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Read the first chapter of THE PUFFIN OF DEATH at


Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Mystery of Snow Canyon


Finishing a book is like finishing a marathon.

Make that several marathons.

The idea for DESERT WIND came to me while I was watching an old John Wayne movie, an awful mess titled “The Conqueror.” In 1954, John Wayne played Genghis Khan (imagine!) with redheaded Susan Hayward as his unwilling Mongol bride. The on-film sparring between the two almost matched the heads Genghis lopped off in his pursuit of world domination.

Basically, I was watching the thing on a dare. I’d said to my husband that Wayne was a better actor than his usual cowboy or G.I. roles allowed him to be, and hubby – who could never pass up a sure thing – bet me twenty-five cents I'd change my mind after watching “The Conqueror.” We were going to order it from Netflix, but in the mysterious way of Fate, it popped up on Turner Classic Movies that very week. Five minutes into the thing, I knew I’d lost my twenty-five cents, but I’m no quitter so I stuck with it.

Good thing, too.

Halfway through the film, the host – I can’t remember who it was – began talking about the mysterious illness that plagued the cast and film crew, the same illness that was felling so many of the Paiute Indians who’d served as extras.

When the movie started again (and I'd handed over a quarter to my husband, who'd so obviously won the bet), I watched with an entirely viewpoint. Like a born mystery novelist, I was looking for clues. But there were none. Snow Canyon, Utah, the location of the movie set, was almost as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, which lay only a few miles south. The landscape looked pure and serene. Small wonder that Howard Hughes, the film’s producer, had chosen it.

Appearances are deceiving. A few years later, almost half the cast and crew who worked on “The Conqueror” were dead. Those responsible argued that the Hollywood people's heavy drinking, heavy smoking lifestyles had contributed to their deaths. But then death began to stalk the residents of the ranches and farms that lay near Snow Canyon. Deeply religious men who never smoked nor drank. Children. Babies. Women who raised fresh vegetables for the dinner table so that their families would have healthy diets.

I spent more than a year doing research on DESERT WIND, research that took me into the far northwest corner of Arizona, and the southwest corner of Utah. I visited libraries, museums, interviewed people who remembered those events --people who had at one time believed the official reason for the high death count, as well as people who doubted the official story from the very beginning.

To learn what happened and why those deaths are still argued about sixty years later (even though those responsible eventually admitted culpability), read DESERT WIND. As novelists so frequently do, I used real life as a jumping-off place for a book that examines guilt, innocence, and the concept of "plausible deniability."

John Wayne -- and everyone affected -- deserved better.

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To read an excerpt from DESERT WIND, log onto www.bettywebb-mystery.com

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Pat Browning said...

Sounds like a great book -- I love a mystery within a mystery. I read the excerpt on your web site -- fascinating!

Good luck with the book.

Pat Browning

lil Gluckstern said...

That's one of the things I like about your books. there's always a connection with something that really happened. I'm waiting for your book.

Eunice Boeve said...

Okay, I'm hooked. I had heard of that mysterious illness, but I had forgotten about it. Amazing where off-hand comments can lead one.

Anonymous said...

As a movie lover, I'm fascinated by what you did after watching this horrid movie. Like you, I often get ideas for something out of left field while watching a movie, but this was exceptional and led you to some interesting bits of history.

marja said...

Excellent blog, Betty, and after reading it I'm glad you stuck with the movie. I can see I'll need to add another book to my TBR stack(s).

Margaret said...

Really enjoyed the book, Betty. I had known about the cancer deaths of many of those involved in the film. Was not aware, however, of all the collateral deaths. A very sad chapter in American history. Love both of your series. Wish the Llama of Death was out there already. I'm in the mood for a zoo mystery. Guess, I'll just have to go to nearby Brookfield Zoo (IL) and see the real thing. Best wishes,
Margaret Franson