Monday, November 30, 2009


Places still bear the effect of what has gone on before, even if that imprint exists only in people’s minds.

The words Dan Waddell wrote in his most recent post brought to mind an incident in my own life. In his case, it was a house. In mine, it was a town.

The town is called Embu. It’s in the State of São Paulo about thirty kilometers from the capital.

During my first visit, back in 1972, or thereabouts, I was immediately struck by Embu’s colonial charm.

And by the fact that it had attracted so many painters and sculptors.

 I came to live in the neighboring town of Carapicuiba, and soon became a habitué of Embu’s Sunday art fair.

For a dozen years or so, if someone asked me about Embu, I’d think of the things that these images suggest: art, charm, beauty.
Now, I have darker thoughts. I think of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”.

Here’s a picture that of Mengele, taken at about the time I first visited Embu:

And, here, one that was shot in 1944 when he was 33 years old.

 Josef Mengele  lived his last years not far from Embu; he was buried there under a false name; and had the Brazilian Federal Police not discovered his last hiding place, his bones would be lying there still.  I was ignorant of all of this until the news of his exhumation appeared in the newspapers. But I knew Mengele’s name and was familiar with his history. I’d also read Ira Levin’s novel, The Boys from Brazil, and seen the film with Gregory Peck, both released before his death. (How weird is that? There you are, a fugitive war criminal, and Gregory Peck is playing you in a movie. Don’t tell me Mengele didn’t go to see it.)

Anyway, there I was, close to it all. I went over to that grave to have a look. And, like Dan, being in a place where history happened, set me to musing.

The first thing that struck me was how different Mengele’s youth had been from that of so many other Nazis. He was born to wealth and privilege. As a youth, he was popular and well-liked. He made people laugh. They nicknamed him Beppo, drawing it from the name of a popular circus clown. He was intelligent and an intellectual. He achieved doctorates in two disciplines from two different universities. He was a decorated war hero and served with distinction on the Eastern front.

And then he went to Auschwitz and spent twenty one months there. Only twenty-one months, but it was enough time for him to betray all of his early promise, sink to the depths of degradation, and perform unspeakable horrors.

After the war he fled, first to Southern Germany, then to South America. When the war ended he was 34. When he died, he was 68.  He was on the run for half his lifetime.

His son, Rolf, visited him in Brazil not long before the end. Mengele was in no way repentant for what he’d done and told him, “Personally, I never harmed anyone in my entire life.”

Hundreds are still alive to testify that he did.
Leighton - Monday

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunny Places For Shady People

What makes a good setting? If you were to shelve books by setting instead of by genre or author, some settings -- London or New York, for example -- would take up an entire wall, while others, such as Bliss, Arizona (where I'm thinking of setting a thriller) would be the width of a folded road map. What's that about?

Not much, I think. Ninety percent of the time, I've come to believe, a setting is just the neighborhood a writer knows best. Back in the 1930s, Robert Benchley wrote a piece called "Mind's Eye Trouble" or something like that in which he complained that his mind's eye was stunted -- limited to places he'd actually seen -- and that this failing affected his reading. So the vast armies in "War and Peace" marched through the residential back yards of Connecticut, where he'd grown up, and Madame Bovary threw herself beneath the wheels of the Hartford Express.

Benchley was exaggerating, but I think it makes sense for many writers to set their stories in, so to speak, one of their neighborhoods. More people have experienced London, over time, than any other English-speaking city in the world, so it follows that thousands and thousands of novels have been set there. "London" books embrace every possible literary genre: everything from Tristram Shandy to sci-fi. London serves them all well.

And that's because London has, from a fictional perspective, everything: teeming millions, history, beauty, ugliness, palaces, hovels, angels on the churches and shit in the street. Same goes for Los Angeles or New York, Rio de Janiero, any big city. Small towns worked for Faulkner and Trollope and work today for James Lee Burke and -- well, you supply a name.

