Friday, September 30, 2011

Sport. Bloody Hell.

I am exhausted this week. But it's not down to kids waking me up, or burning the midnight oil to finish a book, or illness, or anything else like that. It's entirely self-inflicted. Because on Tuesday and Wednesday night, despite knowing I would be woken at 7, I stayed up until 4 am and 5.30 am respectively.

To watch baseball.

(Sorry for bringing this up when it's so raw, Beth...)

Despite being a Limey, and a distaste for many other popular American pastimes - NFL, basketball, voting for swivel-eyed, right-wing retards - I love baseball. And in baseball I love The Boston Red Sox. I was taken to Fenway Park one gorgeous August day in 1980 to see the Sox beat the Brewers. I can't remember the score but I remember the sounds and the smells: the gasp of excitement and then the roar as Freddie Lynn homered, the scent of hot dogs and body odour of the fat man sat next to me, the sheer  greenness of it all. This was before I'd even been to a cricket match. Cricket became, and still remains, my favourite sport, but I've always retained a fondness for baseball and the boys from Boston.

But I lived in the UK. So I would follow the scores in the newspaper, printed the day after the day after the game. Soon I realised the Boston Red Sox scores weren't worth following, but I still did. Channel Four over here showed a few games in the 1990s, and then Channel Five. I caught a few when I could and sometimes they showed the Sox. I read books written by a very gloomy man with big teeth which spoke about a 'Curse.' And when he visited, I asked my Bostonian uncle about the Red Sox and how they were doing and he would also curse.

One curse was lifted - my uncle still employs the vernacular - in 2004, which I remember fondly. I watched as many games as I could on TV, especially the remarkable comeback to vanquish the hated Yankees (I love New York and have been to it more times than Boston, but still, it's the bloody Yankees innit) and revelled and shared in the sheer wonderful euphoria of a town that I had only visited a few times, but whose ballpark was etched on my memory forever. (Speaking of which, Fenway is 100 years old next April. It was opened only a few days after Titanic sank. I'll leave the metaphors to the rest of you...)

I soon realised I could pay a meagre sum to the cash-strapped folk at the MLB and watch the Red Sox as many times as I wanted. I could watch them live on my PC, or the day after, or highlights. My baseball fandom grew, as did my love for The Sox and their gum-chewing, egg-headed (as in head shaped like an egg not clever, though he seems bright enough, though he may be gum-chewing elsewhere soon, sadly) coach Terry Francona. They won the whole show again in 2007 and I felt as if I had shared it with them. Seasons since have been less favourable but you can't argue with two World Series in the space of three years.

But every sports fans know you have to pay. That with the smooth comes plenty of rough. This is why we hate the Yankees, or Manchester United, or the Australian cricket team. Those people don't know what pain and loss is. All that never-ending success (except it does end, like it has with Australia and, please Lord, soon will NYY and MUFC). The average Red Sox fan above a certain age could sandpaper their house and the whole street with the rough they've experienced (I'll leave others to work out what fans of the Cubs could cover...). Another chapter of pain was written this week. I'd been watching the 'collapse' with some disbelief over the past few weeks, wondering how a team so good could become a team so bad. This isn't the place to share my theories, other than to say big-name players don't alway make big-game players, and characteristics like bottle and mettle don't always show up in people's averages and ERA (you hear me Theo?).

I watched in bleary-eyed disbelief as Tampa came within one strike of losing and won, and the Sox went from within one strike of winning and lost. And as the Sox lost, still hoping to make a one-game play-off, almost simultaneously the Rays hit a walk-off home run to go through and Boston were eliminated.

Part of me was crestfallen. The part that wanted my team to win, and that's a pretty big part. As my wife will tell you, I can be pretty moody for a few hours after Liverpool are defeated or England lose at cricket (I did think I'd grow out of that actually, as life and kids and other properly important stuff came along, but I haven't - if anything it's got worse). But at the same time I was flabbergasted and amazed and even invigorated by the capacity of sport to provide such unbelievable, unscripted drama. It reminded me why I spend so much time watching, reading about, writing and talking about these foolish games. The highs of the ALDS of 2004; the European Cup Final of 2005; the Ashes of 2005. Then there the lows, too painful to go over here, but the Red Sox collapse now goes alongside them. But without them the highs wouldn't mean so much. 'You gotta lose a coupla fights to know what it's like to win,' Frank Sinatra once said, and he was right (he wasn't a Cubs fan either...)

The title of this blog is a misquote of a famous comment made by the hated manager of the hated Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, a charmless man but a wonderful manager. His team had just won the European Cup against Bayern Munich by scoring two goals in the injury time. 'Football,' he said afterwards, when he was how he felt. 'Bloody hell.'

It means nothing, but everyone who follows sport knew what he meant. It carries all manner of meaning depending on how you say it. It can be said in triumph or in disgust. Everybody fan has their ' bloody hell' moment. Boston Red Sox fans, and both of the Tampa Bay Ray fans, had it this week. It hurts like hell/tastes like the sweetest nectar, delete as applicable, but one thing's for sure - it means we'll be coming back*.


Dan - Friday

*except one of the Tampa fans. I've heard they divorced and he got the cowbell.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Madeira Party?

Stan and I completed the midwest leg of our book tour for DEATH OF THE MANTIS on Friday. We had a super time: visits to Chicago, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Urbana, Iowa City and, of course, St Louis. At the book signings people were fascinated by the genuine Bushman hunting kit Stan acquired forty years ago. We take it to almost all the events, and it wonderfully illustrates the cultural backstory of the book. We had an amazing time meeting old and new readers and old and new friends, and Bouchercon was simply spectacular. More of that next week in Stan’s MIE combined post on our impressions of the event. For now, suffice it to say that we’ll be in Cleveland (and Bristol for that matter) next year.

