Monday, November 19, 2018

The Cloak & Dagger Bookshop

Annamaria on Monday

Cloak & Dagger Mystery Bookshop In Princeton, New Jersey is my dream of a perfect, small bookstore atmosphere.  Beautiful, cozy, well-stocked, to say nothing of the graciousness of its proprietor--Jerry Lenaz.  

Many independent bookstore owners have lamented to me the difficulty of getting a crowd to show up when an author comes for an appearance.  In times past, scores would show up for the chance to "Meet the Author."  Nowadays, not so much.  But Jerry has found a formula that works.  He sets the visit up as a conference, scheduled for a weekend afternoon, on a topic other than a presentation about a book.  He also partners with a local group who would have an innate interest in the kind of things the author writes about.  In my case, the topic was historical crime fiction and the group was the Central NJ Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Jerry serves sandwiches, soft drinks, and sweets at these events.  AND he charges admission!  The price of the ticket includes the comestibles and a copy of the speaker's latest book.

Once, long ago, I had a boss who believed that "People regard with scorn things they get for nothing."  Could the price of admission be the reason people see the event as worth their while?  I have no idea.  Whatever the reason, I was tremendously happy that every one of the thirty-some chairs in the store was occupied.

For me, the day began at the New Jersey Transit area of Penn Station...

On to the bookstore...

...where all was set for my gig.

Jerry and I decided that he would interview me, rather than my making a speech.  I have grown to like the interview format very much.  Jerry's questions were incisive and piqued the audience's curiosity.

After the event, I had some time to sign books and then enjoy looking around the shop,

To make room for the audience, some of the shelves were blocked by the moveable displays above, but the ones I could access were nicely stocked with the works of my dear blogmates...

Sujata, please note that the stack of books claiming pride of place on the mantle were these!

After a lovely dinner, I took the 8:10 back to Penn Station.  At New Brunswick, a guy took the seat next to me and proceeded to talk business--highly tech business--on his cell phone for the next half hour.  At one point, he said--into his phone:

Him: "..this is just between you and me."
"And me," I said.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Gateway To The Story: Opening Lines

Zoë Sharp

This is an update of a blog I originally wrote four years ago, although all the books mentioned are the latest publications by my fellow blog mates.

I’m fascinated by opening lines. It’s a question I always ask other writers: “What’s the opening line of your last/latest book?” and it’s amazing how often they can’t quite seem to remember, or maybe they’re just a little embarrassed to be able to quote it verbatim off the top of their head.

For me, nothing is harder to write than that first sentence. I’m reminded of the famous quote—can’t remember who originally said it—that goes: ‘After three months of continuous hard labour, he thought he might just have a first draft of the opening line.’ Always gets a laugh, but the terrible thing is that it’s not far off the truth.

I just can’t go forwards until I have a start I’m happy with. Maybe it’s because when I pick up a book by a new or new-to-me author, the first thing I read is the opening paragraph. It says everything about the pace, the style, the voice. It basically tells me if I want to go on with the rest of the story, almost regardless of anything else.

So far, I’ve been lucky and I’ve rarely been asked to change the start of a book. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done so, though. For both my first standalone, THE BLOOD WHISPERERand the latest one, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, I added new prologues to tie the start of the book more firmly into both the backstory and the story to come, but in both cases, the opening chapter one remained the same.

When I co-wrote AN ITALIAN JOB with John Lawton, I penned the opening scene. It was Lawton who suggested I swap the order of the first two paragraphs, and I agreed with him, so, the story starts: 
‘The jolt of startling recognition had happened so regularly over the last twenty years it no longer surprised him, even though he knew most of the people he saw—those he thought he saw—were dead.’

Generally speaking, I’m pretty easygoing about edits. If my editor says something needs altering or cutting, and I don’t have a really good reason for that scene to stay, it goes. That came from years of non-fiction writing for magazines, where you couldn’t get away with lying full length on the floor and beating your fists into the carpet, wailing, just because somebody wanted you to cut half your deathless prose to fit around the pretty pictures.

