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Author Dorothy McIntosh in her Toronto home on June 27, 2011.

Michelle

The story behind first-time writer D. J. McIntosh's new book The Witch of Babylon would make any aspiring author salivate: Retired city functionary turned writer hits it big; her novel is slated to be published in 16 countries. The story within the page-turning thriller will entertain the rest of us.

The book is set in modern-day New York City and Iraq. McIntosh's main character, a street-smart Turkish-American art dealer, races against the bad guys as they search for an elusive Assyrian treasure that will reveal information that is key to locating ancient treasure. One of the novel's major motifs is alchemy and the pursuit of the formula for turning base metals into gold. McIntosh lives in an art-filled condo in Toronto, and during our interview a small pot bubbled on her stove. It contained apple cider, to be added to muffin batter, but it burned while she talked and it seemed apt that it unexpectedly turned into something else: apple taffy. Metamorphoses of substances intrigue her.

"Alchemy is the applied science to the philosophy of hermeticism," she said. "Many people don't appreciate how significant Arabic scholarly learning was. But it laid the foundation for modern science."

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McIntosh began to write her book six years ago. Ever since she retired, at 50, from her job as a land-use planner at Toronto's city hall, she dedicated herself to crime writing. She wrote short stories, networked with other aspirees and co-edited the Crime Writers of Canada newsletter. "Because I was a technical writer, it took me a long time to switch off that mindset," she said.

Her first break was being short-listed for Britain's prestigious Debut Dagger Award, given to the best crime novel by an unpublished author; after this, an agent called. She worked on her manuscript until it was ready to be auctioned in Germany, and sold in Russia, China and other countries. In Canada, Penguin purchased the rights, along with the rest of the trilogy she is working on. While she won't discuss numbers, she said that up until the slew of international deals, she thought she would have to sell her condo because her pension didn't look like it could sustain her. Now, she's staying.

Today, McIntosh is represented by the New York-based Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. Now, the big question is whether The Witch will become a blockbuster. The plot is certainly there, but McIntosh is competing in a genre dominated by men such as Dan Brown and Raymond Khoury. One of the few women to make it big, she said, is Katherine Neville, who published the international bestseller The Eight in 1988. So it would be easy to think that McIntosh is hiding her gender by writing under her initials, "D.J.," rather than her given name, Dorothy. "I'm not trying to be a guy," she said. At city hall, she wrote walking-tour guides and promotional brochures; using her initials is her way of setting her novel apart.

And a world apart from Toronto it is. The book belongs to the "antiquities thriller" genre and it is full of Mesopotamian history. To prepare, McIntosh steeped herself in all she could find about the Assyrian Empire that was at its peak around 700 BC, before the ancient city of Nineveh was looted and burned. "The Mesopotamians were easily the equals of the Egyptians in accomplishment. They built an astounding political and economic organization," she said. "For over eight years, the media has focused on Iraq, but almost nothing has been said about the fabulous history of the country."

In fact, it was in part the war in Iraq that inspired McIntosh. As she watched foreign troops enter Baghdad, the similarities between past and present astounded her. "I was reading about Nineveh and the devastation and the looting. Then all of a sudden on TV you are watching the same thing happening to Baghdad."

Over the next few years, she sought out academics to help her better understand the past. And thanks to an American professor, the story behind her book took an interesting turn.

One day, McIntosh answered her phone to find one of Sweden's most famous journalists, Nuri Kino, on the line. Kino is an Assyrian Swede whose life as a celebrated investigative journalist itself resembles a thriller. "I call him the reincarnated Stieg Larsson," McIntosh said. He recently published a book about the Swedish mafia. At the insistence of his American friend, Kino telephoned McIntosh to offer her a modern-day Assyrian perspective on her work. They spoke until dawn in Sweden.

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"I thought either she is nuts or she's a very exciting person," Kino said. It turns out it was the latter. "Dorothy is very special. She has a way to show her interest that is very rare." He was bowled over not only by the depth of McIntosh's research about the history of his community but also by the coincidences between her main character and his own life - particularly a car accident. "The way she described it without knowing me, that was scary because that is what I went through." Since that first call, they speak every few weeks and have developed a real friendship.

McIntosh has a deep respect for journalists such as Kino. Because it was too dangerous for her to go to Baghdad herself, she immersed herself in news accounts and watched video footage. "They are the ones who take risks so we can know the truth," she said. "One of the best things about writing this book has been getting to know men like Nuri. They put their life on the line. One should feel so grateful."

Sarah Elton is a Toronto-based writer and broadcaster.

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