Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seismic Changes Around Here


I’m writing this from my cave on a rock in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Thankfully, I’m in the central Aegean, far away from the tourist heavy areas of Kos (a Greek island) and Bodrum (a Turkish coastal town) struck by a 6.7 magnitude earthquake less than twenty-four hours ago.  It is the second such event in the broader region this year.

Hundreds are reported injured, two have died, and media reports from Kos show extensive damage to older buildings and parts of the port area, with images from Turkey revealing people abandoning buildings and waiting in the streets.

Earthquakes are not new to the region.  They serve as continuing reminders of the “big ones” of the past, and of those yet to come.  Entire civilizations have disappeared around here through quakes and eruptions—fictionally represented by the Lost Island of Atlantis.  

With all that’s happened in the region over the past twenty-four hours, it struck me as out of place for me to be voicing (as I’d planned) concerns I’d heard from many on Mykonos over esthetic architectural digressions (and transgressions) they see as threatening the very soul of their island. 

Bluntly speaking, I think to do so at the moment would be a sign of horrible bad taste…almost as much so as the new construction so many have in mind to pan.  

The above three photos are not of Mykonian locales, but of Athens 2004 Olympic venues a decade later. Could they be the Ghosts of Times to Come?

Argh.  So, I shall hold my tongue and, instead, offer my prayers and condolences to those souls affected by the earthquake, and wish them—make that all of us—no more damaging tremors.

As for what’s happening on this island, I offer an ancient Mykonian proverb:

“All that is necessary for evil architecture to prevail is for those most affected by it to do nothing.”


Friday, July 21, 2017

The Victoria Falls and The Dark Island

On day three of the 500 we did a tricky little drive - the green bit at the top of the line here.
This part of the route runs along the coast, with spectacular beaches, huge cliffs and stunning rock formations.  On day four, we were planning to reach the Caves Of Smoo - which I always say as The Caves Of Smoooooooo in a Sir Ian McKellern kind of way.

Here is the photo blog of the day.
recalling another much darker day....

The Gairloch

Carrot cake!

The Victoria Falls

The top of the falls

They only drop a few feet but they made a lot of noise.

Gairloch has a community garden along the wall of the harbour

And a few hundred yards away, the air is affected by the gulf stream. There are a few botanical gardens in these few square miles.  But they were mobbed by tourist coaches.

I knew we were going to have Gruinard Island in our sight at one point.  It lies in Gruinard Bay between  Gairloch and Ullapool, a wee island 1.2 miles  long by 0.6 miles wide. 

I didn't realise that it was so close to the shore - only about half a mile away at its closest point. The name might be familiar to you as it has been mentioned more than a few times in books and films. The Enemy by Desmond Bagley for one, and the Alistair McLean one set in Rassay is another. Why?

Because the island was dangerous for all mammals after experiments with the anthrax bacterium in 1942. It was supposed to be decontaminated in the 1990s but some folk remain unconvinced. And my pathology lecturer told me it is actually quite difficult to catch anthrax. As a spore, it is heavy so you really have to sniff it to get into your lungs.  Hence why heroin  that has been cut  on contaminated hides is so dangerous to immune compromised substance abusers- we have seen a lot of that in Scotland in the last few years.

In 1881 the population of Gruinard was 6! And it was an island full of trees. Now there are no trees and no people.

 Operation Vegetarian (????!!!) was a biological warfare test carried out on the island in 1942. Those who carried it out were from Porten Down - which is in the South of England. They were testing the use of Anthrax as a weapon.

They used a nasty strain of Anthrax, "Vollum 14578" and this was placed in a bomb and some sheep were tethered next to the bomb. They then exploded it,  and filmed what happened.  The sheep died within days of their exposure.  These films were declassified in 1997.

The plan was to drop Anthrax bombs on Germany to make their large cities uninhabitable and this plan was supported by the difficulty they had in trying to decontaminate Gruinard.  The spores were so durable and hardy, they couldn't get rid of the stuff.

Gruinard Island was quarantined indefinitely.

In 1981 a story began to circulate, "Operation Dark Harvest", a movement to decontaminate the island,  had reported that a "team of microbiologists from two universities" had  got onto the island, collected samples and were sending them to  various people of interest ( and to Porten Down). they demanded  that the public be educated about the island  and that the government  stopped their indifference.

 None of the samples contained anthrax  and although the soil was similar to that found on the island, it couldn't be proved as to where the samples had been taken.

But it was in the news and it didn't go away. By 1986 a determined effort to decontaminate the island started by spraying 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in sea water all over the place.

 Then they put some sheep on it. And they survived.

                                                        The Island, the photo taken from the road.

                                               A close up. Nothing much going on there.

Ullapool bay. Height of summer!

Ullapool high street. 