But I hate it when people mess with the rhythm of what I’ve written for no good reason. I put commas in for their original purpose—to tell the reader when to pause, where to place the emphasis within a sentence so it reads with the same cadence as it had in my head when I wrote it.

A few years ago I did a short story for a particular magazine. It had to be to a specific length and I delivered it precisely 32 words over, which I thought was pretty close to target. The story was entitled ‘The Getaway’ and my original opening went:

‘Lenny Bright sat opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society in a gunmetal Honda Accord with the engine running. He hadn't taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and right at that moment he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

But when the magazine arrived, to my surprise the editor had changed the opening to:

‘Sitting opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society Lenny Bright kept the engine of his gunmetal Honda Accord running. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

Not a great deal of difference, I grant you, but enough to change the whole character of the opening, the pace, the style, everything. Lenny’s a getaway driver, as the title suggests, so it’s not his Honda, for a start. And somehow the ‘right at that moment’ seemed an important point to make about Lenny’s sudden craving for nicotine. Quite apart from anything else, it just reads WRONG to me, and I wish they’d asked me before they messed with it—or even told me beforehand that they intended to—but there you go. Argh!

When I was kicking around the idea for this post, I went and looked up the opening lines for my fellow Everywhere Murderers, and when you look at them all, one after another, you really get a feel for the eclectic styles of this highly talented group of writers.

Annamaria Alfieri—THE IDOL OF MOMBASA (Vera & Tolliver #2)
‘As always, the dhow approached Malindi harbor under cover of darkness on the night of the new moon. A tall African man stood in the bow of the boat.’

Cara Black—MURDER ON THE LEFT BANK (An Aimée Leduc Investigation)
‘Pale afternoon light filtered into Éric Besson’s wood-paneled office as Monsieur Solomon untied the twine that bound together a bulging old notebook. “We were prisoners together in a POW camp,” Solomon said, wheezing, as the lawyer took hurried notes.’

Leye Adenle—WHEN TROUBLE SLEEPS (An Amaka Thriller #2)
‘“Have you ever been on a private jet?” Chief Adio Douglas stretched his hand over Titi’s shoulder in the back of the Mercedes S-Class.’

Sujata Massey—THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL (A Mystery of 1920s India #1)
‘On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided. Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistry House.’

Caro Ramsay—THE SIDEMAN (An Anderson & Costello Thriller #10) 
‘Costello pulled her car up outside the big house. It looked cold and dead in the bright winter sunshine, rays glinted off the ivy-covered slates giving a sparkle to the bricks of the red chimneys.’

Michael Stanley—DEAD OF NIGHT
‘Michael Davidson wiped the sweat off his face, irritated that his hand was unsteady. He’d been following the white pickup for almost two hours.’

Zoë Sharp—DANCING ON THE GRAVE (A CSI Grace McColl and DC Nick Weston Crime Thriller)
It is a bad day to diea perfect one to kill.

Jeffrey Siger—AN AEGEAN APRIL (A Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery #9) 
‘The northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, a place of quiet beauty, storied history, and sacred shrines, had long drawn the attention of tourists, though never quite the hordes of off-islanders that descended each summer onto some of its much smaller, but far more notorious, Cycladic neighbors to the southwest.’

Susan Spann—BETRAYAL AT IGA (A Hiro Hattori Shinobi Mystery)
‘Hiro Hattori leaned into the wind that swept down the hill and across his face. He pulled his kimono tighter and glanced at the Portuguese priest beside him.’

All very different, all fascinating. They make me want to know more about all these stories, just from the opening lines. Not only that, but I’m intrigued to know if these were the original opening lines for each book? Were there lots of ideas kicked around? Did an editor disagree with your preference and you had to make a major change?

But what makes a good opening line? What’s your personal favourite as a reader? How do you decide on one as a writer? The openings of some of the most famous novels vary wildly, from the famous 'Call me Ishmael' of MOBY DICK to the incredible opening sentence from Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, which weighs in at a hefty 149 words, beating Dickens’ positively lightweight opener to A TALE OF TWO CITIES by a solid thirty. Wow, people must have had the breath control of a whale in those days.

