Monday, May 31, 2010

The Greatest Brazilian

During the (almost) 59 years of his reign he’d rise daily at 7, seldom retire before 2, and spend the vast majority of his 19 waking hours attending to affairs of state. No Brazilian politician has ever worked longer, or harder, at governing the nation. He inherited an empire on the verge of collapse and left it a place of political stability. Brazil, in his time, was distinguished for freedom of speech, respect for civil rights and vibrant economic growth. He was Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, and the very epitome of a philosopher-king.
Here’s his earliest surviving picture. It was taken in 1848, when he was just 22 years old.
In addition to Portuguese, Pedro could read and speak Latin, French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Mandarin, Occitan and Tupi-Guarani.
His library contained more than 60,000 volumes - and he was reputed to have read every one of them. His palace contained a photo lab, another lab dedicated to chemistry and physics, and an astronomical observatory.
In addition to the sciences, he loved literature, poetry, art and music.
He won the respect and admiration of scholars such as Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Nietzsche. He was a friend to Richard Wagner, Louis Pasteur and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was elected a member of the Royal Society, The Russian Academy of Sciences, The American Geographic Society and the French Academy of Sciences, an honor previously granted to only two other heads of state: Peter the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.
He financed the creation of the Institute Pasteur
and helped underwrite the construction of Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
It was said of him that he kept his emotions under iron discipline, that he was never rude and never lost his temper. He was exceptionally discreet in words and cautious in action. He was diligent in appointing only highly-qualified candidates to positions in the government, insisted that every politician put in a workday of at least eight hours, and sought to curb corruption.
Here you see him with the weight of his years and his troubles upon him. This photo was shot shortly before he was deposed and sent into exile.
What brought him down?
He hated the practice, called it a “national shame”, never owned slaves of his own, but he couldn’t abolish slavery by imperial decree because his was a constitutional monarchy.
Nevertheless, he spent years struggling against it.
But, when he finally succeeded, the rich and powerful coffee farmers had a fit.
They regarded emancipation as confiscation of their personal property and launched a coup, a unique instance of a successful monarch overthrown despite the love of his people and at the pinnacle of his popularity.
When he heard the news of his deposition (15 November, 1889) Pedro simply commented: "If it is so, it will be my retirement. I have worked too hard and I am tired. I will go rest then."
This is the last photo of the imperial family in Brazil

His last years were spent in Paris, where he lived in modest circumstances and in cheap hotels.
One very cold day he took a long drive in an open carriage along the Seine. He felt ill, contracted pneumonia and died at  00:35 a.m. on  December 5, 1891.His last words were, "May God grant me these last wishes—peace and prosperity for Brazil..."While his body was being prepared for burial, a sealed package was found in the room. Next to it there was a message in Pedro’s own hand: "It is soil from my country, I wish it to be placed in my coffin in case I die away from my fatherland."
The package contained earth from every Brazilian province. In accordance with his wishes, it was placed inside the coffin.
This is the last picture of Pedro II, taken on the day after his death, December 6, 1891. You see him clad in the dress uniform of a Marshall of the Brazilian Army. The book beneath his head symbolized that his mind rested upon knowledge, even in death.
The establishment of the republic began a long downhill slide for Brazil. The country slipped into a period of anarchy, dictatorship and economic crises from which it has only recently recovered.

Winston Churchill quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
In The Republic, Plato has Socrates steering us toward a benevolent monarchy as the best form of government.
Study the life of Pedro II.
And, in this one case at least, you’ll agree with Socrates, not Churchill.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, May 30, 2010

All This Useless Beauty

I decided that this week I needed to lighten up.  Here's Yrsa, doing hilarious posts about the exhilarating awfulness of Eurovision, and I'm droning on about the Bangkok riots, wringing my hands over the thousands of oppressed Luigis whose dreary lives paid for the Sistine Chapel, and ranting about the haplessness of American media. I thought it was time for some pretty pictures, something that would give everyone a nice, easy lift.

But assembling all the natural beauty inescapably made me think of God.  Whatever God is.

My parents were generic Protestants, who went to whatever church was closest so they could pray without using so much gas.  When I was twelve, I cut a deal with my father: I was allowed to skip Sunday school if I would mow the lawn.  I leaped at it.

By the age of thirteen or so, I'd considered -- and renounced with all the vehement half-comprehension a thirteen-year-old can muster -- every argument I'd heard for the existence of God.  Every one, that is, except for a minor-league subset of the Argument From Design, which is implied in the Book of Romans, and which says, in effect, that the complexity of the world is an undeniable argument for the existence of God.

Complexity doesn't particularly convince me -- in a universe where an infinite number of permutations can take place, I can't think of any good reason why things shouldn't be complex rather than simple.  What I can't figure out, if there's no creative power of any kind at work, is why nature almost invariably defaults to beauty.  There's a wonderful Elvis Costello song with the refrain, "What shall we do, what shall we do/ With all this useless beauty?"

