Daily Collegian

Mystery Meets Political Thriller, Reveals Controversy Over Bioweapons Research

Six years ago, Dusty Miller retired from her career as psychotherapist and national trauma expert. She told the agent who had published her nonfiction work that she wanted to write a book that was both a cozy mystery and a political thriller.

“You can’t do this, you can’t mix genres,” the agent said.

“I can’t help it,” Miller replied. “I must. The story is happening.”

Miller, 67, spoke to a small group at Food for Thought Books on Oct. 24 about her new book Danger in the Air.

Her inspiration for the book came from a news article she read just after Sept. 11, 2001. Don C. Wiley, a microbiologist from Harvard University, had mysteriously died while attending a conference in Memphis, Tenn. Miller said his car was found, but there was no suicide note. It was believed that he had jumped off a large bridge.

She thought that since he was working in biology, he could either be studying things that could help people, like medication, or things that could harm people, like biological weapons.

“I didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy,” Miller said.

Wiley’s death and career began to seem suspicious to Miller, so she decided to look into it. She found that in a short period of time, at least 27 scientists working in this field had died mysterious deaths.

Alice Ott, the mystery’s sleuth and main character, is based on Northampton peace activist Frances Crowe, who appeared with Miller at the Food for Thought event.

“Frances had been looking at the issue of bioweapons much longer than I had been,” Miller said.

Crowe, 93, was a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. She had a peace center in the basement of her Northampton home.

Crowe continued the peace center after the war and was contacted by People for a Social Responsible University (PSRU) in 1989. PSRU was a UMass student social action group in 1989-1990, according to University archives.

“We think the University is working on bioweapons under the microbiology department,” PSRU told Crowe. “We can’t get a copy of the contract and we want to know if you will help us.”

Crowe brought in Amherst lawyer John C. Bonafiaz to help them. Under the Freedom of Information Act, they were able to get a copy of the contract.

The contract was made between the U.S. Department of Defense and Curtis B. Thorne, a UMass microbiologist who was studying the anthrax bacillus, according to University archives. Crowe said the University defended Thorne as a “good and responsible researcher” who “knows what he’s doing.”

Crowe and PSRU contacted MIT microbiologist Jonathan King, who came to the UMass area for a hearing at the Amherst Board of Health. Crowe said the hearing was “very well attended. People in town thought [the anthrax research] was dangerous.”

After the hearing, there was a lot of opposition to Thorne’s work on campus, Crowe said.

“Over the next year and half, almost 500 students were arrested at the University,” Crowe said. “Bonifaz always spoke when they had rallies on campus.”

In one demonstration, UMass students occupied Memorial Hall and refused to eat or drink.

“It really was a wonderful thing the students were doing,” Crowe said.

The following summer, after the students had graduated, Crowe read in the Daily Hampshire Gazette that UMass had decided to discontinue the contract and Thorne had retired.

Miller said her book is a realistic fiction that includes events and landmarks familiar to people in Western Massachusetts. Her goal is to entertain readers while getting them to think about an important global issue.

Miller is a lifelong social justice activist and she wanted her book’s theme to center around war and peace. She wanted to write about “something that had political relevance beyond the little village where the cozy mystery usually takes place,” Miller said.

In addition to learning about the research and production of bioweapons, Miller has also learned how fiction writing differs from nonfiction.

“When you choose fiction, your characters choose you,” Miller said. “Once you have a theme and you have a story to tell, whether or not you think anybody will read it, you must keep telling it. “

She has found that being a fiction writer is similar to being a political activist.

“A lot of the things we do, we don’t know if its going to change anyone, but we must do it. That felt familiar to me,” Miller said.

Danger in the Air is available from White River Press, an Amherst-based publishing company.

{ A version of this article appeared in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 2, 2012. }

1 comment to Mystery Meets Political Thriller, Reveals Controversy Over Bioweapons Research

  • wayne barnstone

    GREAT ARTCLE! Ironically, one of Dusty Miller’s book is one of my ‘therapy bibles’ and I was just looking for it yesterday!

    Wonderful writing your doing Dave!!!! Dad

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