Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Truth Tellers of Two Eras: Maddow and Murrow

Even though my fiction is set in the past, what makes it tick for me is whether the issues are relevant. Sadly, gender discrimination, political unrest, religious violence and oppressive government are not a problem anyone's solved yet. 

These days, I have been watching The Rachel Maddow Show quite a bit. I feel it gives me a suspenseful, truthful analysis of the day’s political news. In my opinion, Rachel Maddow has become the bravest voice in television. The veteran MSNBC journalist doesn't hesitate to call out corruption or talk about the deaths in the immigrant detainment camps established by the Trump administration. Rachel Maddow reports all of this without bombast or name calling, although she is not afraid to show her indignation and grief, and at times, uses black humor . Watching her, I often have the bizarre feeling she has focused her attention so it really feels she's speaking directly through the screen. It is a rare gift and makes my connection with her different than when I watch other news programs.

This Stanford public policy graduate and Oxford PH.D. in politics is also a powerful writer. Her current nonfiction book, Blowout, was written over the course of four years and paints a chilling long-term picture of the fight to control oil with an emphasis on Russia’s role as a rogue state. The book is carefully researched and was written over the last four years, so It is an astonishing coincidence that its publication around occurred shortly after a whistleblower reported on Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine requesting that he investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump fears could beat him in the 2020 election. 

The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) has become the most popular news program in the country, although CNN’s News and Fox’s Sean Hannity news talk show are also close behind. During early October, as the impeachment inquiry began, TRMS viewership rose from 2.2 million average to 3.3 million per night. 

No matter what side of the political spectrum one favors, it is generally agreed that Americans (and people around the world) have had had a very hard time since the 2016 election. The family divides that began at the Thanksgiving tables that year have morphed into people simply not eating together or speaking anymore. One of the things I really appreciate about Maddow is that she doesn’t mock or demonize Trump supporters. And she presents the news with a mini-recap of things came to be, which makes it accessible to someone who might not have absorbed honest information about the government until that moment.

And she also offers hope. “When this is over,” Rachel says after she’s concluded talking about something that seems impossibly bad. When this is over. Please.

Maddow’s success as a truth-teller reminds me of the another important radio and TV personality: Edward R. Murrow. Their surnames are eerily similar, for a start. Both journalists  are both tall, dark and good-looking and partial to tailored dark suits. They are known for their furrowed brows. Loads of people became fixated on them, making them the most-watched newscasters of certain intense political eras.

These are big claims, but if you also were were not alive when Murrow was a star, I'll share a little about what I've learned. This longtime CBS news host became famous in the 1930s, when he was in charge of CBS’s European Bureau and reported on Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Murrow stayed vigilant in Europe, bringing America reports of Hitler’s danger at a time that most lawmakers were urging non-involvement in Europe’s troubles. Murrow warned he could not be ignored, and his reports were instrumental in changing America’s emotional opinion of the faraway crisis.

Edward Murrow stayed in Europe through the war, never entering a bomb shelter once to protect himself, and doing such things as flying on bombing raids and interviewing everyday people rather than the elite. He hired a small group of intrepid reporters nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys” who went all over Europe to bring the human cost of Hitler’s aggression home to America. 

Murrow had a television show on CBS called See It Now during a time that the country faced a similarly dark time. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy hated Communists, and with the race to build deadly nuclear weapons in the 1950s, people lost sleep fearing attack from the USSR. McCarthy took advantage of this paranoia by speaking constantly of a Communist menace. He conducted hearings designed to expose secret Communists, charging many people who had no relation whatsoever with the political party. 

Murrow was friends with CBS head Bill Paley, who admired the newsman so much he allowed him to report on any topic he wished. Murrow wanted to address Sen. McCarthy from the beginning of his reign of terror, but he knew if he jumped the gun, he would not have enough material to make the show succeed, nor would the public be receptive to it. If McCarthy successfully fought him, Murrow might even find himself and his colleagues at the network blacklisted. In the end, Morrow went to Michigan and interviewed a young air force officer fired because his father and sister had been accused of reading a book considered suspicious. Many viewers were horrified by what happened to this family and wrote to CBS in support of Murrow’s reporting. A second See It Now program used clips of the senator’s own speeches and testimony to paint a picture of his real motivations. The national outrage stirred up against McCarthy by that program may have been an important factor in leading the senate to formally censure him,  which brought the destructive hearings to an end. Yet because of the controversial show, a major advertiser left CBS, and See It Now was shifted to another time slot to avoid further damage to corporate coffers. 