Because beauty, as far as I can see, is scientifically useless.  There's no apparent survival benefit in being beautiful.  I can understand that it might be good to blend in, color-wise, or to be bright and conspicuous to advertise that you taste awful or are poisonous.  But what use are the markings on that moth up there?  And what about the color sense?  I don't know about you, but I continually ask my wife, "Does this go with this?"  Hard to imagine that question from the -- um -- process that decorated that moth.

Note the dead flower.  Why is it still beautiful?  Of what possible value could it be, evolutionarily speaking, that it remains ravishing, like an old ball gown that hasn't been brought into the light for decades?  After all, its function (as a sex organ) is long gone.

I do not believe in any God that I've ever heard described, but Something has really, really good taste, although I think it's rubbish to personify it.  In fact, if there were a God actually picking fabrics and peering at swatches, I'd accuse Him/Her of going over the top occasionally.  I mean, irises, to pick just one example, are a bit much.

But the thing I really think needs to be reconsidered from a taste standpoint is the water cycle.  We all know that water is indispensable to life, and that means it has to be gotten around from place to place.  But is it necessary for every single stage of that transport system to be so unsurpassably beautiful?  From streams and rivers and lakes to dew and clouds and rain and rainbows (really gilding the lily) to fogs, to the oceans, to the icy geometry of  individual snowflakes?

There's a Polish guy in his eighties who gets up at 3 AM and takes his camera into the forest to get photos of the world of dew.  He's responsible for the revelation above.  The water cycle is beautiful even when we can't see it.  Hell, for all I know, it's always most beautiful when we can't see it.

So, as a critique, I think in this post-cool, minimalist age, the water cycle could be toned down a little.

Other arguments for God: music, Shakespeare, humor, the occasional pure human act.  In one of my two or three favorite films in the world, Hirokazu Kore-ida's "Afterlife," once people die they're turned over to counselors whose job is to help the newly deceased choose the moment in their lives in which they would like to spend eternity.  The poetry of the film -- and it's poetry through and through -- comes from the choices and the way they're arrived at.  One teenage girl, killed in an automobile accident, first chooses the night she and her friends went to Tokyo Disneyland, but by the time she makes a final choice, it's a moment when she was four and she put her head in her mother's lap and smelled the freshly laundered apron.  Another, a man, chooses the moment when he told the woman he was to marry, and who was the love of his life, that he was releasing her to marry the man she had fallen in love with.  He was miserable, but he chose the moment when he made her happy.

As a writer, I have no idea what to do with God, especially since I don't know what God is.  But I can try, from time to time, to see that kind of spark in the characters who populate my books, sometimes even the ones the reader isn't supposed to like.  I suppose that's a religious act.  Sort of.  Not in the same league as the dew on the butterfly, but there you are.  We do what we can.

Here, as a parting gesture, a uselessly beautiful moment in our world.

Tim -- Sunday

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Where in the world...?

Given recent computer problem and just home after a month away in Paris, the UK and attending the BEA in New York where I snagged tons of books to pile into my bulging bags, here's a quick question for you bibliphiles...where in the world is this? Hint this shot's taken in the cafe of a famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

At CrimeFest, amazingly, I won a Sonyereader at the gala dinner. Imagine the look on my face since I'd extolled at dinner how I loved paper and the printed page and didn't want another 'thing' with batteries to charge. Do any of you use these little machines? Well, Adrian showed me the basics and so did at couple from Bristol which went clear over my head. Downloaded already on the reader were Stendahl's Red and Black and Danish books...But on a side note before I forget, the refreshing thing I noticed on trains, in the tube in the UK was that everyone read; newspapers and books. Real hold in the hand books. None of these little reading machines.
Also in France where the whole ebook business seems not to have reached their consciousness. Or maybe they're just avoiding it. Somehow, where literature is venerated and books are collected, just can't see the ebook taking off there.
I packed 'it' away - started Caro Ramsay's book, she's a Glaswegian Scot and will guest blog for us soon - until New York.
Wandering around the cavernous Javitts Center I grabbed The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg, translated by Stieg Larsen's translator, a huge bestseller in her home Sweden and hoping we can invite her to guest blog. And Stuart Neville's next book, Collusion, set in Belfast which I'm dying to read.
Anyhow back at my publisher Soho, Ailen our marketing director insisted she download a ton of Soho books onto my new magic she just hit buttons and clicked keys and voila...20 books on this little me naive, a bit stupified but here were books on this thin silver sliver and I was supposed to read this on the plane? Something in me resisted...and I took James Benn's new galley of 'Rag and Bone' which is brilliant to finish on the plane...I love this Billy Boyle and the story lines he threads especially the SOE...but maybe I will use this 'machine' and get dragged into the next era. On a long trip, to read my reading group's manuscripts and use the note taking feature...but for's paper and binding and so good to be back home.
Cara - usually Tuesday - Saturday