But it’s not just the opening lines that intrigue me, it’s what they represent. They are the jumping-off point for the whole tale. Books never start at the beginning of the story, and deciding exactly where to invite your reader to join you on that journey is an enormously difficult choice, because it’s vital they arrive at the right point to engage their interest, intrigue them, make them unable to leave that bookstore without your book clutched under their arm. But you can’t cheat, either. You can’t open the book with a situation so outrageous that, when the explanation’s finally revealed, it can never live up to the set-up.

When I wrote the opening for the soon-to-be-released prequel to my Charlie Fox series, TRIAL UNDER FIRE, it was one that came to me immediately and it never changed:

‘The pair of helos came in low and dark over the ravine. One minute they were a faint whump-whump in the distance, the next they were right on top of us. Two sudden, snarling silhouettes, each big as a truck, blotting out the stars.’

I always like to hit the ground running and, for me, that’s what this opening does. Sets the scene, the pace, and the danger, right from the start. It’s the rhythm of the words as much as the words themselves, and the alliteration in the last sentence was absolutely intentional. This story takes place way before Charlie became a bodyguard—back when she was still a regular soldier in the regular army. Back before she acquired her killer instinct.

I quite often go for flash-forward opening chapters with the Charlie Fox series, but this isn’t one of those. In fact, apart from a couple of flashbacks to show her home life, the story is fairly linear. It was quite a contrast with the current series book I’m working on at the moment, which hops back and forth over about a six-week period to explain how Charlie finds herself walking unarmed into an ambush on a quiet country road in New Jersey.

When I look back at the last time I posted on this subject, I find the sentence: ‘And boy, I hope I never enter one of those bizarre alternate realities where fictional characters spring to life, because if that ever happens I swear Charlie Fox is going to seek me out and beat the crap out of me for what I put her through, book after book.’

Things haven’t been any easier for Charlie in the intervening time, and the latest story isn’t exactly a day at the beach for her, either. But then, that would make life a little dull, wouldn’t it?

This week’s Word of the Week, is adoxography, meaning fine writing in praise of trivial or base subjects, or eruditely praising worthless things.

Saturday, November 17, 2018



Let's start off with a confession. This is a remake of a post I wrote two years ago.  I have several reasons for doing so. None of which may be convincing, but let me take a crack at persuading you.

(1) I leave for Iceland in a few hours and have not yet finished packing. (2) I have not yet taken the photographs I wish to insert into the post, and the last time I wrote a blog in Reykjavik I couldn't upload photos...I don't wish to duplicate that experience, (3) I have been crazed over the last two weeks doing the final edits on Kaldis #10, and just sent the fully edited and approved manuscript off yesterday, leaving me the hours since to ready myself for the trip, and (4) my daughter, her husband and my five-year-old granddaughter are joining Barbara and me on the trip to Reykjavik so I may not have time to tinker with this post once there. Bottom line, pick the excuse that works best for you and please cut me some slack.

Bye for now....and on to the rewrite of Iceland Noirs past...

Four years ago [and again two years later], practically to the day, I wrote, “I just love it here… I’ve never been to Iceland before, but I will be back. And back to Iceland Noir if they’ll have me.”

Well, they did and I am [for the third time], to this festival of crime fiction set in Reykjavik organized by our own Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Quentin Bates, Ragnar Jonasson, Lilja Sigurdardottir, and Òskar Gudmundsson.

The town, the people, the ambiance, the nightlife, all create a sense of what legendary Berlin or Paris must have been like in their heydays, seasoned with a bit of old Amsterdam. Whatever it is, this place has all the right vibes, and it’s a joy to be back.

So, here are some photos I took this trip [Assuming I take any and can upload them prior to this going live on Saturday] Annamaria and Zoë were here two years ago, but didn't make it this time so I can't rely upon them as I did in 2016 to post their photos of the action.

And action there is, both in and out of the festival's new home at Idnó theater by Reykjavik pond, a beautiful traditional Rekjavik style 19th century building.   The nightlife is just as vibrant as I recalled, and once again, the festival is a delight, filled with interesting speakers putting on their “A game” for a knowledgeable, appreciative audience. 
Idnó Theater

Two years ago I wrote "Most surprising is that no one has yet asked me about the US Presidential Elections."  Any bets on whether I'll be able to made a similar statement this year?