Celebration for the end of the midwest tour
After four more events in Minneapolis after we finished the road trip, we decided that it was time for a bit of a celebration.  So after our event in Wayzata, we had dinner with friends at a restaurant near the bookstore - and found 1922 Madeira by the glass on the dessert menu.  Speaking of backstories, there’s one here too.  Some friends have been trying to get an old bottle of Madeira for Stan for a birthday present for several years.  One obstacle after the other prevented this from happening.  A bottle like the one at the restaurant is available from a few specialist wine stores – if you have a spare $350!  So it was a fitting finale to the trip to celebrate with a glass at the end of the meal.  The waiter willingly loaned us the bottle for the picture, but he kept a firm eye on it during the proceedings!

Vineyards on beautiful Madeira
Madeira wine has an interesting history.  First of all it comes exclusively from the Portuguese island of the same name situated to the west of North Africa.  The island was supposedly discovered in 1419 by sailors exploring for Prince Henry the Navigator and settled shortly afterwards.  About fifteen years later it started being referred to by its current name: Ilha da Madeira (Island of Wood after its rich forests). And it was ideally situated as a stopover for ships en route to and from the New World and the East Indies.  In the sixteenth century there was a well-developed wine industry .  Ships would stop to pick up “pipes” of wine.  (A pipe is about 125 gallons.)  Much of it spoiled on the long hot voyages so the vintners started fortifying the wine (adding first cane spirit and later brandy) to stabilize it. 
The four major styles
But the heat of the journey still caused some strange developments in the wine and some pipes were rejected and sent back to Madeira.  To the initial surprise of the winemakers, the somewhat cooked and oxidized wine became very popular.  It has a distinctive rich taste and freshness assisted by the extra alcohol and mild pasteurization of the heating.  Pretty soon the vintners worked out a way of getting those effects without shipping the wine halfway around the world and back.  It’s called estufagem and essentially involves heating the wine to around 130 degrees Fahrenheit for considerable periods of time. It’s always at least ninety days, but for the best vintage wine it may be done naturally in sun-warmed rooms for twenty years!

We were amazed by the freshness and liveliness of the wine, nearly ninety years old.  The taste was a sort of cross between port and sherry with hints of caramel but not sweet.  The waiter was a bit concerned that the bottle had been “open for some time” as “there wasn’t much call for it”.  He shouldn't have worried: the wine must be open for at least a day before you drink it and can be fine after it’s been open for as long as a year.  Maybe we’ll have another glass after Cleveland in 2012.

Madeira wine has a long association with the US too.  Jefferson enjoyed it and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.  Washington and Franklin were also partial to it.  A major event on the way to the Declaration was the British seizure of John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty on May 9, 1768. Hancock's boat was seized after he had unloaded a cargo of 25 pipes (3,150 gallons) of Madeira and a dispute over import duties followed. The impounding of the ship led to seething riots in Boston.  I always wondered about all that fuss over some tea.  Now Madeira is another thing altogether.  Maybe the Tea Party should consider a name change?  Wine Party has a nice ring to it.

If you’re a Flanders and Swann fan, click on for their take on the wine of Ilha da Madeira.

Michael – Thursday. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Multifaceted Hiatus - Grýla

I came home from Bouchercon happy and really satisfied with all and everything despite having to leave than I would have liked, in particular as I missed Tim in the restaurant.  There was only one thing that I brought back and would rather have left behind and that was a bad case of the flu. I tried getting rid of it by passing it on to someone else (my mother) but that did not help at all.

So because of the flu, my looming deadline (looming is so perfect a word in fornt of deadline) and the new geothermal power plant design contract we just landed, I am forced to re-post an older post in place of writing something new and fresh. For this I apologise.

What is worse is that the whole of October looks even worse than this past week as in addition to my day job and the looming I will still be subject to, I will somehow have to juggle the upcoming Frankfurt bookfair at which Iceland is the coutntry of honor this year. As we are the guest country I will be travelling a lot and might have to use this re-vamping of old posts again. I feel that if I make it through October I will be able to do anything. And I mean anything.

Well. Except maybe write a short story as the craftmanship required has always eluded me. And I won't be able to speak French. Or spell "restaurant" without the aid of a dictionary. Or understand how TV works. Considering this and the fact that the list of what I cannot do is probably longer than what I can do,  I must change my bravado statement: "I will be able to do anything" to "I will be able to do something" - which sounds rather unimpressive.

But here is the old post from 2009 about Grýla:

Iceland and ghost stories have gone hand in hand since the time of settlement. It is not hard to understand why, the winter nights are long and dark and the irregular landscape characterized by lava fields, can even evoke an imagination in my tax accountant. With the birth of electricity illumination did little to decrease the spookiness, it merely amplifies the effect, as the still black darkness now simply waits silently outside the border of light. Ghost stories are therefore still valid as a form of bizarre entertainment and usually considered good form – the creepier the better. As an example, when my daughter graduated from elementary school last spring the school celebrated by inviting the children to spend the night in a secluded lighthouse where they were to be told ghost stories. Every single child attended and I am sure the lighthouses bulbs were badly strained, if not cracked, from the screaming that lasted all night long. Not one parent complained and my husband and I were very pleased with the effort. Icelandic parents are great believers that you need to toughen up your kid for later.