Friday, May 28, 2010

True Crime

True crime is a phenomenally popular genre, even if it does seem to get a rather sniffy critical response. I love it personally - it was the subject of my panel last week in Crimefest - though I can't stand the sort of lipsmacking, prurient kind of true crime book that 'takes you inside the mind of Doncaster's most sadistic cat killer' or some such. The ones rushed into print when the latest big story hits the headlines. These books have always worked best, in my humble opinion, when emotions are less raw, the news carnival has moved on, and time has afforded people some insight. Take Dave Cullen's book about the Columbine high school killings. Cullen was wrapped up in the whole saga, reporting from the scene and aftermath. He could easily have hacked together an 'I was there' tome and sold a mint; instead, after years of research, having taken a step back to analyse his thoughts and his own role in the massacre - he admits the press got things mostly wrong from the start in the rush to instant judgement  - he has produced the definitive account of what was a shocking and bewildering crime.

It doesn't feature in this fascinating list, written by Todd Jensen, however. But as we know, lists are entirely subjective. Though I don't expect many of us would argue with their choice of number one. Like all the best books, In Cold Blood is a classic piece of literature of any kind. It broke the mould, by placing the reporter/author in the book's narrative. It has spawned more copycats than any serial killer. And authors have done what they can to insert themselves into the story, while others have washed up there inadvertently. I've just finished The Monster of Florence by Mario Spezzi and Douglas Preston. Preston moved to Florence to write a crime novel, met Spezzi, an Italian journalist who had covered a spate of savage, unsolved killings in the city going back to the early 1970s (and which became the influence behind Thomas Harris's Hannibal). The pair decided to write a book on the case, concentrating on the almost comically botched and disorganised police hunt for the killer. I won't spoil it for you here, but Spezzi and then Preston end up becoming embroiled in the investigation. It's a great read.

Other authors can try too hard to put themselves in the narrative. Joe McGinnis wrote a book about a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, called Fatal Visions. I've never read it. However, I have read a great little book called The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom, which is the best book I have ever read about journalism (and includes the immortal opening line 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.'). The book covers the aftermath of case that MacDonald launched against McGinnis when his book was published. Basically, before, during and after, McGinnis flattered his subject, gained his trust, convinced him that he believed 100 per cent in his innocence, even when he was found guilty. Then, of course, when the book appeared, MacDonald discovered that McGinnis had stitched him up like the proverbial kipper and portrayed him as a monster. MacDonald filed a lawsuit and the jury believed that MacDonald's complaints were so compelling that five out of six of them were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who deceived him.

Looking down the Forensic Colleges list, I see a few more I've read, and many, many more that I haven't but now want to. I remember reading Helter Skelter as a teenager and being utterly terrified by it. Though not quite as terrified as I was by Silence of the Lambs around the same time, which tells you something about the power of both a good crime novel and the imagination. I'm glad Kate Whicher's book creeps on at 21, simply because the book has been such an unexplained success. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies here in the UK, quite an achievement for an historical true crime book. Look on Amazon UK and you will see hundreds of people complaining that they bought it expecting non-stop blood and guts, and instead got this slow, impeccably researched book which is ostensibly about a murder in Victorian England, but is really about the origins of modern detective work.

Notable absentees that would have made my list, other than some mentioned above, include Beyond Belief, Emlyn Williams book about the Moors Murderers, which manages to rise about the voyeuristic and exploitative. Likewise Gordon Burns' books about The West killings, Happy Like Murderers, and the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son. Shot in the Heart by Mikhail Gilmore, which tells the Gary Gilmore story from the perspective of Gilmore's brother, and is better than Norman Mailer's book; finally, Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's book about Mormon fundamentalists and their violent faith (which certainly set a few light bulbs popping above my head when I was writing Blood Atonement.)

I'd love to hear what you think and which books should have made it. Here's the whole list:

1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
2. Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
3. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)
4. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson (2003)
5. Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology, Jurgen Thorwald (1967)
6. Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire, Mark Bowden (2000)
7. Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi (1986)
8. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Joseph D. Pistone (1987)
9. Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster, Harold Schechter (1998)
10. Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder, James B. Stewart (2000)
11. Finders Keepers: The True Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, Mark Bowden (2002)
12. A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Jeanine Cummins (2004)
13. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule (1980)
14. Lethal Intent, Sue Russell (2002)
15. Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders, Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken (2000)
16. The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, E.R. Milner (1996)
17. Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean (1993)
18. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough (2004)
19. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, Barbie Latza Nadeau (2010)
20. The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division, Miles Corwin (1997)
21. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale (2008)
22. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, Steve Oney (2003)
23. Confessions of Son of Sam, David Abrahamsen (1985)
24. Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill — The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny (1999)
25. Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson (2001)


Dan - Friday

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guest Blogger Lenny Kleinfeld