I liked this boat's laid back approach in contrast to

The ferry terminal that resembles an airport.

The weather was flexing it's muscles.

And the world started to look like Tolkien had designed it. ( a bad hobbit to get into )

And the award winning sands at Alitanabradhan
(that's Gaelic for sand gets everywhere )

Nice innit? It was very cold.

Caro Ramsay 21 07 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Hyenas of Harar

Michael - Thursday

I thought I knew quite a bit about hyenas. I’ve always liked them, feeling that they get a bum rap as cowardly, slinking scavengers. Scavengers they certainly are. They are happy to eat anything that is, or once was, flesh and bone. Especially bone. Their jaws can crunch them to powder, and their stomachs can digest and dissolve the calcium in strong acids. It's easy to recognize their feces as they appear white or grey from the calcium.

However, the Spotted Hyena is primarily a predator.

All the better to eat you with!
I’ve spent a night in the Kalahari following a group of seven of them. They seem to tirelessly cover the veld just loping along until one catches a scent, and then they suddenly all turn and race off in the same direction. During that night they had a go at an eland—that proved too much for them, chased a lioness up an acacia and circled the base with their tails up like dogs around a treed cat, and eventually pulled down a wildebeest.

Taking on a Gemsbok at night
And a lioness
In Botswana, Stan and I witnessed a much larger pack pull down a wildebeest and completely consume it over a period of a few hours. Everything is eaten except the horns and hooves. Watching that was what sparked the idea of destroying a body that way for the perfect murder, and eventually led to our first novel, A Carrion Death.

Surprisingly, Spotted Hyenas have a reputation for making good pets. They socialize easily with people, but while they are easy to house train, they have a strong scent which they use to mark their territories. Not ideal. At Ingwelala Game Reserve (where Stan has a bungalow), they used to come all through the camp at night and often chose to lie near the camp fire and watch the cooking like dogs. They would patrol the camp all night looking for scraps and company. Since giving them the former was strictly forbidden, they eventually became less keen on the latter.

What I didn’t know until I picked up an article from Reuters this week was that there is a city where they have become welcome nightly visitors. Although they are totally wild—in the sense that they live outside in the surrounding bush and come and go exactly as they please, they come through the city to clean up, accept offerings, be admired by tourists, and socialize with their favorite people—the ones who feed them (who are designated by the city).

Harar with the surrounding wall

The ancient city wall
Shewaber gate
The city itself is interesting. Situated in eastern Ethiopia near Somalia and the horn of Africa, it was established as a walled city in 1551 and is one of the earliest Muslim centers of importance, supposedly fourth after Mecca. Now about a quarter of a million people live in the city and surrounds. And beyond that, the hyenas live.

It’s worth reading the full piece from Reuters HERE, but here’s a taste (so to speak) of the hyenas and their friends.
'Hyena man' with a friend
Don't try this at home...
Sharing is caring.
So now I know something else about hyenas...

Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


              My next Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, releases on July 11 from Seventh Street Books. 

          The next Detective Kubu mystery, Dying to Live, releases in the UK on July 12 from Orenda books.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Mint-Flavored Novel

Sujata Massey

Sujata, Jeffery Deaver, and Mid-Atlantic MWA chapter prez Donna Andrews

A week ago Sunday, I sat in a crowded conference room in Bethesda and listened to a few comparison of novels to toothpaste. When you go looking for toothpaste at the drugstore, what would you think if your favorite one was missing--because Proctor&Gamble hadn’t felt inspired to make any toothpaste that month?

And if you were planning to launch a toothpaste for humans, would you flavor it with liver because it was your great original idea, or would you choose mint?

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Jeffery Deaver, the current president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the bestselling author of 35 thrillers, most recently The Burial Hour. Mr. Deaver had kindly come to Bethesda, MD to teach a writing craft workshop, "Taking It To The Next Level" for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of MW). Not all of he had to say was new to me, but honestly, we writers forget what we should be doing. The care and revision taken with a first novel can easily fall by the wayside once a writer's on a yearly publishing schedule. Listening to Mr. Deaver's multi-page presentation (he gave us all typed notes on clipboards!) was like imbibing a very healthy smoothie after years of too much coffee.

Our guru started our morning by explaining the toothpaste metaphor: “You write for people, you don’t write for yourself. You are a professional running a business. And with the regard to the flavor of your book—think if it has an audience. You need to ask is this concept, “mint”? Is the plotting “mint”, are the character names “mint”?

This advice doesn’t exactly line up with the “write the book you want to read that doesn’t yet exist” tip that explains how I’ve come up with my concepts for two mystery series. I believe his concept of “mint”, though, doesn’t mean writing something that’s already out there. It refers to creating a book that’s easy for readers to fall in love with, that tastes good from the very first page.

