backstory—my theory of what happened—firmly in my mind, and I have major plot points mapped out for each story. After that, there’s considerably more pantsing than I usually tend to do—although inevitably there’s some of that for every story I write.
But, yes, there’s a plot, a roadmap I follow. It’s never very detailed, but it’s even less so for this series.
Who was Sister Mary Catherine and why does she keep invading Celine’s thoughts?
Sister Mary Catherine was the counselor in the Catholic school Celine attended. We first meet her in the prequel to the series, Visions of Murder. A surrogate parent and counselor to Celine in life, Sister Mary Catherine continues in that role in death. She becomes Celine’s primary guardian angel. Every psychic has a team of spirit guardians intervening between her and the spirits who wish to communicate with her, facilitating the communication as well as helping to navigate life’s pitfalls and serving as protectors.
The Lady in Black shows herself to Celine when death is near. When did Celine first start seeing her and realize that her appearance portends someone’s death?
Celine first starts seeing the Lady when she’s two years old—about the time she first starts taking an interest in art. Given the Lady’s identity, this makes sense. A keen patron of the arts and music, the Lady lost her firstborn child when he was two and suffered a miscarriage while pregnant with her second child. She remained childless after that. Her attraction to a child is understandable.
But the Lady has a mission for Celine, and unfortunately preparation for that mission includes frequent encounters with unjust death.
The first incident happens when she’s twelve—her parents are killed in a tragic car accident, and Celine is able to sense what will happen because of the Lady. Ever since then, seeing the Lady and feeling her heart muscles clench up tells Celine that death is near. It’s usually an unjust death. A violent death.
You chose to mention the pandemic as a coming thing. Why?
This came about as part of the story. Celine is now a business owner and I wanted to show her making business decisions. So Andre Giordano, her winemaker, puts a proposition before her—one that makes perfect sense for the business. If you’ve ever tasted the wines made from the grapes grown in the hilly areas of Paso Robles, you’ll understand why. There’s a crispness, a brightness, and an intensity to the wine that’s simply incomparable.
Although Celine primarily uses her psychic insights to solve crime, those abilities don’t abandon her when it comes to other areas of her life. So, her insights help her as the owner of a winery as well. Psychic information can be hard to follow because it contradicts—as Celine’s insights do in this case—what is or seems to be at the present moment. So what seems like a good decision based on the information available to your five senses may in actuality be a terrible decision based on psychic information. Following through on your insights requires trust and faith and may necessitate looking like a fool in the eyes of others. Until you’re proven right.
Also, while Forger of Light is set in 2019, I was writing the book in late 2020. And readers are reading it in 2021. With the benefit of hindsight, I had a choice—bury my head in the sand and pretend our lives hadn’t changed OR acknowledge that we were in an unusual and traumatic time.
Ultimately, I realized it would be more comforting to my readers to acknowledge—through Celine’s brief vision—the pain we’ve been through and are still going through rather than to sweep it under the carpet. A business—across the street from where I imagine the Delft to be in Paso Robles—has been forced to close permanently because of the prolonged lockdown we’ve had to endure. When I discovered that, it reaffirmed my decision for me. This was something that could afflict Celine’s business as well.
You paint, compose music, and homeschool your children. When do you find time to write?
I write after working with my children. We spend the morning on schoolwork. I have a couple of hours before lunch to write. We usually do a session of schoolwork after lunch. And I paint or play the piano in the time I have during the rest of the day—before the 3-mile walk we take every day or while I’m waiting for the oven to preheat or water to boil or onions to brown as I cook dinner.
I started writing when my daughter—the oldest of my three children—was five months, so I’m used to writing in spurts and being interrupted and hearing heavy footsteps thundering up and down and rambunctious voices yelling and arguing and laughing as I work.
I really enjoyed your Joseph Haydn Mystery series, which featured the composer as your amateur sleuth. Why the switch from historical mysteries to a more contemporary mystery series?
I consider myself a versatile writer. Writing a contemporary series—one that’s quite different from the Joseph Haydn Mysteries—was a way of showcasing my versatility. That’s also the reason why I write short stories and—these days—children’s stories.
Which do you find more challenging to write, the Joseph Haydn Mysteries or the Celine Sky Psychic Mysteries?
The historical mysteries are more challenging to write. There’s far more to research, and it takes time. Right now, for instance, I’m studying simple machines in preparation to understanding stagecraft, in particular the building of scenic flats and rigging—the business of moving scenes onto and off the stage. I’m approaching this from more than one angle to gain a better understanding of how this worked during Haydn’s time.
I’m also constrained by Haydn’s life—I can’t just make things up. I need to consider what would be plausible given the circumstances, the time period, and his life.
Will there be more of the Joseph Haydn Mysteries?
Yes, definitely. As mentioned above, I’m working on the next one right now. Leopold Mozart—Wolfgang’s father—is accused of murder, and Michael Haydn, Joseph’s middle brother, insists Haydn not only take on the case, but also work to prove the elder Mozart innocent of the crime.
What’s next for Celine Skye?
Celine’s mission is to recover the Gardner art, so she won’t stop until she finds every piece that was stolen and understands who was behind the heist and why. When you consider how pushy Penny Hoskins, my fictitious director of the Gardner Museum is, there’s no way Celine will be allowed to stop until she’s recovered every work stolen. And when that happens, there’ll likely be pressure on her to recover other stolen works and tackle other unsolved art heists.
Thank you, Nupur.
To learn more about Nupur Tustin and her books, visit www.ntustin.com.