Sunday, November 20, 2016

Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The contrast between body and brain at the moment is vast.

My body is in Iceland. Iceland Noir in Reykjavik, to be precise, where the weather is hovering around the freezing mark, but the wind is cutting that down through the skin until my bones are exposed. At this time of year it feels a hard place, from the crumpled black-lava landscape to the low-lying buildings hunkered down into it.

The last time I was here – for this event two years ago – my memory has tamped down the cold until it was no more than a mild chill. So, this time although I brought with me gloves and many layers, I neglected to bring a hat. The pain of ear-ache from the bracing walk from our quirky Air B&B to the Nordik House alongside the ice-strewn lake that first morning inspired me to dig out the custom ear defenders I normally wear for flights. At least now it is only my outer ears that freeze, rather than two throbbing points at either side of my brain.

The trick, I discovered, is to greet as many friends as possible as soon as you are inside. That way you can quickly lure some of their heat into your frozen cheeks. Only works if they arrived at least ten minutes before you did. But then, of course, you can return the favour to new arrivals.

And there are plenty of friends to greet, including fellow Murder Is Everywhere blogmates, Jeffrey Siger and Annamaria Alfieri, as well as former MiE blogger, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. We were sorry to miss Caro Ramsay, and our thoughts are with her family in their bereavement. Your dad sounds like he was quite a guy, Caro.

As I write this I am looking forward to my panel, ‘Tension – Make Your Reader Sweat’, this afternoon. (The prospect of sweating is a welcome relief from shivering.) Reviewer Jake Kerridge is moderating myself, John Gilstrap, Mark Dapin and Mark Hill on this topic. Should be interesting. (And it was, by the way, and pretty funny, too. Thanks, guys.)

And although I am, of course, concentrating on the subject and scurrying through what is left of my part-frozen brain for intelligent things to say, another part of me is stuck in far sunnier climes.

Fictionally speaking, I am in Karbala, Iraq, writing the latest in the Charlie Fox series, FOX HUNTER. It is hot enough to dry the spit on your tongue almost as soon as it forms. Sweat is a fact of life here, and those who claim the desert provides a dry heat have not tried standing out in it for more than a few minutes at a time.

I can smell the smoke from the hookah pipes, see the liquid shimmer on the blacktop, hear the mechanised call to prayer from the towers of the mosques. And I can feel the tension of putting two white western women down into the middle of this highly patriarchal society and asking them to follow the four-day-old trail of a man who does not want to be found. Into territory held by dangerous fanatics.

Oh, and one of these women has a broken shoulder.

It’s a strange situation to have these two very different landscapes superimposed on one another, with one coming into sharper focus as the other recedes, like the wooden figures on an ornate cuckoo clock.

But you know what? Much as I hate to leave this mystical country, I can hardly wait to get back to work.

This week’s Word of the Week is mancation, which has come to mean a men-only vacation, but actually has its origination back in the eighteenth century, when it meant maiming or mutilation. Considering a modern-day mancation often involves very male pursuits, perhaps the two are not so far apart after all … 


  1. Perhaps you're actually in try-outs for a new role on Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice...? I'd lend a warm cheek, but the trip's a bit farther than your B&B.

  2. That's very sweet of you, EvKa, providing it's the cheek I'm thinking of ...

  3. Zoe, what a great pleasure it has been to have your company these past days, where our tribe has been creating its own warmth. I can't wait to go to Iraq with Charlie. I love being able to go to those dangerous places knowing I am safe with her around.

    1. It was a delight to see you, as always, Annamaria. And some people are like radiators -- you can't help but snuggle up to them for the warmth they put out.

      Charlie is rarely safe to be around, but I hope the right people will come out of this one still standing at the end of it ...