This begins at a much earlier age than the graduation from elementary school. While the States have Dr. Spock to help raise the young, Iceland has Grýla to assist in childrearing. Albeit not a ghost, Grýla is an old, horrible ogre woman who eats naughty children and therefore comes in handy for using to scare them into obedience. This works like a charm for a number of years but eventually the kids catch on and realize they are not about to be put into a pot and boiled alive to make Baby Bouillabaisse. This marks the beginning of an awkward transition phase, wherein parents have to figure out something else to keep their offspring in check. The most commonly selected method is bribery which generally last until they are out of the house. Although the latter method has more endurance, the Grýla method is a lot more fun and a whole lot cheaper. Few things compete with a wide eyed and frightened stare of a naughty toddler, caught in the act, expecting a snaggletoothed cannibal with a huge wart on its nose to appear in the window, canvas bag in hand, ready for filling up with children and dragging them up into the mountains for cooking.

To complicate things Grýla is also the mother of the Icelandic Santa Clauses or Yule Lads, 13 in all, who are vastly different from the jolly bearded Santa Claus known to the rest of the world. These guys are small time crooks, thieves and robbers, who steal food, aside from one who’s criminal specialty is being a peeping Tom. These tattered looking guys travel down from the mountains during December – one per night from the 11th on. The story dates from the time when food was the most valuable commodity in Iceland but if it originated from the modern day, these robbers would probably steal computers, TVs and other items of more value to the average family than a leg of lamb. Although the food crimes of yore have stood their ground and not evolved, the legend has been amended at some point, possibly to catch up with the times that did not appreciate the nonexistent moral of the story. The vulgar characters suddenly started leaving things behind for good children and today every Icelandic child places one of their shoes on the windowsill of their bedroom, 13 nights in a row leading up to Christmas Eve, and if they have behaved well during the day they will wake up to find a small toy or candy waiting for them within the shoe. If they have been disobedient or bad it will contain a potato. I have never been able to figure out why shoes were chosen as the receptacle for these small presents but I have reached one conclusion from the set up of this tradition – namely that Icelandic children must be less well behaved than children in other countries as they only need to be good for one single day to get a present from Santa Claus while elsewhere Santa reviews their behavior on an annual basis. Perhaps Dr. Spock’s methods are more effective than using the Grýla scare tactics.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, September 26, 2011

naughty little girls in Paris

Zazie, ten years old, comes to Paris with her mother. At the train station her mother flounces off with a new boyfriend while Zazie's uncle, a female impersonator at a Pigalle club, keeps her for the weekend. Zazie, Raymond Queneau's 1959 comic cult novel, is a classic that was once distributed by the same French publishing house that handled Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Miller's Tropic Of Cancer when no one else would dare. Of course it became a huge bestseller in France. Zazie is a sassy, cynical, foulmouthed little girl who arrives in Paris and what Zazie really WANTS is to ride the Metro. Alas, the Metro workers are on strike, so our little heroine goes off on her own in search of adventure, driving her poor uncle nuts in the process. This wonderful book manages to be funny and heartwarming while maintaining a raunchy, satirical edge. Definitely not for children. Queneau's play of language entranced the readers. This is from Louis Malle's great 1960 movie version, which he directs with the pace and energy of a Roadrunner cartoon!

Then there's Eloise.

Another little girl, with a mind of her own, who comes to Paris with her dog, her turtle and her Nanny with the whale bone corsets to live at a fancy hotel. The things in life she likes are; room service, room service, room service
Here's the thing of it: Paris has just been discovered by Eloise the little girl from the Plaza...
Here is what Eloise does in Paris: everything. The effect is rawther extraordinaire - as Nanny says. If you come to Paris with Eloise you will always be glad you did.
Eloise in Paris was first published in 1957, the second of the Eloise quartet, and an immediate bestseller. Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight traveled to Paris to research the book, and the illustrations are dotted with the celebrities they knew there: Richard Avedon takes Eloise's passport photograph; Christian Dior prods her tummy, while his young assistant, Yves Saint Laurent, looks on; Lena Horne sits at an outdoor café.
Note: this blogger envies such research
Cara - Tuesday

Boucheron 2011

I’m in Rome. (Not New York. Italy.)
And too jet-lagged to write very much.
So here are a few photos instead.
All of them were taken a little over a week ago.
And in a place very far from here:
Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis.

My wife, Eide, and some guy she met in a restaurant.

The Murder is Everywhere Panel. From left to right, Leighton, Tim, Michael, Jeff, Yrsa and Adrian Muller, our moderator. Adrian, for those who don't already know it, is the motor behind CRIMEFEST, held in May of each year in Bristol, in the UK.

My fellow Soho author, Stuart Neville, and I with our editor, Juliet, and our publicist, Michelle.

Bronwen Hruska, our publisher, is the rose standing next to the two thorns.

Yrsa, holding in her hands the head cheese she brought to accompany the famous scourged sheep's head.

Peter Rosovsky, author of Detectives Beyond Borders, making the acquaintance of the aforementioned Icelandic delicacy. 

Flanking Eide are the delightful Gottfrieds, Bill and Toby, of Left Coast Crime fame - who never miss a Bouchercon.

Finally, to rap it all up, and following a suggestion from Beth Crowley, of Murder by Type here’s a link to a short video of our Murder is Everywhere panel:

The audio quality, I warn you, is dreadful.
But I consulted Beth, and she said I should put it up anyway, because she thought some of you folks might like to see what we looked and sounded like.

The peal of laughter after Tim says the word “guilty” is from my wife.
She was sitting in the second row of the audience, holding the camera.