When Murrow signed off at night, he always said, “Good night, and good luck.”

Rachel Maddow doesn’t have a stock phrase like that. Instead, she greets Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s following news program. MSNBC’s wish must be that readers will not recognize a clear ending to her show and will continue watching the network for many more hours. 

But at ten o’clock, I am usually off to bed, sometimes extremely charged up, and other times a bit more reassured as I dream of, when this is over. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Truth About Lying

Annamaria on Monday

If you have not heard me holding forth about something I learned from listening to RadioLab, you and I have not had enough conversation lately.  Insights from listening to RadioLab come to my lips very often.  In my opinion, it is the best radio program in the universe—a combination of entertainment and information unparalleled in anything else I experience on a regular basis.

With all the talk--world wide, I believe--about lying for political gain, I think it's time to look into lying, from a scientific perspective.  

The Radio Lab episode I have in mind today, is one called “People Who Lie.”  It analyzes why people lie and reveals why some people are so much better at it than others.  Here is a link a podcast where you can hear the whole story:

To summarize, what neurologists have discovered is that, in addition to little gray cells made famous by Hercule Poirot, we all also have white matter in our brains.  The white matter provides the pathways between one part of the brain and another.  What happens when people lie on the spur of the moment is that several disparate parts of the brain light up and put together a story to tell instead of the truth.!  And voila’!  “My baby brother vomited on my homework.”

Good liars, it turns out, have a lot more white matter than the less skillful fibbers on the planet.   The extra white stuff allows stored images in their brains to link together more often, more creatively, and a lot faster.

As soon as I heard this, I wondered if anyone has ever looked at the brains of fiction writers to see if we have more than the usual supply of white matter.  I would not be at all surprised if we do.  I have heard that in Philadelphia there is a group of writers called The Liars Club.  Makes sense to me.  And there seems to be a scientific explanation for it.

My musings here about how I make up a story are VERY current for me right now.  I am within about three thousand words of the end of my WIP.  And my brain is producing all kinds of unedited twists and runs in the story.  Here’s what my little gray cells think my white matter is doing.

With no outline or serious game plan, I draft my stories fast and furiously.  I set myself a word count goal for each day, every day, and I don’t stop for the day until I have reached it.  I force myself past the mental demons who laugh at the dreck I am producing, and I power along despite my fears of gross plot inconsistencies and jejune character motivations.   I tell myself, that it does not have to be good, it just has to be there.  Then, making it better and better will become the job.

Right now, with a fair amount of frequency, facts, images, connections show up in the story that come across as quite apt.   Yet I have no recollection of producing them in order to call on them now.  How could they have gotten there with little or no effort on my part?  All I can think is that they happened and then ran down my arms and out my fingertips onto the keyboard, practically unnoticed at the time.  The white matter did it.

My prejudice is that the best art is like watching Fred Astaire dancing.  It looks effortless.  Almost nothing I ever do is effortless.  But every once in while, there is a precious moment when the little gray cells and the little white cells cooperate and surprise me.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Story of Marengo—Napoléon’s Horse

Zoë Sharp

Recently on the news there have been a lot of pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, mounted on an eye-catching white horse, riding through snow up the sacred Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country.

Kim Jung-un and grey horse on sacred mountain
It struck me when I saw those pictures that there was something vaguely familiar about them. It didn’t take long to recall why. Back when I was a horse-mad small child (and indeed, a horse mad NOT-so-small child) I had a wonderful book about famous horses through history. One of them was a small grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, who belonged to the Emperor Napoléon I of France.

Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard pass in the Alps,
painted by Jacques-Louis David
Napoléon apparently once told an artist who inquired how he’d like to be portrayed, “Paint me calm, on a spirited horse.”