Bangkok, where I've lived part of every year since 1981, works fine for me. I can't claim to know it exhaustively (not half as well as, say, Christopher G. Moore, who created the western-private-eye-in Bangkok and writes it better than just about anyone), but I don't have to be the guy who'd get chosen to write the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Bangkok. Why? Because my
Bangkok -- like Chandler's Los Angeles or Balzac's Paris or Murakami's Tokyo or -- well, you supply a name -- is imaginary.

All settings are imaginary. Ultimately, all settings exist only in the writer's mind. If you could map them, they would begin in the writer's mind and end in the reader's. Authenticity, actual familiarity with the emotional gestalt and physical geography of the place, are tools the writer uses to make sure that the reader's brain doesn't reject the setting as nonsense. You don't want to be like the French writer, raised in the fine-food atmosphere of Paris, who wrote a western in which a bunch of illiterate gunmen sit around a campfire arguing about cheeses.

What makes a setting work is that it resonates with that writer's imagination. Bangkok is endless, flat, built on water and sinking, choked with people who are unimaginably rich and desperately poor. It's simultaneously hideous and beautiful, sacred and profane, vulgar and spiritual. It has a terrible government and wonderful people. Once called the "Venice of the East," it was originally built around a leafy network of placid canals, but it became, in the
1960s and 70s, a dusty, swinging-door saloon town, sort of Dodge City with sex. Now it's morphing into one of the world's great cosmopolitan centers, with a skyline that dazzles even the most calloused traveler.

Bangkok is one of the cities that loose folks roll downhill into. It is, as Somerset Maugham said about Monaco, a sunny place for shady people. Sex of the saddest kind brings some of the West's most appalling ambassadors, tens of thousands of them, set loose in a place where they think they can behave without constraint. These people may be dull company (and are they ever), but they're great material. And the Thai people, who put up with all this and sometimes profit from it, are the best-hearted, most sympathetic people I know.

So there's lots to work with, if you're me. I could see myself writing about Bangkok for the rest of my life and never even scratching the depth of the possible. If I'm lucky and William Morrow keeps asking for books, I may.

And if, reading my Bangkok, you find the setting difficult to believe, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that millions of visitors every year feel exactly the same way about the real city.

Tim - Sunday

Friday, November 27, 2009

Mind the Gap

Earlier this week I was thrilled to learn that the nondescript patch of parkland near my home in west London, where I take our dog for her twice daily walks, is actually a Civil War battlefield. True, it doesn’t possess the reverent, sombre atmosphere of the battlegrounds of the First World War – the battle was way back in 1642. Nor is it as well preserved as the sites of the US Civil War (I didn’t see many wheezing joggers, park bench drunks or pooper scoopers when I visited Shiloh). In fact it’s not preserved at all. It’s just there. And that’s what I love about London. There is so much history lurking round every corner that no one can get that excited about an ancient battlefield.

I’ve always been secretly excited by the idea of standing on any given spot and thinking ‘A long time ago, something happened here.’ In London that feeling takes on greater resonance, because the presence of history is carved into the landscape, impossible to avoid. You can turn the corner of an unprepossessing street and find yourself staring history in the face. Or, as was the case with me when I was researching my first novel The Blood Detective, be riding in a taxi.

I had the plot for the book yet nowhere to set it. At the time I was living in North Kensington, on the outskirts of Notting Hill, which at that time was full of tourists who were expecting to see floppy-haired Englishman like Hugh Grant around every corner. I knew and had witnessed a far seedier, edgier side to the area; its history was one of abject poverty, slum housing, and racial tension. The chocolate box image projected by the movie contrasted with the reality I knew, but still I never thought of setting a book there,

Then one day I was in a cab approaching my street. The driver pointed out a small street beside the railway arches, filled with a row of identikit 1970s houses. 

‘You know what that used to be?’ the cabbie asked

Any Londoner will tell you that getting in a discussion with a black cab driver is unwise, unless you’re clinically insane or a purveyor of far right wing politics. So I feigned disinterest. As any Londoner will tell you, disinterest does nothing to deter a chatty cabbie. Only outright disdain will do. 