And is currently being very much missed by her husband, because she's almost 9,500 kilometers away in São Paulo.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lessons from Bouchercon

So it's over.  The biggest (maybe) mystery fan/author/bookseller event in the word has packed its trunks and moved on.  Next stop, next year: Cleveland.

This was my first Bouchercon since 1995, when I was twelve years old, and I hadn't really considered attending another one until I got nominated (well, QUEEN got nominated) for the Macavity.  When that happened, I realized it was my duty to show up and give all assembled a lesson in losing gracefully, a skill I've honed quite a bit this year.

So I went, and it was nothing like what I expected.  It was sprawling, disorganized, tightly organized, generous-spirited, non-elitist, jammed with attractions -- a twelve-ring circus in a three-ring tent.  I had an absolutely splendid time.  (Thanks, by the way, to the programmers, who brought a certain kind of order out of chaos, while still providing opportunities for chaos to seep through.  Chaos is half the fun.)

The most coveted T-shirt at Bouchercon

As with all valuable life experiences, there were lessons everywhere.  Here are some lessons I learned from Bouchercon 2011.

1. Mystery fans are the nicest people on earth.  They'll wait patiently, even a little nervously, to come up and say the one thing we all want most to hear --  "I love your books" -- as though they're somehow imposing on us.  To one and all, I say, unless I am face-down on the floor, bleeding profusely from a stab wound, impose on  me.  If am am face-down, etc., call an ambulance and then impose on me.

2.  Mystery writers are almost as nice as mystery fans.  Beginning with my colleagues on this blog, only one of whom (Cara) I'd ever met before, virtually every writer I met was a peach.  To extend the fruit metaphor, there wasn't a lemon in the carload.  Not the world's most alcohol-abstinent group, but they have the additional distinction of being good drunks.

3.  Shut up and listen.  I'm not much at ease meeting new people.  I tend to jabber to fill silences, and I'm ashamed to say that mostly I jabber about myself.  (One of the nice things about writing is that my characters already know all about me.)  At Bouchercon, all I had to do was say, "Hi," and most of the time, the conversation immediately attained lift-off.  I talked for hours and hours with Bruce DeSilva, Chris Knopf, Jeff and Leighton and Yrsa and Stan and Michael (Cara somewhat less, just because we were never seated near each other), Stuart Neville, Martin Limon, Lisa Brackmann, and a cast of thousands.  I must have talked some, because I'd lost my voice by the end of Day Two, but what I remember is listening to people who were a lot more interesting than I was.

4.  Don't sit next to Bruce DeSilva when both you and he are nominated for an award.  He will win and you will not.  And then he'll tell you that winning doesn't really matter.  Next time this happens, immediately after he wins, I'll tell him that winning doesn't matter.  Or would that be churlish?  Anyway, I take it back.  Seize any opportunity to sit next to Bruce.  He's a wonderful guy and a formidable writer.

5.  The basic panel format could use a shaking up.  I don't know how, but there must be a more vital and less repetitive way to let people interact and have their say.  In fact, I think "interact" is the key --as it is now, we interact with the moderator and, perhaps, with questions from the audience, with almost no opportunity to attack (or even praise) one another.  The key to a good panel is a good moderator, but even so I feel as though there are missed opportunities that are inherent in the format.

6.  Go to Bouchercon.  Seriously, you'll have a great time.  And tell each of us you like our books, so we can have a great time, too.

Tim -- Sunday

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bouchercon photos

Here are a few photos from Bouchercon.  Jeff's funny Saturday blog "Where is Tim When I Need Him" is immediately below.

Needless to say, a good time was had by all.  Next year is Cleveland.  Hope all can be there, Dan. We missed you.

Ali Karim and Mike Stotter of Shots Magazine

Cara and Jeff

Jeff, Leighton (with new hair style), and Cara. Note the tee shirts.
Yrsa's scourged sheep's head
Scourged sheep's head

Going for the cheek of the scourged sheep's head.  Or is it the eye?

Stan, Michael Cara, Yrsa (back). Jeff and Leighton (front). Tim is out of the picture, sleeping.

Stan, Michael Cara, Yrsa (back). Jeff and Leighton (front). Tim is out of the picture, still sleeping.
Tim, sad at not winning the Barry!

Stan and Michael signing at the launch of DEATH OF THE MANTIS

Where Is Tim When I Need Him?

I don’t know if you were lucky enough to catch any of Tim Hallinan’s non-Murder is Everywhere posts around the Internet on his 2011 Bouchercon experiences, but one tale in particular stands out in my mind.  It has to do with Tim, as knight errant, off in search of a missing chicken.  Yes, in the face of maitre d indifference and paltry (neé poultry) odds of success, Tim the Lionhearted abruptly left our MIE dinner table on a solitary quest to wrest a roast chicken from the clutches of Chef the Barbequian.  And as my missing-in-action chicken dinner was the object of his gallantry, I had more than a rooting interest in the outcome.

And, no, his courage was in no way influenced by the lubricating qualities of the terrific South African wines contributed to the occasion by Michael and Stanley.  Nor do I believe it was prompted by my (largely) surreptitious pecking at his pomme frites while I endured my Rodney Dangerfield moment waiting for my meal to arrive—and making a mental note to never again order anything on a menu described as prepared “ala Godot.”

Thankfully, memories of Yrsa’s (and husband Olaf’s) scourged sheep’s head from the night before allowed my appetite to endure the slight, helped along by the wine.  But Tim was watching, and just as Cara and Leighton were finishing their meals, up like a shot he rose from the table and headed off into the valley of breasts and thighs to see what was the matter.  

