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Killer Cosmetics

In “The Dagger”, a story in The Deadliest Deceptions, Phoebe and Professor Jason go to The Pegasus, a sleazy waterfront inn, to investigate the death of the retired gladiator Ursus. But first they have to get past the inn’s ferret-faced hostess:

Selene pointed with her chin to the table nearest the entrance to the dining room so the maid could set up the rest of the room. I was grateful to escape the carnivorous flies and the blanketing soot, but when she plonked down next to me, the stench of the lead paste foundation she wore to mask the crimson capillaries on her pulpy nose brought back my queasiness.

Foundation is a liquid, cream, or powder makeup applied to the face and neck to create an even, uniform color to the complexion, cover flaws and, sometimes, to change the natural skin tone. The history of foundations stems back to antiquity. The ancient Greeks and Romans were obsessed with a pure-white complexion. Pale skin was associated with affluence, and darker tones with tanned, outdoorsy lifestyles. In a bid to emulate that, women (and men) would paint their faces with a white chalk, which we now know was white lead. Despite lead’s health hazards, ranging from skin ruptures to madness to infertility, they used white lead to lighten their faces, some topping that coating with a bit of red lead for a rosy glow.

Believe it or not, we still have to check our cosmetic products. But you don’t have to check the Miriam bat Isaac stories. They are all light mysteries that faithfully depict the historical details of first century CE Roman-occupied Alexandria. To choose one, just click here.


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