‘It was Rillington Place,’ he added.

Disinterest be damned. I couldn’t get enough of this. For those who don’t know, 10 Rillington Place was the scene of a set of notorious murders by John Christie in the 1950s, for which another man was wrongfully hanged. The case was turned into a film, with Richard Attenborough playing Christie, the mild-mannered murderer next door

After he dropped me off, I went to back to Rillington Place. I wandered down the street. I counted the houses. There was no number ten. The street name had been changed. It’s layout altered. The houses had been razed to the ground and replaced. Yet they still couldn’t bring themselves to build a number ten. Instead, between numbers nine and 11, there was a gap, filled only by a tree.

I had my setting. A theme, too. That no matter how hard we try, the past cannot be swept away. Places still bear the effect of what has gone on before, even if that imprint exists only in people’s minds.


Dan - Friday

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Website Update

I've just completed an update of my web site. If you'd like to read the first chapter of my latest, Dying Gasp, you can do it here:
The official launch date is January 1st, but the hard covers should start appearing in libraries and bookstores in the United States any day now.


Polar Bear sightings

Having recently read Stan and Michael‘s inaugural blog „out of Africa“ (and loved it) I have been giving the disparity between the world‘s continents some thought, in particular the varying fauna represented in the accompanying photos of the impala and elephant. Amazing creatures I have yet to see outside a zoo and not actually sure I should be aiming to step up the intimacy with. Moving a bit further south, I find it astonishing how different Australia’s animals are from those separated by a mere ocean and as a result one cannot imagine how vastly unlike life forms on other planets must be. These will certainly not have fingers and navels like the space aliens one often sees in the movies, the ones that are really just a stretched edition of light bluish humans, albeit with supersized heads and eyes.

The only mammal native to Iceland is the fox. The island was inhabited by a lot of birds, few insects and absolutely no reptiles. Following settlement in 874 farm animals were brought over, along with the odd stow away mouse or two, and today we have a pretty good non-exotic selection of animals, all with a purpose, at least originally. However, to keep things interesting we do get the odd polar bear drifting to shore on icebergs although these are few and far between. However in the spring of 2008 we had two such unwelcome visits almost back to back causing a national semi-panic with the police hotline being kept busy with callers announcing sightings of white things that turned out be anything from a couple of sheep huddled together, a leftover snow-bank or even laundry. My favourite polar bear thing from this brief period was when an Oddfellow charter from up north got in the news for the third “real” sighting that took place during the association’s annual spring bus excursion around the countryside. They had photos, see above, and the media began alerting people in the neighbouring town to lock their doors as this was apparently not another bundle of misplaced dirty sheets. The men said that the animal was really gentle and that they had almost been able to pet it which was not well perceived by the police, the sharpshooters rushing to site or other authorities getting in on the action. Anyway, so as not to keep you in suspense it turned out to be a hoax. The photos were actually real and the animal at one point, the men had brought a mounted polar bear belonging to one of them along on the bus and carried it between them out into the wild and snapped away. I guess they had not heard of photoshop. Anyway, it is the only time I have ever wanted to be an Oddfellow.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gone With the Wind: Confederates in Brazil

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know…
Stephen Foster

One day, a couple of years ago, I was in an office in São Paulo chatting to a friend in English. A lady I didn’t know came up to us and joined in the conversation. She spoke with the dulcet tones of the American South, and I asked her where she was from.
“I was born here,” she said, meaning Brazil.
“Okay. Your parents, then?”
“Here. And my grandparents too.”
And then she told me the story of the Brazilian Confederates, which, Dear Reader, I’m now going to pass on to you:

After the War Between the States many families from the old south were left landless and destitute. They hated living under a conquering army of Yankees. They were looking for a way out.
Dom Pedro II, the progressive Brazilian emperor of the time, offered it. He was interested in developing the cultivation of cotton, and he gave tremendous incentives to people who knew how to do it. Land could be financed at twenty-two cents an acre. Passage cost no more than thirty Yankee dollars.
Scads of people from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas took him up on his offer.
Many of them settled in the State of São Paulo in the towns of Americana and Santa Barbara D’Oeste. The name of the former is derived from the Portuguese for “Village of the Americans” and the latter is sometimes called the Norris colony, after Colonel William Norris, a former senator from Alabama and one of the founders. (He's the gentleman in the old photo above.)
If you’re a Civil War buff, and would like to experience a vestige of the Old South, I suggest you go to Santa Barbara on the second Sunday in April. That’s when they hold a yearly party on the grounds of the cemetery. Yeah, that’s right, the cemetery, the one where all of those old confederates are buried. You can eat southern fried chicken, vinegar pie, chess pie and biscuits. Banjos are played. Confederate songs are sung. The women dress in pink and blue and wear matching ribbons in their hair. Near the Presbyterian Church, the first non-Catholic church ever built in Brazil, there’s square dancing for the young folks.
The men of all ages get drunk and replay the war, looking at first as if they’re celebrating a victory. But at the end of the performance the bearded actor, playing Gen. Robert E. Lee, falls down as if mortally wounded, a Confederate flag wrapped around him.
And you might well get to meet someone like Becky Jones, a member of the Association of Confederates, a group that’s three-hundred members strong. Becky learned her English from her parents. They learned it from their parents. And so on. Prompted, she’ll tell you that (even) Damnyankees are welcome to the party, but they have to expect to be received differently than someone from the South. She might tell you, too, about her grandmother, Mrs. MacKnight-Jones, who survived well into her nineties. Grandma learned from her parents never to call Abraham Lincoln by his name. In their household he was only referred to as "that man." And that family tradition goes on until this very day.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Out of Africa

The bush can provide such contrasts! When my friends and I arrived at Ingwelala (Sleeping Leopard) – a private game farm adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa – the bush was virtually non-existent. I have never seen the area so dry. There was no grass, and only a few trees had spring leaves showing. With so little vegetation, the visibility was excellent. And what one saw, for the most part, was the destruction wrought by elephants. Trees pushed over for the few leaves at the top; trees stripped of bark for something to eat.
Of course, there were few animals to be seen. What were they to eat? Impala, the most populous of southern African antelope were still around, ribs showing, nibbling at anything that showed promise of nutrition. We saw four elephants stripping trees of dry branches to chew – something I’d never seen before. A monkey here, a nyala or two there, no zebras or giraffe – the sightings were few and far between. The whole area looked like a war zone. And the fact that it was 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) did not make the experience pleasurable. In fact, it made it difficult to focus on one reason for my visit – finishing the third Detective Kubu novel.
Then everything changed. On Saturday night an immense thunderstorm hit the area, with raging winds and torrential rain. For an hour there was a spectacular display of lightening and thunder – something I love with a passion. The temperature dropped to 15 degrees Celsius (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), and my open-walled, thatched bungalow was soon cold. The central office lost all telephone and internet connections.
The next day was delightful – warm, but not hot, and sunny. The veld started showing off its spring beauty. Almost immediately, little shoots of grass and lilies poked through the sand. Of course, there were still no animals, but who cared. It was bliss to be driving around in our 1983 Nissan, converted into a game viewing vehicle. Phone and internet were restored.
Then things changed again. A cold front came through on Monday, bringing with it a heavy overcast, incessant drizzle, and more cold. Day after day of drip, drip, drip. By yesterday, (Friday), we had received 115 mm (4.5 inches) of soaking rain. The phone and internet disappeared again. And our solar system started taking strain – no sun for 5 days left us with enough light to read, but no ability to charge computers or camera batteries. Thank goodness we cook using gas inside the bungalow. Trying to start a braaivleis (South African name for barbeque) in the drizzle would have been impossible.
Now it is Saturday. I am plugged into power at the office and hoping that the internet is back up. If you are reading this, it is! It is still raining, still overcast. The various weather forecasts differ as to whether the clouds will lift on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. I flew myself up to Ingwelala from my home town of Knysna on the Indian Ocean coast – about 1700 kms (1100 miles) away. To return, the weather has to improve, and the dirt runway has to be firm. I am going to drive there now and check it – once I have pushed up the canvas canopy of the 1983 Nissan to rid it of the vast amount of water that has accumulated over the past days. And dried the seats of the open vehicle. I don’t like driving with a wet backside!