Leaving me alone with his French fries I might add. 

A moment later he appeared with a manager bearing apologies … and my chicken.   Some might say it was a vintage Poke Rafferty moment coming to life.  Between you and me, I’d say it was more likely Miaou.  She’s far more accomplished at getting her way in that sort of situation.

But that was last week and now I’m back in New York City wondering if I ever left Greece.  I keep telling people that if you want to know what’s going on in Greece just follow the US news.  The similarities, however, do not end at government paralysis and fiscal ruin brought on by self-interest over the common good.   Have you ever tried to get a cable/Internet repair done in NYC?  Greeks historically complain about how long it takes their government-owned telecommunications industry to respond.

We don’t have that problem. We have Time Warner Cable or TWC.  No, I’m not talking about the anti-Christ (TWC does not stand for The Witch Company), though some might equate its presence on earth with the proliferation of automated telephone responses to human problems. 

I lost my Internet connection a week before Bouchercon, and was told by TWC that it would be ten days before any repairman was available.  I figured I could tough it out because that would be two days after my return to NYC “on Tuesday between 9AM and 7PM.”  As the fated day of renewed connectivity approached I carefully answered each automated call from TWC asking me to confirm that I still wanted the appointment.  On that Tuesday I sat in my apartment waiting for my personal Jim Carrey character to materialize. 

By mid-afternoon, with no one having arrived, I called to check that all was okay and was assured by automated voice “our technician will be there by seven.”  At eight I called and held out for a human voice (pounding on # seems to work), who promptly told me that the cable guy had called me at 10:23AM, but there was no answer so he cancelled the appointment. 

TIM WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I NEEDED YOU!  Okay, so I did my best Hallinan on the warpath impersonation, but all it yielded was, “We’ll have to reschedule you for a new appointment, the earliest being Saturday.”  Nothing I said to human voice or human voice’s supervisor changed the result.  At least in Greece they make you think they care. 

So, for those of you who’ve been wondering why I have not been corresponding with my normal alacrity over the past week, that’s why.  And for those of you expecting more photographs, what with cribbing Internet access on a catch as catch can basis it’s difficult dealing with photographs for this post.  The only hope I have for getting more than one photo up is an outside chance that a last minute Friday appointment will open up—which will make it only a two week wait to get my Internet service repaired in New York City!

Perhaps I should call and say I want to order new service?  Care to bet how many hours until someone’s here knocking on my door for a new installation?   Hmm, that’s what some would say is thinking like a Greek, or others like Tim’s literary child, Miaou. 

Bottom line: thanks for saving my chicken, mate, but where are you now?


Friday, September 23, 2011

Bouchercon Hiatus - Belly of the Best

This post was written in September 2010. As a former journalist, I knew exactly how widespread phone hacking was. Yet I never expected for one second that the story would unravel as it has, not least when I wrote this first post on the subject. Which is why I'm reposting it now. In the past 12 months the News of the World has closed; Rupert Murdoch humbled; Andy Coulson resigned and was then arrested in a new police investigation after an acknowledgement the previous one was flawed; the Prime Minister embarrassed; several senior police officers have resigned; and a long-reaching judicial inquiry into press behaviour launched. I never dreamt for one second all that would happen. I am delighted it has. Proof that sometimes what goes around actually does come around.

British journalism once again finds itself in the dock, thanks to an unlikely source. While every single British newspaper apart from The Guardian has proved that dog doesn't like to bite dog and avoided reporting a long-running saga over illegal phone hacking by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, The New York Times has revived the controversy by publishing a piece in which it claims former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, now press secretary to the Prime Minister David Cameron, 'actively encouraged' his staff to tap into people's voicemail messages in the pursuit of stories.

In a nutshell, the story goes thus: in 2007 the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator he hired were jailed for illegally intercepting the private phone messages of eight people. Among these were Princes Harry and William. The allegation was that this was only the iceberg's tip, and the practice was endemic throughout tabloid journalism, hordes of journalists were up to it, and there were many more victims whose privacy had been invaded illegally - up to 3000 is the figure I have seen quoted, a bit more than eight. However, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service didn't take the investigation further. The conclusion being that Goodman was a rogue who acted alone, without consent from his superiors, and it stopped and ended with him. The more cynical pointed out the traditional close links between the NOTW and the police. The paper has a history of exposing people and turning their files over to the cops. Perhaps someone in Scotland Yard didn't want to jeopardise that relationship? The even more cynical wondered whether the Yard weren't just terrified of Rupert Murdoch and how vituperative his media organisations can be when faced with any sort of criticism.

Andy Coulson
Count me in the latter camp. I am a former news journalist (you could claim therefore I've always written fiction...) I worked for several tabloid newspapers. The use of private detectives and accessing private information  was and is commonplace. In the few years I spent in the business, I witnessed it many times. I saw a private detective call a woman who the media wanted to track down and pose as a pharmacist to obtain her address; I visited a private detective who boasted he could obtain details of people's criminal records; and another who claimed he knew a guy who worked for British Telecom who was willing to bug the phone of anyone we wanted for a small fee. While at the latter's house, several journalists called asking for information, ex-directory numbers, credit card histories, on people they were writing stories about. Mobile phones were not so ubiquitous then as they are now, but I heard journalists bragging about how they knew someone who could access voicemail messages of the rich and famous. It was clear this would be a fruitful avenue for skullduggery  in the future. So, the idea this was a one-off is preposterous, but that was the image News International - who own the NOTW, as well the country's biggest selling daily newspaper, The Sun, and the once-respected Times - and their sister media outlets managed to convey.