Our guest author this week is Lenny Kleinfeld.
Lenny started out as a playwright, working in Chicago.
His articles have appeared in Chicago Magazine, Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
And now he's written an absolutely delightful crime novel he calls Shooters & Chasers.
If you haven't read it - get it.
Lenny's subject for today is:

The use of coincidence in fiction is a big no-no. Just plain tacky.
            To which I respectfully say: Bullshit.
First, like any technique, it can come off brilliant or brain-dead, depending on the skill with which its deployed. Second, coincidences happen all the time. At least in my life.
As in this 100% true chain of coincidence stretching over forty years:
            In the mid-1960s my wife, Ina, attended New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs. She dated a guy named Mark Estrin.
            In 1969 Ina made the mistake of marrying me.
            In 1986 I sold a screenplay and made the mistake of believing people who told me I had to be in Los Angeles.            
            In L.A. I hung out a bit with a wealthy guy named Dan. He's a Dodgers fan, I'm a Cubs fan. We went to games when Los Cubbies were in town.
            In 1987 Dan called and said he'd been at a charity auction and bought lunch for four with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Did I want to go?
When I got to the restaurant, one of Dan's other guests sat down next to me and introduced himself.
            "Mark Estrin."
            Pause. "Did you go to New Trier High School?"
            Another pause. "How did you know?"
            "I married Ina Jaffe."
            Mark had come to L.A. to write TV movies. His career hit the wall and he became a wine salesman. Dan was his best customer.
            In 2003 my career hit the wall and I started writing my first novel, Shooters And Chasers, which has a subplot about winemaking.

            By this time Mark and a different wealthy customer of his had started making wine, at a co-op wine facility in Santa Barbara County Their mini-boutique label, Red Car, was an instant success.
            Mark became one of the wine advisors on my novel.
            One day Mark was excited because Red Car had bought what he believed were the best wine barrels in the world: Gamba barrels, French oak crafted by Italian coopers.
            The Gamba barrels went into the book.
            In 2004 my agent submitted Shooters to all the majors. It didn't sell.

Mark was stricken with brain cancer. He asked to read Shooters. I told him if he wanted to read the book he'd have to survive until I could hand him a published hardcover copy. When it became apparent he wasn't going to keep his end of the deal, I dropped off a manuscript at the hospital.
Mark plowed through it in one night. Best review it'll ever get.
            That same year, the movie Sideways came out.
It was set in wineries in Santa Barbara County.
            When it became a hit, Ina—a reformed actor who'd become an NPR correspondent—went up there to do a story on how Sideways effected business for the wineries and restaurants featured in it.
            Ina hit it off with Karen Steinwachs, a woman who worked at Fiddlehead Winery. Karen was disappointed that Ina wasn't tasting any of the wines (because she was working). Karen invited Ina to stop by and taste Fiddlehead's stuff if she ever got back that way.
            A year later we were driving up the coast. Ina called Karen. Karen said she'd be out of town, but she'd leave the keys to Fiddlehead with their next door neighbor.
That turned out to be Steve Clifton, partner in the high-end, low-volume Brewer-Clifton label. Steve had also started Palmina, a line of moderately-priced Italian varietals.
            Steve asked us if we wanted to taste some of his wines before we went to Fiddlehead. Twist our arms, why dontcha.
            After about an hour spent going through all of the Palminas, and a couple of Brewer-Cliftons, Steve asked if we wanted to go backstage and taste a sample from one of his tanks. Twist our arms again.
            While we were in the winery, I leaned on a wine barrel. Looked down at it. The logo on the side said Gamba.
            "You have Gamba barrels!" I exclaimed.
            Steve nodded. Said he'd bought them from some friends who had a company called Red Car.
            I was leaning on Mark's barrels. I was leaning on the barrels that were the props in a scene in my book.
            Wait, as the late-night philosophers say, there's more.
The other wine advisor on that book was a guy named Chip Hammack, a good friend from Chicago who'd also slid down the continent into Los Angeles in the 1980s. 
Chip and Mark ended up working in the same wine store in L.A., and became close. Chip spoke at Mark's funeral.
            Last year, when Shooters finally got published, Chip contracted stomach cancer. Passed away last September.
            Moral #1: Coincidences are pure naturalism.
            Moral #2: Never be a wine advisor on one of my books. It's one of the most dangerous jobs in showbiz.
            Or maybe it's just one of those tacky literary coincidences.

Posted by Leighton, for Lenny - Thursday

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eoruvision 2010 - our turn to win

The first of two semifinal Eurovision competitions was held last night. In it countries compete live for a place in the final event which takes place on Saturday. Thankfully Iceland passed the grade, following a heart stopping envelope opening in which we were the last country to be named. The exact same thing happened last year when our contribution was also contained within the very last envelope. Life expectancy here will probably be lower in the coming future as our pulses are still racing following the suspenseful wait and many of us will suffer from high blood pressure for years to come due to all the excitement. Eurovision is a very, very big thing here. So big that even though this time around we have municipal elections on the day of the finals, the main political commentator for the government TV station will be reporting on the contest from Oslo where the competition takes place, instead of bothering with election TV programming. This is in complete agreement with the rest of the nation – the results of Eurovision and what place we land is more important than any petty local politics. This being said the current municipality elections are unusually exciting this year because of the Best party which is now just one man short of a majority landslide according to the polls. My post from three weeks ago will help those confused to understand why.