It is said that the Emperor owned 130-150 horses during his career, but the most famous of these is probably Marengo.

Napoléon Bonaparte was noted for liking small, agile horses although it is said that he was not a particularly skilled horseman. He was raised modestly on the island of Corsica, and did not learn to ride until beginning his military career. He had joined the artillery and was serving as an officer when Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Capitalising on the opportunities provided by the Revolution, he climbed the ranks very rapidly—he was a general by the time he was twenty-four.

Marengo was small for a war horse—only 14.1 h.h. (1.45m). He was apparently bred at the El Naseri stud and was imported into France from Co Cork in Ireland before being acquired by Bonaparte as a six-year-old in 1799.

Arab horses are noted for their stamina, speed and courageous nature. Marengo was no exception. He carried Bonaparte safely through numerous battles, including Marengo in Italy in 1800—Bonaparte named the horse after his victory here.

Some reports claim the pair would go on through Austerlitz in Moravia, Jena-Auerstedt in Prussia, Wagram in Austria and finally to Waterloo, although whether Bonaparte rode the same horse throughout this time, or a series of horses, is unclear. After all, by the time of Waterloo in 1815, the original Marengo would have been twenty-two—a good age for a horse in a far more sedentary occupation.

By this time, though, the sight of a spirited grey Arab horse, ridden by the figure in the bicorn hat and plain grey overcoat, had become part of Bonaparte’s legend. Although the village of Spinetta Marengo in northern Italy was already well-known for producing cloth in a dark brown colour with white speckles, after the battle it became synonymous with a grey or black fabric shot through with white or pale grey thread, as popularised by Bonaparte.

After his defeat at Waterloo, Bonaparte was forced to leave the wounded Marengo behind and escape by carriage. It was reported that the horse was found by Lt Henry Petre, 11th Baron Petre, who recognised the emperor’s saddlery and the imperial brand on the horse’s flank of an N topped by a crown.

Petre nursed the horse back to health and shipped him to London. When his career as a spoil of war was over, Petre sold the stallion to William Angerstein, a wealthy Grenadier Guards officer.

Angerstein put the horse unsuccessfully to stud, then retired him. Marengo finally died in 1832, when the original horse would have been thirty-eight. Angerstein then had his skeleton reconstructed by surgeons and it is now on display at the National Army Museum. The horse’s two front hooves were retained, however, and turned into ornamental snuff boxes. Another was used as an inkwell. His skin was put aside to be stuffed but was apparently lost.

This week’s Word of the Week is donnybrook, which comes from the annual Fair held in Donnybrook, which was then a suburb of Dublin. The Fair was noted for the consumption of alcohol and the number of both fights and hasty marriages that took place during it. In the end, the Donnybrook Fair was abolished in 1855. The name for a general ruckus remains.

Upcoming Events
Not long until Furness LitFest next month. (Wow, is Christmas creeping up on us, or what?) Helen Phifer and I will be taking part in Thriller Writers Talk With Margaret Martindale, starting 9:30 am on Sat, Nov 02 at the Dalton Community Centre on Nelson Street in Dalton-in-Furness. Tickets available from the website.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

What Times Are These?

Keith Haring, "Untitled"


I’ve been back in the US for less than a week and the primary question I’m asked after the initial good cheer questions runs along the line of, “So, how’s Europe doing these days?”

As if I know.  Neither Boris nor Jean-Claude are confiding in me at the moment, and Vladimir is too busy giving riding lessons to his new buddy, Kim Jong Un, to call me with his plans. 

Which leaves me to random anecdotal moments, and bits and snatches of conversations as the possible realm for yielding any more intelligence than is available to the general public via the media.

That said, I just read this piece in Greece’s Ekathimerini—Athens’ paper of record—expressing a position that, even if not accurate, plays precisely into the concerns I’ve heard expressed by many. The article was also republished in the US’ largest circulation Greek-American newspaper, The National Herald.

The article begins with this headline: “US will ‘abandon’ Greece as it did with the Kurds, Russia’s EU ambassador warns.”

Russia’s EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov has criticized a defense deal signed between Athens and Washington, while warning that the US might “abandon” Greece, as it did with the Kurds in Syria.