The New York Times appears to have evidence that the police did not share all the evidence it had with the Crown Prosecution Service, the inference being that if it had the CPS would have reached a different conclusion and more arrests might have been made. It is also emerging that hundreds of people whose phones were hacked into were never told about it by the police. Meanwhile, while all this went on. the self-regulatory newspaper watchdog - though lapdog would be more appropriate, given some of the board who adjudicate are editors who pronounce on their own newspapers - sat on its hands and said, while it deplored the practice of phone hacking, the matter had been dealt with, and there was little else it could do.

British journalism is in an abysmal state. It protests vociferously about privacy laws, squeals about how the European Court of Human Rights is curbing press freedom, while squandering the freedom it has chasing tawdry stories to titillate readers. It hides behind the 'public interest' but seems to define that term as anything the public is interested in. It tramples over anyone who gets in its way, chews it subjects and spits them out. Getting the story is more important than getting the story right. I know countless examples of people who had been offered money in return for their story, who then spoke, only for the newspaper to find a way to wriggle out of them paying a penny once the story appeared in print. It would be hoped the good work of The Guardian and The New York Times might help blast away some of the grime which clings to the British press, and that a sleazeball such as Coulson, whose prominence and position given his track record is a travesty, might get his comeuppance, but I wouldn't hold your breath. The biggest lesson I learned from my years as a news reporter - in perhaps an echo of Leighton's fascinating and disturbing post on Monday - is that the press has the power and holds the great and the good in its thrall; it will always win.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bouchercon Hiatus: The First People

The post below came out in 2010, well before the publication of DEATH OF THE MANTIS, which was released at the beginning of September.  In the events we've had so far, the interest in the Bushmen, their way of life, and in an authentic hunting kit we've been showing, has been wonderful.  The Bushmen and their lifestyle is captivating.  I've tried to capture a small part of it below.  Stan 9/21/2011

Michael and I have been researching the First People for our third Detective Kubu mystery.  And I have to say that the process has been very mysterious.

The first mystery is what to call these remarkable people who have inhabited the southern part of Africa since long before the Blacks and Whites arrived.  Each name that is used seems to be based on a pejorative viewpoint.  The first Whites to encounter them called them Bosjesmans or Bushmen.  In many circles today, particularly academia, the name Bushmen is shunned.  San is another word often used – but it derives from a derogatory Khoi Khoi (another aboriginal group) word depicting the First People as scavengers.  Some of the First People – mainly from Namibia – have accepted San as the word by which they want to be referred.  But other First People groups hate the word.  Within Botswana, the First People are commonly called BaSarwa, but since there is no love lost between the black Batswana and the First People, this word too is often found to be derogatory.
What is the problem? you may ask.  Why not use the word the First People use for themselves?  Our reading suggests that they do not have a word for themselves – each of the various groups refers to themselves as “us” and everybody else as “them” or the equivalent of “the bad guys”.
After much soul searching, we have decided to use the word Bushmen.  I am sure we will have plenty of flak for that.
The second mystery is how the Bushmen have discovered certain things.  The one that always fascinates me is one of the poisons they use in hunting.  They use the venom of snakes, like the mamba, as well as poisonous plants.  But in the northern Kalahari, the most commonly used poisonous substance for arrows is that derived from the larva and pupae of chrysomelid beetles in the genus Diamphidia.  The amazing thing is how the Bushmen ever found this poison.  Basically this nondescript beetle is reasonably widespread in the Kalahari.  The larvae work their way several feet underground near the roots of the tree.
1:  How did the Bushmen ever find these larvae?  They are underground and hard to see anyway.
2.  Second, how did they know that carefully crushing the larvae causes this hemotoxic poison to be formed?

3.   How did they then know that this poison could be used on an arrowhead to bring down the greatest of antelopes – the eland?
4.  And how did they know that they could eat the meat of the eland or other antelope they had killed using the poison?
Of course our interest in the poison is that it is poorly researched and has no known antidote.  You get nicked and you are dead!  Do you think there is a murder plot emerging here?
In the Bushman world, this poison is akin to nuclear bombs in the west.  Bushmen are reticent about fighting within their clans because everyone has access to this (and other) toxins that are invariably fatal.  Starting a fight has the potential of the parties resorting to the use of one or more of the toxins.  Not a good idea!

A third mystery is how the Bushmen discovered such things as the hoodia plant that both suppresses appetite and provides energy.  The Bushmen would eat the hoodia before embarking on a hunt, where they be required to run for several days after their prey.  Today western pharmaceutical companies pay royalties to the Bushmen so they can use the hoodia plant in dietary suppressants.  Some scientists think that the Bushmen are among the greatest botanists around.  Of course, most Bushmen just say they know of these things.  It has always been that way, they say.
I forgot to explain the term First People.  The Bushmen think of themselves as the First People on the planet Earth.  They think they have been around longer than anyone else – in Africa they probably have been around for 100,000 years.  But it is difficult in a book to refer to an individual as a First Person.  So we have resorted to the sometimes unacceptable term of Bushmen.
 I realize this posting is somewhat incoherent!  Perhaps it is something to do with the fact I have just been tasting a fine South African cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc blend.  At a cost of $5 a bottle!  Including VAT!
Stan - Thursday

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Annie Girardot and Basques

For our Bouchercon Hiatus I'm including a post from TUESDAY, MARCH 1, 2011
Annie Girardot and Basques