Now, for those of you that are not familiar with the concept, Eurovision is an annual song contest between the countries of Europe. These send in one song each, plus a band/singer to perform it. Winners of the competition that have gone on to make it big are few and far between, the only ones that come to mind are Abba and Celine Dion. Other winners fade into oblivion relatively quickly, quintessential one hit wonders. But I am sure the fifteen minutes of fame provided are fun while they last, there is more confetti thrown around at the end than the amount of ash spewed from Eyjafjallajökull. The competition is televised all over Europe and although it has declined in popularity in many countries it ranks among the longest showing television events, having been on continuously since 1956. It is definitely the biggest television event here in Iceland as when it is being shown the streets are devoid of cars since one and all are glued to the screen.

And why is this? Because Eurovision is excellent, completely over the top and sometimes hilarious. The semifinals last night for example had three female backup singers in dresses that turned into butterfly costumes, a woman eating an apple after holding it fondly and singing to it in for most of the song, an androgynous singer with a hairdo from outer space, a white clad troupe prancing back and forth in pursuit of an accordion player, not to mention the singer with the Blade runner meets Brats doll look. There were too many violins to count as last year’s winner played that same instrument and the winner before that had a Stradivarius on stage.

The Stradivarius act from 2008 also contained an Olympic champion male figure skater showing off his extreme talent to make sure that we got it – our country has stuff vote for us. Despite the display of power and wealth the act was a strange spectacle as the Stradivarius playing was mimed (no string sounds in the tune) and the figure skater had a hard time doing anything more than pirouettes as the portable skating rink he showed up with was the size of a frozen over bathtub. But glimmer and shine is what it is all about and that particular case it worked, the weakly looking guy wailing between the two over the top backup acts won. He did show enthusiasm though as at one point he was lying on the stage trying to rip off his shirt to show that despite appearances he had a muscular chest - only he didn't. Pity points bagged the win was the Icelandic consensus.

Although Icelanders love Eurovision it did not occur to us that we could participate until 1986. We were probably so in awe of the confetti shower that we did not think we stood a chance. But this changed and following a televised regional competition we ended up with a trio called ever so cornily “Icy” which sang a song titled “Gleðibankinn”. Seeing that this translates to: “Happy Bank” it is clear that we had no idea what the future held. Neither did we have reasonable expectations for how the song would do as the general consensus was that we would of course win. Champagne sold out in the whole country as everyone wanted to break open a bottle when our win would be announced. The song was played from every single public loudspeaker in the days leading up to the event and it echoed in one’s head while falling asleep and was still on one’s minds playlist when waking up the morning that followed. You can imagine the disappointment when we ended up somewhere close to the bottom, the sadness was so severe that in my case I have blocked out the memory and can just recall the three singers wearing marching band jackets with huge shoulder pads doing a dance that involved a high kick from a tall guy with long red hair. But eventually we recuperated and it became clear that we only lost out because we were not allowed to sing in English as the rule then was that each country sing in their own language – which did not do us any favors although it might have given the French songs some charm.

After this we had a succession of more disappointments even though we even tried sending in a song with lyrics containing a list of famous people’s names in the hope of sounding English: Socrates, Beethoven, Debussy, Tchaikovsky etc. One year we managed to get zero points, meaning that no country believed our song worth even a single point although each has 58 points to hand out. Twice we have however reached the second place, our prominence within the competition rising considerable after everyone was allowed to choose the language they sung in. The first of these great feats occurred when we sent a singer named Selma who should actually have won, not placed second. The choreography ruined everything as she was accompanied by two male dancers mistakenly dressed in trench coats whose flapping tails were disturbing. This same singer was brought back some years later when we had not made it through the semifinals in the year before, but to our shock and awe she repeated the disgrace. Again the choreography was to blame, in the middle of the song Selma and her dancers threw themselves on the floor and began convulsing, something that was later on explained was supposed to have looked like a withering heart formation when seen from above. Too bad no one gave the TV crew a heads up so that they could have positioned a camera on the ceiling.