Enjoy the photos...which will be inserted here just to prove I made it1

By the way, the only photo I was able to upload from my hotel two years ago was this one of me indulging at Reykjavik's most famous hot dog stand.  Why that is I have no idea. Perhaps it got through because it's where President Clinton diverted his Secret Service team so he could try one...or two.

Back to packing.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Brexit Exit

I was going to write an insightful and informative blog about the current state of Brexit. But it's  7.26am and  it will have changed by half past.

To summarise. We have three options

a) Things get worse with the deal on the table
b) Things get much worse with out the deal on the table
c) Things get much worse.

The other thing to note is that Northern Ireland has a land border with the Irish Republic. It's fields and roads and cows and things. People bob about from side to side. No right minded person wants a solid border just as any right minded person would avoid one between here and Englandshire.

The SNP don't realise this and are sticking their oar in, demanding that want Northern Ireland get, we should get.  With lots of head bobbing. 


Unfortunately, a film has just been realised called The Outlaw King, the usual oppressed Scots rising against the nasty oppressive English and while it is about Robert The Bruce, some facts have been altered for dramatic effect. It has as many beguiling untruths as Nigel Farage's Brexit campaign.

But it's being punted around Facebook as the solution to our problems. Answers on a postcard please about that one.

As of right now, 7.31 am. Most people in the UK want to stay in the Union... the European one that is.  The 'Don't want immigrants coming here’ type of voter has realised he will have to queue (like an American?) going through passport control with his duty free fags and that voter has had a rethink.

So Theresa is being challenged by her cabinet resigning and suddenly, we face the realisation of the other Conservatives who could become PM and Mrs May has received a  groundswell of support, She is surrounded by nasty men who are feasting on this awful situation  with little regard to the welfare of the country. Some who are jostling for position will curdle milk by looking at it.


Theresa is getting some support from Josephine Public, she's being seen as a woman trapped by nasty men. She's being seen as a woman doing her best in an impossible situation, and  the rats are deserting her sinking ship. 

I liked the analogy of Mrs May being a post mistress, trudging through the thick, thick snow to deliver a parcel that nobody wants, getting doors slammed in her face and   leaving her out in the cold.

It's 7.41 am. Somebody might have called a general election while I was typing.

It does happen.


There is no easy way out of this. I'd call another Brexit referendum but nobody has asked me. People were asked to make a  lifelong decision without knowing the facts, and  that went badly wrong. Now there are calls for Indyref2, which is where people are asked to make a lifelong decision without knowing the facts.

I hope that has clarified it all.

We have a saying. Even Shi* rolled in glitter is still Shi*.

Which I feel is a very apt political comment. 

I'm going for a lie down. We could have a general election by the time I get upstairs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Atlantis found!

Stanley - Thursday

I am grumpy again!

I've recently returned to South Africa, to enjoy my endless summer; to launch Dead of Night in the country where most of it is set; and to revel in the glories of spring in the smallest floral kingdom on the planet - around Cape Town.

So why grumpy?

Well, I'm still smarting at being called a deplorable from a shithole country. I've also been catching up on my reading about the Scramble for Africa - formalised at a meeting convened by Otto von Bismark in Berlin in 1884. One of the main agenda items of the meeting was to create rules by which Europe could divide Africa - something most major European countries wanted because of the cheap labour and abundant natural resources. There were no Africans at the meeting. King Leopold II of Belgium conned the others into giving him what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo as his personal possession. In forty years Africa went from being 10% European controlled in 1870 to 90% in 1910. Not a friendly take-over. And millions of local Blacks were killed or maimed.

Kids had a hand cut off if they didn't work hard enough!.
And I'll write sometime soon about the African refugees seeking asylum in Europe.


To alleviate my grumpiness, I went back to a blog I wrote over 5 years ago. I moaned and groaned in it too, but I also explained how Africa also brings me solace.

Here it is, from July 2013.

Those of you who read my blogs probably realize that I think that Africa is much (and unjustly) maligned by people in the West.  I attribute this to ignorance as well as prejudice.