In an interview with TASS news agency on the sidelines of a conference on Rhodes island Tuesday, Chizhov said Greece was “wrong” to sign the revised defense deal with the US.

“You need to ask the Greek side why they made such a decision. But I do not rule out the possibility that they did so amid tensions between the US and Turkey. However, this does not mean that this decision is well weighed for the future,” Chizhov said.

Turning to Turkey’s military offensive in northeast Syria, the Russian envoy added: “We had warned the Kurds that the Americans will abandon them. And here, in Rhodes, I can personally warn the Greeks about it, that they will have the same fate as the Kurds.”

As for what the future will bring, I think the players are fixed, it’s just the plot lines that are left to play out.

Ahh, and to think but I week ago I was here.

In Tuscany. :(

To better times.


My Upcoming Events

Saturday, November 2, 4:00-5:00 PM
Dallas, TX
BOUCHERCON–Hyatt Regency Dallas
Moderating, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” with Joe Clifford, Laura McHugh, Hannah McKinnon, Lissa Marie Redmond, and Scott Von Doviak

Sunday, November 3, 8:30-9:30 AM
Dallas, TX
BOUCHERCON –Hyatt Regency Dallas
Panelist, “Detectives Overseas” with Ian Hamilton, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Sears, and Stanley Trollip, moderated by Nancy Tingley

Friday, October 18, 2019

Two Blokes, Four Blokes and the Exploding Nun.

 Two mates had a book launch in Glasgow last night.
Messers Gordon Brown who I am sure some of you know, and Neil Broadfoot who you  will come across if you are an aficionado of  crime thrillers.

They were interviewing each other, which can get a bit, I'll pat you on the back if you will pat me on the back. How  many ways can we say that  we think our books are wonderful?

This event had no possibility of falling into that  trap as they had left little bits of paper on each table so we could write questions that  we wanted to ask. Big mistake when  the cast of Carry On Sleuthing is in the audience and the cast of four blokes.

  I'm sure the Murder is Everywhere Blogsphere know about the play that  we do called Carry On Sleuthing. Neil and Craig have been known to help  out when we needed extra legs.
 I think that  has resulted in both of them seeking medical help. Sleuthing is dangerous and few folk realise the peril that  we actors risk when we walk on stage  with a sleuthing script in our hands. In fact, I don't know why we have that  script as we tend to make it up as we go along.

Neil and Craig are part of the 'Four Blokes in Search Of A Plot' crew.
I have blogged about these guys before also - you may recall the pictures of four guys sitting on stage  and one has a laptop and a tea cosy on his head.
 You can only type while you are wearing the Tea Cosy Of Inspiration.

Each bloke types for five minutes  using an idea shouted out from the audience. Then the audience select the next writer, and on it goes. They have to pick up where the last one left off.
 I have seen them write a plan for a good thriller with the starting point of Stuart McBride and  a potato peeler .

Every time Mark Leggat gets the laptop, a nun seems to explode.
He's like that.

Craig was launching Highest Lives.
The premise of this series is fascinating. A man who has had some interference from a government agency and when he gets stressed, people die.  If he gets upset, folk around him will start attacking each other.  We have seen that in the Four Blokes audience so maybe that  is where he got the idea.

He did actually get the idea in a  quiet pub in Glasgow when he and his mate were having a  drink. The other folk in the bar were a pair of brothers and a single bloke in the corner reading a book.  The brothers started fighting, the police were called as the furniture started flying.  They got flung out.
 The man in the corner carried on reading his book as though nothing had happened.

Was that man, reading something that really upset  him and did he, in some way, make the other two attack each other?
Was he reading the Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson?
That's a very short book.

Or I do wonder....if the reader of the book in the pub was deaf.

I interviewed Neil about this book for Aye Write last year.
I think it goes under the genre of a pacy thriller.  As with all good lead characters, there's more to Connor than meets the eye. It's hinted at, now and again but Neil said that as the series goes on, so Connor's past will reveal itself.