Selma’s dress was also believed in bad form during this second appearance, it looked like a badly made pantsuit  sari but missing all the good sparkly bits and the skirt usually associated with such attire. Clothing have been our demise on numerous occasions, in 2000 we sent a duo where the girl was respectable enough but the boy was dressed up like a transvestite baker’s apprentice, in 1997 we were represented by a guy wearing leather chaps and hopefully underwear (none of us dared look) and in 1991 by a duo of two men with ninja bands wrapped around their heads. Icelanders later began to suspect that one of the two ninjas fooled the other soon to be ninja into thinking this was a good look, not letting him in on the real reason he wanted to wrap his head up, i.e. to hide that he had begun to go bald. Last year we became all upset because our wonderful singer Jóhanna Guðrún was made wear a hobo looking dress which to be fair was completely appropriate considering our financial debacle. The BBC commentator declared the tattered look of the dress to be a result of her having to walk to Moscow where the competition was held since Iceland could not afford a plane ticket. Thankfully her voice reigned supreme over the rags and we came in second – thrilled because we absolutely could not have won since we don’t have a large enough venue to host the competition and although we can rally up money for a plane ticket we cannot afford to build a huge concert hall, nor would the IMF allow us to.

Surprisingly enough Eurovision has a connection to Icelandic crime writing. In 2007, the year when Iceland went bananas in every manner possible to man, Eurovision proving no exception. That year we sent a highly popular but super exaggerated figure from a TV program which was based on her insulting everything and everyone in an incredibly outrageous manner. This she continued to do while in Greece competing in the song contest, not leaving the TV show part behind but instead flooring the vehicle of this persona, never stepping out of character. Most people there did not realize it was a rolling performance and were quite taken aback. As an example of her behavior she said at the press junket that she had seen the Swedish contestant giving the festival’s manager a blow job in a car in the stadium parking lot in order to advance Sweden’s chances of winning,. It did not help that this particular Swedish singer was a devout born again Christian. She pronounced the other acts to be fucking amateurs and also mentioned fucking Greeks at one point, something she said was misunderstood – she meant to say fucking retards. Silvía Nótt was the first ever act to be booed when stepping onto the Eurovision stage and did not make it out of the semi-finals although she became quite the hit on youtube. To giver her credit, her dress was OK though. But unfortunately this did not help the Icelandic foreign ministry which had its hands full in the weeks following the competition, trying to un-insult various countries she managed to upset. The connection to crime writing? The actress playing the role of Silvía Nótt is the same one which plays the daughter of Erlendur in the movie adaption of Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason (wonderful book, wonderful movie).

So yet again, another month of May and another Eurovision is almost upon us. Although we are the second most successful country never to win the Eurovision contest (a real statistic) we are probably just about to lose that title since we are going home with first place this year for sure. The costumes are yet again horrid and the singers are way too fat but the song is catching and no one has been insulted. This does raise the problem of the venue, we still cannot afford nor would we be allowed to build it. I guess our prime minister will just have to pick up the phone: “Hi is this the IMF? Iceland speaking. We were wondering if you had a large boardroom we could borrow?” She probably won’t mention the humongous vacuum cleaner they need to have in place to get rid of all the confetti the day after. Let them find out the hard way.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

CrimeFest Update

CrimeFest ended on Sunday at lunchtime with a Mastermind-like quiz.  One of the four contestants was our own Cara Black.  Michael and I together would have totaled three correct answers out of the hundred or so asked.  We felt very ignorant!  Cara fared much better totaling six points from her specialist and general questions – about 25 times better than Michael and me!  Unfortunately Cara ran into the buzz saw named Martin Edwards who blew away all the competitors by a big margin.  He has been banned from future competitions as he has now won three in a row.
The quiz put a cap on a delightful 3 days spent at the Bristol Marriot Royal Hotel and surrounding restaurants and pubs.  We were delighted to listen to Q & A sessions with ex-Conservative member of Parliament, Gyles Brandreth, writer of several mysteries involving Oscar Wilde, and with Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse – one of the most watched detective series ever filmed.  Just over 80, Dexter entertained the audience with his dry British wit.  A similar session featured Tonino Benaquista – an icon of French mystery literature with an Italian name.  Speaking through an interpreter, he charmed the audience with his stories of how he became a writer.
A highlight of the event was getting together with our fellow Murder Is Everywhere bloggers, Dan Wadell, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and Cara Black.  On the official front, Dan participated in a panel, I Fought the Law, for writers who write fiction and non-fiction.  Yrsa was on a panel discussing translated fiction (Ca Plane Pour Moi) as well as on one titled, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which needs no description.  Cara was also in the spotlight, discussing  Research in Paris: It's a Tough Job but Someone's Got To Do It. Michael and I talked about collaboration in Personality Crisis and writing in a country in which we don’t live (Holiday in the Sun).  Finally stan talked about two forgotten authors – James McClure and Elspeth Huxley.
More fun, of course, were the extra-curricular activities!  As a group we went to dinner on the Friday evening and enjoyed sharing successes, moaning about publishers, and general banter.  It was delightful - Michael hadn't met any of the others; I hadn't met Dan.  And, of course, we missed Tim and Leighton.