A great French film actress has passed Annie Girardot. Yes, another great but not so well known in the US but around the world.
I've loved Annie forever, one of the legion of her fans, but her film with another great Phillip Noiret, who passed a few years ago and the inspiration for my character Commissaire Morbier were paired together in a 1978 jewel of a film titled 'Dear Detective' in the US and 'Tendre Poulet' or dear chicken in French. Poulet=chicken is a term referring to cops or flics and non-perjorative based on the ancient fact that centuries ago the the Police Prefecture in Paris was built on the site of the old chicken market.
The film's not on netflix yet but I recommend you to find it, if you can, and think you'll like it. It's not for you if you don't like subtitles but the pace is fast, full of humor and subtle digs at society, the ancien regime, a woman in a 'man's job' and so, so very French laced with anarchism and charm that I watch it every year. A special treat.
Farewell Annie and thank you so much for all the joy you've brought to us.

My book launch is tonight so I'll share some thoughts that I'll be sharing with others on why I wrote this book.
Sometimes I feel like writing a murder mystery isn't that unlike being a detective. At the beginning, you can see the pieces of the puzzle you want to write, but you can't always see how they're going to fit together. My case--that is, the novel I set out to crack--is in some ways a parallel for the case my detective, Parisian private investigator Aimée Leduc, has to solve. We're both discovering what comes next.
Murder in Passy, the eleventh Aimée Leduc novel I've written, started like all the others, with a germ of a story I knew I wanted to write. In this case, the germ was Basque. Years ago, when my son was very small, we did a house exchange in France. My husband is a surfer and was excited to spend a couple weeks on the coast in Basque country, where they're famous for getting great Atlantic waves. This was fine with me--in San Francisco, we'd often go to the Basque cultural center, with their wonderful exhibits, and to eat Basque food. All of the Basques I'd ever met were so kind and welcoming I knew their country would be the same.
Several days into our stay, we decided to go on an excursion over the mountains. As we got into the car and headed off into the Pyrenees, all three of us were giddy with the prospect of driving to Spain and eating tapas. Two hours later, we were totally lost on the one-lane mountain roads. We kept our eyes peeled for clues back to the road we wanted, but the road signs had all been obscured by menacing black graffiti--the work of the ETA, the Basque separatist terrorist group. Although the lush pastoral setting around us was still beautiful, we felt uneasy now. Finally, we came across a group of old farmhouses that had all been reduced to rubble. It looked as though they had been bombed. I've never been able to forget that moment, how surprised and scared we were. I thought of my Basque friends, and could only imagine how they felt about the things that were going on in this country they loved so much.
My Aimée Leduc mysteries are set in mid-90s Paris, and for Murder in Passy, which takes place in November 1997, I had finally reached the perfect place to build a Basque story into my plot. In the fall of 1997, Basque issues and the ETA were very much in the news.
I wasn't certain who my Basque characters would be, though, until I finally caved into the nagging of a good friend of mine who lives in the 16th arrondissement. She'd always urged me to come visit her, but I'd resisted. "It's too boring there," I'd tell her, "so chic chic." She assured me that there were jewels to be found, and that if I came to stay with her, she'd show them to me.
As it turns out, Passy--one of several villages in the very fancy 16th arrondissement--had historically been a home to many Basques, and had once housed the Basque Cultural Center of Paris. That was only the tip of the iceberg; my friend was right that there was plenty to see. The neighborhood is a collection of villages that have been folded into the structure of the metropolis. Modern building fronts screen grassy stretches and old hidden mansions from the streets. Passy wasn't even part of Paris until 1860; it used to be a suburban get-away for the wealthy, among them Napoleon III's wife Eugenie, who would travel to Passy to take in the waters.
As time marched on, the area was a home to factories, and the mews of Passy are lined with two-story houses that once housed Renault and Citroen factory workers and their families. They are long gone, and that formerly affordable housing now comes with a very fancy price tag. Among these buildings are virtuoso architectural pieces by Robert Mallet-Stevens and Corbusier, and fantastic rather over-the-top buildings by Art Nouveau father Hector Guimard. Now this neighborhood is very expensive and exclusive, but you can still catch peeks of the grassy village lying underneath it all.
The final key to unlocking the mystery I wanted to write was learning about Passy's reservoirs--this incredible system of above-ground pools, protected from the streets by buildings you would never think to look behind, and networked by a series of tunnels. Nowadays you can stand over one of these pools and watch the fish swimming around in them below a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, a pretty surreal experience. But the reservoirs have been the scene of much more sinister happening through history, including functioning as Nazi torture chambers during the Occupation.
I was desperate to get a tour of the tunnels and reservoirs, but during my stay the area had been completely closed off for a documentary film crew. Channeling a little Aimée Leduc, I invented a little alter-ego to get myself admitted. I'm not going to shame myself by going into details here, but let's just say I managed to pass myself off as a journalist working for a major established publication, and they bought it. I signed my release form and was whisked off on a very informative tour of the tunnels and pools.
I admit that I felt guilty about my little fable later, but I was able to quash that guilt. After all, anything in the name of research, right? I'm certain Aimée would have approved.
Cara - Tuesday

AT 7:45 AM

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bouchercon Hiatus: Iguaçu

For this, my second and final contribution to our 2011, Bouchercon Hiatus, I've chosen a post from the 5th of July, 2010.

It's all about a place which plays a major role in Perfect Hatred, scheduled to be released in North America in 2012.