He spent gobs of time talking about how to plan a book--because that's how he spends eight months every year, doing research (always saved in his own words) and a plot outline that’s usually 150 pages long. He likens the craft of building a book by following directions, just as aviation engineers put together an airplane. Would the engineers stick a wing or a tail in a random place just because they felt like it?  No! They always follow directions.

Mr. Deaver points out the time that will be saved if you plan rather than experiment. I too am an outliner, but the longest outline I've written was just shy of thirty pages. And I've never solved every nuance of the mystery in my outlines, which he says is  the lynchpin to writing a satisfying mystery or thriller.

He acknowledged writers can go forward without having plotted everything, but they will spend much more time thinking of what to write than actually writing. 

The hardest thing for me is looking at an elaborate sequence of linked events that lead to a startling conclusion that makes complete sense. I freeze when it comes to writing twisty plots—but when Mr. Deaver was talking about it, I suddenly realized that it might be fun to try--and I could keep track of each idea by putting it on a Post-It note.

So, the day after the workshop, I tried. Not only with the plot of my next book, but with a family tree for my characters. With deep outlining, I could track my backstory of the mystery as well as the chief adventure. However, I was doing this outlining at the midpoint of writing book 2, not before the whole shebang. But that was fine. I was seeing new opportunities for using my characters since I'd been working with them a few months already. 

 Back to "Taking It To The Next Level." I perked up after a coffee break, when the topic turned to writing stories that hook readers emotionally. Mr. Deaver had plenty to say--more than I can reprise here (he will teach this course again). I appreciated his point about the writer frequently raising questions that have important consequences. This means lots of cliffhangers and "wow moments"—rather than just one big climax, as is the structure in a lot of mysteries. “Promise and don’t deliver!” he said, reminding me of someone in Washington, DC. He meant raising questions in the reader’s mind and delaying answering them for as long as possible.

And then there's the issue of making good on all the suspicious aspects you've raised. Don't leave the red herrings uncooked!   Jeffery Deaver strives to resolve every conflict, character, clue and subplot by the end. He will go through a manuscript 30 to 40 times to make sure this happens, and that the language sounds utterly natural. By the time such a book is finished, it is a "mint" example of quality mystery.

In the last minutes of the class Mr. Deaver warned us to never allow our characters to get in jeopardy because of a stupid act like allowing a phone to go dead. And conversely, I'm relieved that not one of the writers' mobile phones rang during the workshop.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Swimming in the canal - not with the fishes or Speedos...or Inspector Maigret

Special Paris swimming pools opened today and the waiting crowds, including lots of kids, couldn't wait to take a dip on the opening day of the outdoor swimming pool in the Paris canal. The plan to introduce free swimming at the Bassin de la Villette finally happened.  The Bassin de la Villette was inaugurated in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte and was a former port area during the industrialisation of rivers. Now excited Parisians escaped the hot sun by making their inaugural dips into the three brand new swimming pools. These structures have been built into the Bassin, along the south side of the Quai de la Loire in the 19th arrondissement -  which connects to the Canal de l'Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martin.
Ah, the Canal Saint Martin which reminded me of George Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Maigret had a case in the Canal and it wasn't pretty. Strike you as morbid that came to mind? Alors, we're crime writers and readers here, non?
The title translates to Maigret and the Corpse without a Head. In this story, a man’s dismembered body is found in Canal Saint Martin. Close to the scene, Maigret meets the taciturn owner of a cafe,
Aline Calas, and wonders if the body in the canal was that of her husband. As usual, Maigret’s instincts are correct.
Compelled to run the investigation further but with time on his hands as he’s already solved the case, Maigret starts digging into the past of everyone who is concerned. Unlike most detective fiction where finding the solution is central to the story, his novel explores the different motives that can lead to committing a crime.
Here lies a rationale of self-hatred behind the actions whereby you can hurt and mortify those who are closest to you. Simenon, through Maigret, attempts to figure out real meanings and ambitions, believing that understanding can lead to forgiveness and forgiveness will reduce the drive to commit a crime.

But getting back to the swimming pools - was the canal water that feeds them clean enough for the kids and swimmers?  Lina, aged 11 said, "I'm not worried. I've seen the signs saying they have checked the water is clean off so I am confident." Lina's mother said: "If the Town Hall says the water is OK then I am OK with that. It's hot outside and we need to keep cool, especially the children."
The temporary structure includes a very shallow paddling pool for young children, a second shallow pool and a large pool for adults. On top of that, the tight Speedos, required for most public Parisian pools, aren't required.
"It's a natural swimming experience, without chemical or biological treatment," the Town Hall promises. The pools are filled with "water from the canal itself", said Jean-François Martins who works on the team responsible for the city's facilities.
A filter has also been put in place to stop any pesky leaves, rubbish and fish from entering the canal.
And corpses?
Cara - Tuesday