Yrsa fulfilled her promise by bringing and sharing Icelandic treats.  She and her husband Ole brought pickled shark and a substitute for jet fuel called Brennivin.  The pickled shark was challenging.  When we opened the container, which Yrsa had brought wrapped in a plastic bag, which was wrapped in a plastic bag, which was wrapped in a plastic bag, a strong smell wafted to all corners of the outdoor patio.  People several tables away moved to distance themselves, and even drinkers at the inside bar tried to find refuge by closing the windows and sitting further away.  

Nevertheless there was a surprising number of intrepid souls who lined up to try the delicacy.  At first it tasted like smoked fish.  "Not too bad," people said.  "Quite tasty, in fact."  Then the mouth was filled with the taste of ammonia, which rapidly changed how the shark tasted.  Of course, the Brennivin then came in use, cauterizing one's tastebuds in the nick of time.  Thank you Yrsa!

The gala banquet on Saturday evening was emceed by Gyles Brandreth, an outstanding speaker with a wonderful sense of humor.  The audience was entertained once again by short speeches by Dexter and Benaquista, who this time spoke in English.
We had a delightful time, not only because we spent time with fellow bloggers, but also because the whole event was welcoming and friendly, and extremely well organized by Myles Allfrey and Adrian Muller.  We would recommend a visit next year if you are in the UK from May 19 to 22, 2011.  For more details of CrimeFest 2010, go to

Stan - Tuesday

Monday, May 24, 2010


The Americans insist on calling it soccer.
And don't care a hell of a lot about it.
So only the Americans (with the possible exception of you,  our Dear American Readers) won't be glued to their television screens as the world's greatest sports drama plays out.
But I will.
And so will most of you who are reading this blog.
Yes, my friends, the day is nigh.
The Nineteenth World Cup is upon us.
204 nations competed to win a place in the playoffs.
That's 12 nations more than are represented in the United Nations.
32 countries will compete against each other in the stadiums of South Africa.
It's a cataclysmic event: the first time a World Cup final has ever been held on African soil.

The television audience during the decisive game will be ten times greater than that of the Superbowl.
And, while we're talking about superlatives, let me brag about this: Brazil is the only nation to have played in every World Cup - and the only  nation to have won it five times.
We celebrate our victories on the jerseys worn by the Brazilian team:
Each star denotes a win. CBF is an abbreviation for the Brazilian Football Confederation. And, yes, we do spell the name of the country with an "s".

Experiencing a World Cup in Brazil is not like watching a sporting event.
Experiencing a World Cup in Brazil is like participating in mass hysteria.
There will be, according to the experts, more than fifteen thousand heart attacks suffered by Brazilians watching the games on television.
About five thousand of them will occur in women.
Can Brazil win this year?
God knows.
Will there be a massive party if we do?
You bet there will!
How do I know?
Because I participated in the last one.
Hundreds of thousands of liters of cachaça will be uncapped; millions of liters of beer will be swilled; people will be embracing strangers on the streets; it will be Carnival on steroids.
The television networks will switch their coverage from city to city, showing the celebrants drinking and dancing. The festivities will carry-on throughout the night, continue into the following morning.
And, when the triumphant team returns, the party will start all over again. Thousands will greet them at the airport; the heroes will visit every major city in the country; they’ll climb up onto open trucks and be paraded through the streets.
Here in Brazil, the media coverage of the World Cup has already begun. The national news, on Globo, Brazil’s largest television network, is featuring a daily five-minute profile of each player. They’ll keep it up until they work their way through all 22 members of the national team (first and second string).
Like bullfighters in Spain, most Brazilian footballers stem from humble origins. For a kid with talent, it’s a path to fame and riches. For a poor family, a kid with talent is a godsend.
Of the first five players profiled, we’ve been told that two had their umbilical cords buried (by their fathers) on a football pitch. It’s something you’re supposed to do if you want that recently-born infant of yours to grow up to be a great player.
Many of the parents of these young men have set up what you might call domestic shrines to their offspring. What do they contain? Well, you’ll generally find the jersey he wore in the state championship; the shoes he wore on the day he scored his first professional goal; the yellowing bit of newsprint where his picture appeared for the first time, and anything else that traces his trajectory from the first time he kicked a ball. The kids in the neighborhood visit those shrines. And dream. And then go out and work their tails off – for years. And thus is the Brazilian skill at the game of football perpetuated.
The choice of who gets to be on the national team is up to this man: Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, nicknamed Dunga.
Dunga was a great player in his own right. He played on the team that won the World Cup in 1994, and now he’s the técnico for the national team.
Here's Dunga's selection for the first string.
If they win, he’ll be a national hero for years to come.
If they lose, it’s likely Dunga will have to take a long vacation abroad, or go to coach a team in someplace very far away.
Ah! Those last three words (very far away) reminded me of something.
In addition to the player profiles, and the (almost) daily interviews with Dunga, Globo is running a series of mini-documentaries about the countries already scheduled to play against Brazil.
The first was about North Korea.
The program aired last week. 
The initial images were of marching men, huge statues of the “great leader”, archive footage of Kim Il Jung addressing a party congress, grim-faced solders and unfriendly cops. The audio began: “This is North Korea. It’s a dictatorship. People don’t laugh very much. You don’t hear a lot of music. And it appears that people don’t know how to dance very well. North Korea is very far away from Brazil…fortunately.”