Stan and Michael - Saturday

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Pram in the Hall

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

Better writers than me have debunked Cyril Connolly’s famous quote and, as someone who’s trodden on some toys, barged his way past a few buggies and broken off mid-paragraph to change a nappy or two in his time, I’d agree he was talking the sort of pompous bunkum only dilettante intellectuals could conjure with a straight face. The constraints of parenthood actually helped me write. Childless, I could work any time, day or night; and the end result was that I often ended up working neither. When it was only an option to write in daylight as nights were given over to reading aloud about hungry caterpillars or trying to grab some much needed rest, my productivity grew. My life, at long last, had structure, even if a few other things were lost, such as sleep.

However, had Cyril been a crime writer he may have had had a point. When my first child was born I wasn’t writing crime. Now, with my third newly arrived, I am. In fact, I’m halfway through my latest. I am trying to conjure up dark deeds, ominous atmospheres and a creeping sense of dread. Meanwhile, Child Three (as we’ll call him, as long as Tom Rob Smith doesn’t steal it for his next title) is doing the best he can to distract me. He likes to be held and I like to give my suffering wife a break. So half of my day is spent with him in my arms, staring into his eyes, innocent dark brown pools, humming lullabies, or rocking his pram so he can sleep. Then I trudge back to my office, muslin square still draped absent-mindedly over my shoulder, an unseen slick of baby puke down my back, and try to recreate the dark deeds etc. It isn’t proving easy. The outside world has ceased to exist (though not for long, I promise, or my contributions to this blog will look a little insular…), my characters are strangely content and people are more likely to be hugged to death than flayed alive and their raw flesh salted.

I would panic, but for one thing. Around the corner lie those books only parents know of; not least that bloody hungry caterpillar. After the 45th reading, misanthropy will reign and I get the feeling that my characters will grow less pleased with their lot and people will die. Horribly.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Listen to our blog member's interview from around the world

Interview on the Poisoned Pen Webcon with Cara Black, Leighton Gage, Stuart Neville, Yrsa Siguroardottir and Stanley - part of the duo of Michael Stanley download

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heil og sæl

This is my very first attempt at writing a blog and considering how awful I am at writing short stories I am starting off with a handicap that is too embarrassing to post numerically. However, I hope to make it up with enthusiasm as I believe this particular blog is something that should prove good fun for all mystery lovers interesting in venturing outside their everyday environment. I know firsthand what that feels like as I am an avid mystery reader myself and come from a country where local crime fiction has only been regularly available for a decade so if you preferred to have a book’s characters bludgeoned to death early on in the novel rather than wasting paragraphs obsessing over their miserable youth or present day alcoholism, you had to read foreign authors. With the intrigue (read gore), the far away locale and society came alive, providing a window into parts of the world I might possibly visit but never call home. If you are wondering what country I do call home, imagine a tiny island way up north where the only banking institution not humiliated and disgraced is the national blood bank. If this does not help, imagine a country obviously named by someone intent on keeping people out. If still at loss, imagine a war with no prisoners and absolutely no opportunity of placing landmines as it was fought at sea, on fishing boats, over cod. There will be no more clues.

At present I am enjoying the very brief reprieve provided authors who write a novel a year. This is the time when the most recent book is being churned out by the printing press, there can be no more edits or fixing and the critics have yet to get a copy. On Monday this short-lived bliss is over, the book will be in the stores here and I can start obsessing over its location in the bookstores and running like followed by a zombie to fetch the morning paper to see how it was perceived. I cannot say that I am holding my breath and neither is my family.