This night was to celebrate the launch of No Place To Die where Neil  kills many guests staying at a small hotel  in Stirling over a period of  48 hours.
And Connor  has to get in there and sort the situation out before more deaths occur.

Neil starts writing the first line and keeps going until he gets to the end. He has no idea what is going  on in his books until he has finished them. 

I wonder if he's ever tempted to write 'Connor managed to fling himself on top of the little puppy, saving it from the blastwave of the exploding nun.'

I am not the greatest plotter in the world but I do know the ending, the characters will decide how I get there.

Caro Ramsay  18 October 2019

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Quinta de la Rosa

Michael - Thursday

Pat and I are travelling around Spain and Portugal. We started with a hectic drive from Madrid to Portugal, following ridiculously long flights from Brisbane and Johannesburg respectively. The next day we needed something relaxing, and a visit to Quinta de la Rosa on the beautiful Douro River fit the bill. The Quinta is across the river from the charming wine town of  Pinhão, a few hours upstream from Porto.

The Douro from Pinhão
Quinta de la Rosa

View from the terrace of the Quinta
View of the town from the Quinta

A quinta is a country house or mansion in Portugal, and in particular a wine growing estate. Quinta de la Rosa came into the family of the current owners at the start of the twentieth century when the current owner's grandmother received it as a christening present in 1906. Nice to have grandmothers like that.

Contemplating a birthday present perhaps?

The Quinta makes some superb wines as well as noteworthy ports. After a cellar tour, they do an excellent lunch with a view of the river. We were there on the last day of the harvest and saw the large concrete vats filled with grapes waiting to receive a good foot stamping in the evening.

The terraced 'Inferno' vineyard
The best wines comes from the Inferno vineyard. It received that nickname from the grape harvesters who had to pick at the bottom of the hill and then climb the ancient terraces to the top carrying up to 150 pounds of grapes in baskets on their backs.

As for Pinhão, the most fascinating thing for me was the azulejo-tiled story of the Douro at the railway station. Azulejo tile work originated with the Arabic culture of Iberia and was later adopted by the Portuguese.  These beautifully hand-painted tiles are featured all over the country. The station at Porto has large murals of wars and panoramic scenes covering whole walls. As befits its more modest size, the Pinhão station has smaller scenes, but they depict the whole structure and life of the area. Delightful.

Grape pickers heading up to the winery
Barges on the river

Traditional dress
Traditional Portuguese sailing boat on the Douro
Oxen crossing

Railway bridge


Terraces. Some date back to Roman times

The Douro is delightful and relatively unspoiled. It should be on any wine enthusiasts bucket list. Or at the very least on their tasting list. 


Tuesday, October 29: 6:30 pm Murder by the Book, Houston, Texas. Michael joins Yrsa Sigurdardottir for a discussion and signing.

We’ll be at BOUCHERCON in Dallas at the end of the month. It looks like an exciting meeting and we’re looking forward to these panels!

Thursday, October 31:

11:00 – 12:00 PanelThe Novel Stands Alone
  Kendra Elliot, JT Ellison, LS Hawker, Stanley Trollip, Sheri Lewis Wohl
  Participating Moderator: Laura Benedict

Sunday, November 3:

8:30 – 9:30 Panel: Detectives Overseas
  Ian Hamilton, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Sears, Jeffrey Siger
  Moderator: Nancy Tingley

After Bouchercon we’re on tour. Please join us somewhere if you can!

Tuesday, November 5: 7:00 pm Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale, Arizona, with Solari Gentill and Tim Maleeny

Wednesday, November 6: 4:30 pm Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour, Stillwater, Minnesota. Contact Valley Booksellers at (651) 430-3385 for tickets

Saturday, November 9: 10:00 Private book club event

Saturday, November 9: 1:00 pm Barnes and Noble, HarMar, St Paul, Minnesota

Tuesday, November 12: 7:00 pm Mystery to Me, Madison, Wisconsin

Wednesday, November 13: 7:00 pm Centuries and Sleuths, Forest Park, Illinois

Saturday, November 16: 10:00 Nokomis Public Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Monday, November 18: 7:00 pm Barnes and Noble, Galleria, Minneapolis, Minnesota. More details to follow.