There was a time when I was constantly shuttling back-and-forth between São Paulo and Buenos Aires. In those days, there was (probably still is) an Aerolíneas Argentinas flight between the two cities that always got my preference. It wasn’t the fastest, because it wasn’t direct, but it was the most convenient. It left at a reasonable hour in the morning and still got me to BA in time for meetings in the afternoon.

But convenience wasn’t the only reason I preferred that flight. I preferred it, too, because it made a stop in Iguaçu – and, from the aircraft, I always had a spectacular view of the waterfalls.

There are 275 of them, stretching over a distance of three kilometers. 

The average height is eighty meters. (Niagara’s average height is 53.)

At one place, the Devil’s Throat, 13,000 cubic meters of water, per second, flow over a horseshoe-shaped 90 meter cliff. (About five times what flows over Niagara.)  You can rent a helicopter, if you like, and get really close. It’s an adrenaline rush to be surrounded by tons of falling water on three sides.

August through November is the best time to go. That’s the period of heaviest rainfall, when things are at their most spectacular.

As you’ll note from the map, part of the falls are in Brazil and part in Argentina. Which side should you go to? Well, actually, you should go to both.

From Brazil, you get the best general views.

From Argentina, you get closer to the action.
The tripartite border between ArgentinaBrazil and Paraguay is only about twenty kilometers from the falls. 

To get to the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este all you have to do is walk across the Friendship Bridge.
Why would you want to?
Well, aside from the unique opportunity to chalk-up a visit to three South American countries in a single day, it’s because you get to visit the greatest smuggling center in all of the Americas.

You can get anything in Ciudad del Este.
Had enough of the sleaze?
Return to the falls to cleanse your mind.
Brazilian side, Argentinean side, it doesn’t matter. Rainbows, spray, roaring water, parrots flying over green jungle, they’ve all been wowing visitors since 1541.

That’s when the Spanish Conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (pictured above) first set eyes on them. And it was an Indian burial ground for untold centuries before that.
The waterfalls of Iguaçu/Iguazu. (The Argentineans spell it with a “z”.)

They’ve waiting for you.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let's Fluent!

I'm still at Bouchercon in St. Louis with all but one of my MIE compatriots (boy, have we talked about you, Dan!), and that means I haven't had much chance to come up with something new.  So this is a baldfaced swipe off my other blog, written a few years back from China.

One of the nice things about wandering off the beaten path in China is that most people still don't speak English, and they don't particularly aspire to.  This spares you the "Is this a pen?" conversation you're likely to have  repeatedly in some areas of Japan, or chats in Cambodia with people who have made friends with only one English verb, "Have."  An example, from my own experience.  It's raining and slippery on the sidewalks, and the young lady in front of me takes a tumble.  I help her up and say, slowly and clearly, "Are you all right?" and she smiles and says, "Have."

In many parts of China, nobody even tries, which is probably as it should be.  I mean, do I try to speak Chinese to visitors in America?  Under these circumstances, you get creative and resort to sign language and mime, but even that will take you only so far.  An example:

Last night, I went into a restaurant, put my book on the table next to the place mat, and waited for anyone to notice I'd arrived. Ten minutes later a cheerful young lady wandered up and started chatting in Mandarin.  I put both hands in front of me, palms together, and opened them like a paperback, to indicate that I'd like a menu. She leaned across me, still chatting, picked up my book, opened it at random, put it into my hands, and wandered off again. I could practically hear her thinking, “He couldn't do that himself?”

So I went out and bought a book that purports to make me fluent in Mandarin. It's called Let's Fluent!, which should have sent up some sort of flare. But I bought it, took it home, cleared a space on my desk, and let it fall open. This was the phrase it opened to:

He prefers the cheese that comes from his father's farm.

Now, I don't know about you, but for me, no social situation springs immediately to mind in which this would be an essential phrase. Even ignoring the fact that the Chinese don't like cheese, when exactly would this come in handy?  And is there any conversation, however lively, that this phrase wouldn't stop dead?

So I kept flipping through, and came upon yet another stone-cold conversation-stopper:

The trouble with stamp collecting is that it's too time-consuming.

It is? Is that really the trouble with stamp collecting?  How about that it's more boring than growing worms?  Or that – after years of effort and expense – what you've got is a bunch of stamps?  Or that you're going to find yourself hanging around with stamp collectors?  And as with the other example, to whom would you ever say this?

My spirits were flagging – this was not the kind of witty, light-hearted banter I'd envisioned myself delivering, fluently, of course.  But then I struck gold. The next piece of repartee I opened to wasn't exactly at the level of wit that made Oscar Wilde famous, but at least I could figure out what kind of people one might say it to. Here it is (and this is a word-for-word quotation):

The topic of my paper is the structure of the crust and upper mantle in Northern China and their relation to Cenozoic tectonism. 

Fortunately I did bring some slides with me, which I hope will make things clearer.

Okay? Not really "me," I'll admit, but if I am ever called upon to address a gathering of Chinese geologists, I'll have a hell of an opening. I can hear them now, sitting up straight and grabbing pencils all over the hall. Once I'm really fluent, I'll throw in a couple of jokes about the rock cycle or maybe a pun or two on the word “mantle” that'll have them wiping tears of mirth from their thick glasses. And the slides! What possibilities the slides offer! They want rocks? I'll give them rocks. Rocks that would make other rocks roll uphill.

And when I'm finished, I'll bring us all together into a dusty group hug with the following nugget:

It's interesting that people may have different customs and traditions, but you can always find something in common among them.

Damn! To think I'd have missed all that if I'd put the book back. Come on, everybody – Let's Fluent!