Till next time

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, November 16, 2009

Crime Reporting Brazilian Style

In his home (and very lawless) town of Manaus, Wallace Souza made a name for himself as a crusading crime reporter. He became so popular that a network affiliate gave him his very own television show.
The structure of Souza’s program was simple: he’d spend the first half-hour in the studio, holding a policeman’s baton in one hand and waving it around as if he’d prefer to be swinging it against a felon’s head. While he was doing it, he’d rail against criminality and criminals, call them every name in the book, demand the harshest penalties for lawbreakers, advocate a return of the death penalty, and so on and so forth.

Then, in the second half of his show, Souza would take to the streets. He’d visit homes, police interrogation rooms and crime scenes. In the homes, he’d wring tears from the victims. In the interrogation rooms he’d heap abuse on newly-arrested (and perhaps innocent) suspects. The crime scenes, he’d cover in graphic detail and without a modicum of good taste or restraint. In one classic example the camera shows Souza standing over an incinerated corpse, holding his shirt tail against his nose and breathing through his mouth. His comment? “Smells like barbecue”.

The simple folks of Manaus ate it up. (No pun intended.) Until Souza came along, much of what went on in Manaus hadn’t been a matter for public debate. Now, at last, they had a champion, a man who told it like it was, a man who was willing to put the authorities on the spot. Souza became a folk hero, a super star, not only in Manaus, but throughout the whole State of Amazonas.

Souza spotted his chance and took it. He ran for the state legislature and was elected with a plurality never before achieved by any candidate.

Now for the unfortunate truth: criminality, in the State of Amazonas, is not always an affair of the cops vs. the criminals. In fact, the cops in Amazonas often are the criminals. And so are the judges. And so are the legislators, which is why the state government is seldom prepared to do anything about it. But the federal bureaucrats in Brasilia, when pushed, sometimes are.

So last year, at about this time, and yielding to pressure that Souza helped create, a team from the Brazilian Federal Police descended upon the city of Manaus. The investigation bore fruit within a fortnight. Tens of cops were arrested. By the time the dust cleared there were more than a hundred of them charged with crimes ranging from extortion to murder. Then the federal prosecutors moved in. First one witness caved-in to a plea deal, then another. Within a month there was finger-pointing all around – and some of the fingers were pointing at Wallace Souza.

How, the prosecutors wanted to know, had it been possible for Souza and his crew to arrive first at a number of murder scenes? It wasn’t just that they arrived before the other reporters, no: they had an uncanny ability to get there before the cops. The boys in gray (that’s the color of the uniforms of Manaus’s municipal police) would pull up to find Souza engaged in a tirade about the despicable violence afflicting his beloved city while his cameraman zoomed-in on one gory detail after another. Might Souza himself have had something to do with those murders?

Turns out that more than a few people think he did. Souza has been charged with ordering the killing of at least five people, which is surprising enough in itself. What’s even more surprising is the alleged motive: to boost ratings for his TV show.

Meanwhile, Souza’s son, Rafael, has also been arrested. The prosecutors are saying he was involved in another endeavor of his father’s - drug trafficking. There has been some speculation that the five victims, traffickers themselves, might have been Souza’s rivals.

Souza says no. He doesn’t traffic in drugs, and he wouldn’t kill anyone just to get ratings. The prosecutors say he does and he did, but the charges can’t be tried in a federal court. They are within the State’s jurisdiction.

The charges were filed over a year ago. Up to now Souza and Son, Inc. haven’t been brought to trial. And it wouldn’t surprise many people in the corrupt State of Amazonas if they never are.

Leighton - Monday

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Innaugural Post

Willkommen, Bienvenu, Bienvenidos and Welcome to our blog

Cara here with an inaugural post and some photos of Paris
before I fly off to Milwaukee for the Crimespree and Muskego Library
day of Murder in Muskego.