I could write blog after blog supporting my thesis that whenever most Westerners think about, write about, or talk about Africa, their frontal lobes seize up, resulting in sweeping generalizations that have little currency in reality.

For example, 'Africans are uncivilized.'

Have people who make this statement, which I've heard in various forms hundreds of times, either forgotten or do not know that the pyramids, the Sphinx, hundreds of other temples temples, are in Africa?  Long before Archimedes lived, the Egyptians were using his principle to float 100-ton pieces of stone hundreds of miles down the Nile.  Yes, they slung them under boats rather than carry them on top, thus effectively lowering their weight by the weight of water displaced.

Have these people either forgotten or do not know that one of the greatest libraries of ancient times - the library at Alexandria - was in Africa?  It was subsequently destroyed - the details of which are somewhat murky - by Europeans and Muslims.  After the great library had gone, scholars worked in a branch library in a temple call Serapeum.  This was subsequently also destroyed  - by decree of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Theophilus.

Have these people either forgotten or do not know that one of the great libraries of today is in Timbuktu, Mali?  Actually, calling it one library is probably a misnomer, because it comprises many smaller private libraries.

 I don't think these people have forgotten these things.  I think that they do know these things (with the possible exception of the libraries in Timbuktu).

What these people actually mean when they say Africans are uncivilized is that black Africans are uncivilized.

So let's take a look at this statement from one aspect of what is regarded as one attribute of civilization, namely art.

Picasso is one of the most admired artists of all time, known for his daring shapes and use of colour.  We know he lifted most of his ideas on cubism from African art.  Yet he continues to be the once who garners the accolades - not the artists whose works he drew so heavily from.  But then they were African!

Here is a Fang mask, similar to the one that Picasso saw in 1907 in Paris, which resulted in changes to his famous painting, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.  Most people have heard of Picasso; most people haven't heard of the Fang.

Here are a few photos from my collection - you can see why Picasso was so influenced by African art.

My favorite story in this regard - the intersection of Western bias and African art - took place around 1910.  A very interesting German explorer, Leo Frobenius, discovered a remarkable piece of art in Southwestern Nigeria, in an area called Ife (EE-fay).  It was a bronze head made using the lost wax method (you can read about this sophisticated process here). 

As you can see from the photos of similar heads (his has disappeared), they are very appealing, combining a physical beauty with an ethereal expression. 

Frobenius was so amazed by the beauty of what he had just found that he immediately announced that it could not have been made by a black African.

Instead he decided that he had discovered Atlantis, not an island under the sea but a part of West Africa, and that the piece had been made by Athenians who had travelled across the Sahara and conquered the people of Atlantis.  The New York Times reported this in some detail.

The Kingdom of Ife thrived economically from about 1100 to 1500 and was home to artists (African artists) who produced heads (and other things) made from both metal and terra cotta.  Since 1910 many more heads of both types have been found.

To my eyes they are stunning.

For many years, whenever I was in Johannesburg, I went to an art gallery owned by a legendary collector of African pieces, and drooled over two pieces - a terra cotta head and a bronze leopard, both from Ife.  Both five hundred years old. They were both well out of my price range.  However, a year after I had recovered from colon-cancer surgery, I was again in Johannesburg, working with Michael on DEADLY HARVEST.  Of course I went to the gallery to drool yet again.  But this time, I said to myself, why enjoy these magnificent items only for a few minutes a year.  And after all it only takes money to acquire them.

So I spent far more than I should ever have and bought the terra cotta head.  Buying both would have put me in the poorhouse.

Now I enjoy my Ife head all the time - and if I ever need the money I am sure I can sell it.

As far as I know there are only three terra cotta heads in American museums, including my home town's Minneapolis Institute of Art.  and now there's one in the Trollip gallery.

Terra cotta Ife head in Minneapolis Institute of Art - stunning!

Ife head in the Trollip collection

And I cannot tell you how delighted I am to have a piece of African art that stands with any sculpture ever made and to have my friends drool over it.  I am a lucky man indeed.

It also serves as a constant reminder as to how much further those in the West have to go before they see Africa as it is, not as they believe it to be.