An additional five minutes of every edition of the Jornal Nacional is given over to feature stories about the host country - South Africa.
Brazilians have recently learned that South Africans do know how to dance, that people smile a lot, that it isn’t a dictatorship and that there’s music everywhere.
This has led to a feeling that South Africans are very much like Brazilians and that the two countries are very similar. To a certain extent, this is true. Unfortunately, the similarities include high crime and unemployment rates. But the realization that they’re dealing with common problems has caused Brazilians to like South Africans even more. I expect there will be many Brazilians visiting South Africa, not only during the cup, but during the years to come. And if Brazil were to lose this year, many in this country are already saying they'd prefer it to be to the South Africans. (And not, God forbid, to the Argentinians.)
It doesn’t look, however, as if our friends in South Africa have much of a chance of pulling off a victory. At the moment, the bookmakers in London favor Spain, closely followed by Brazil and England. Argentina is next, then Holland, Germany and Italy. It’s going to be a big surprise if the World Champion doesn’t turn out to be one of those seven.
Check out the schedule of the early games here:

And place your bets.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Boob's Tube

This is a rant. 
The American media coverage of the Bangkok tragedy was so perfunctory and inexpert as almost to be criminal.  While there's some validity to the old journalism saw that "all news is local," surely a country that so obsessively measures itself against other nations should make at least some effort to get the story, to make it available, and to get it right.

If you take the items contained within the commas above as reasonable journalistic objectives, here's how the American broadcast and Internet media (that's you, HuffPost and CNN) scored:

Get the story:  20 out of a possible hundred.  By and large they relied on British reportage.  Even when a Red Shirt leader was shot through the head while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, the broadcast media focused more on the reporter than on the event, because they weren't competent to put the shooting into context.

Make the story available:  Pretty close to zero. (And this also applies to most U.S. print media.)  There was lots of air time for Lindsay Lohan and gasbag pundits eructating about a meaningless election (a MIDTERM PRIMARY, for Christ's sake) but no precious seconds to spare for the possible downfall of our longest-lasting and most important ally in Southeast Asia, much less the people dying in the streets.  Absolutely witheringly, appallingly and willfully unconscionable.

Get it Right:  Zero with a bullet, but unfortunately a bullet heading down.  When they had shots of people bleeding heavily, which means it made the air in keeping with the "if it bleeds, it leads" tenet of broadcast journalism, the networks and cable outlets were hopelessly clueless about what was actually happening: what all those people were doing out there behind the barricades of tires, why the Army was shooting them, how long the government had, in essence, forsworn armed confrontation before opening fire.  I mean, this is not really a complicated story: it's a clash between rival groups, with the poor caught in the middle.  How much time does that take?

But all those long names!!!!  And, really, are we allowed to say "Bangkok" on the air? And the people -- they're all kind of . . . brown.  Did Lindsay get back from France in time?

When the story of 20th-century America is finally written, assuming anyone can still write, one of the most melancholy threads will be the development of a magnificent medium that promised to bring directly to us, in  pictures and sounds, the faces and voices of those caught up in tragedy and triumph all over the world.  And how it did that, with some of the most unforgettable moments in American history: the cameras in the Senate chamber catching Judge Joseph Welch demanding of Joe McCarthy, "Have you no shame, sir?  Have you no shame at last?"  The first steps on the moon.  The extraordinary Vietnam coverage that brought down a war. The fried eyes of Richard Nixon stepping down.

And then, how it was sold off, a high-priced second at a time, first to advertisers battling post-nasal drip and then to multimedia corporations that had low risk thresholds and fierce profit appetites.  And how those entities drained the medium of integrity, curiosity, intelligence, and individuality until it became just another pacifier, a highly profitable pacifier, but essentially a direct link to the government-and-corporate-generated soma (to borrow a term from Huxley) that lulls us into life as good little consumers, easily fooled by politicians sitting on top of stacks of stolen money and pointing fingers at each other, by demagogues claiming that they're the ones to "take our government back," and by feel-good stories about America the Wonderful when in actual fact we have become, in part due to the miracle of television, the dumbest first-world nation on earth, narcotized into numb acceptance of our falling relevance in the world.  

Put it together with a destroyed public education system, and you can see (a) why nobody cared about Thailand, since most Americans couldn't find the entire Asian continent on a map, and (b) why our interest is nil in those parts of the world that are farther away than, say, the other side of the street and/or don't have Lindsay Lohan or some other celebrity train wreck in them.  And finally, you can see (c) why this country is probably at the end of its period of glory and innovation, and why, a generation from now, Americans will be looking at (maybe) China on the tube, and saying, "Didn't that used to be us?"

Tim -- Sunday