Saturday, December 11, 2010

You Found WHAT in Burma?

No, this isn’t Tim Hallinan.  He’d know to say Myanmar and what he’s talking about.

This story starts on the other side of Tim’s planet, in the reception area of a New York City law firm.  I stopped by the other day to say hello to old friends.  Sort of like the moth drawn back to its flame experience, what with my name once appearing on that sign in the photo below.  Now my moniker appears elsewhere, on things such as the item pictured to the right (PREY ON PATMOS, An Aegean Prophecy, coming January 4th from Poisoned Pen Press (U.S.) and Piatkus Books/Little Brown (U.K.)).

Whenever I’m formally hawking my books the most common interview question I’m asked is, “Why did you give up your partnership in a successful law practice to become a writer?”  I do not take that as criticism of the value of my prose, but of my sanity.  Translated, the question means, “Were you out of your &%^# mind to give up that kind of money just to write books [even with increased e-book sales and royalty rates]?”
Lawyer in captivity

My answer is always the same:  Once I realized that I would not live forever the decision was simple.  I walked away to do what I truly loved and always longed to do.  I think most of my colleagues at the law firm understood my thinking for they’re doing today what they want to do, practicing law.  Different strokes, so to speak.

But for those of you out there who still don’t quite get it, perhaps this quick story will explain.

So, a lawyer walks into a law firm...

After an hour or so of exchanging hellos and catching up on eight months of missed gossip, I bumped into a friend leaving one meeting and running out of the office to another.  He and I practiced law together for over forty years.  Let’s call him Roy.
Honore Daumier, The Two Lawyers

We did a quick hug and exchange of information on the kids and grandchildren.  I could tell he was in a hurry—I remember those days in nightmares—but he pulled me into his office and made a speaker phone call to another friend and former partner (let’s call him Steve, and since his wife features in the story let’s call her Virginia).

“Steve, it’s Roy. Jeff’s here.  Tell him that story about your trip.”

“What, no photos?” I said.

“I’ll send you a couple.  One is of three of your fans waving to you.”  Steve always was a bit of a (loveable) wiseass.
Loyal Fans

He and Virginia are adventurous world travelers and I’m certain Steve doesn’t mind sleeping under the stars—as long as there are five of them.  Their journey this time began with a flight into the airport at Sittwe, a coastal town on the Bay of Bengal.  Sittwe is the capital of the western Burmese state of Rakhine.  It is the birthplace of British writer Hector Hugh Monro, better known by his pen name of Saki, and the town is badly in need of a better press agent.  As one travel site puts it, “Only an overnight stop is warranted here…to board a boat for the 50 mile journey up the Kaladan River or to start the day-long drive to remote and little-visited Mrauk U.”

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn
Having undoubtedly enjoyed Sittwe to no end, Steve and Virginia were off on their five-hour trip up river; an adventure I’m sure of the Bogie and Great Kate The African Queen (1951) variety putting Steve in generally the same state of mind as Captain Charlie Allnut. 

When the couple finally arrived at Mrauk Oo (or Mrauk-U if that helps you figure out how to pronounce m’yawk-oo) they must have been wowed.  How could they not?  It’s an ancient city surrounded by hundreds of significant monuments enshrining relics dating back to Buddha's lifetime.  Mrauk Oo is one of South East Asia’s splendid archeological sites; a glorious place forgotten both by time and the Ritz-Carlton.
Mrauk Oo

But enough about that, let’s get to the important part of Steve’s story.  I’ll let him pick up from here in his own words.

The Setting for the Story
“We were exhausted after the boat trip, standing in the lobby of this charming hotel in the middle of nowhere, trying to find out where—and what—we could eat when this gracious tattooed lady at the desk said, ‘Don’t worry, sir, I will take care of everything.  Please wait over there,’ and she pointed us toward a tiny room. ‘It’s our library.’

“Some library, a couple of bookshelves with maybe sixty books max, no more than a half dozen in English.”  

Yes, folks, I’m sure you can tell what’s coming.

“So there we were in the middle of nowhere, away from all ties to modern civilization, and what did I see staring me in the face but a copy of your book! Murder in Mykonos!” 
Cover of version published in Greece by Aikaterini Lalaouni Editions

I’m still smiling.  The writing life is valued by rewards of a different measure from those of my past, and this utterly unexpected one was priceless.

Thank you Steve and Roy for sharing, and Virginia for the photos.  It meant a lot.  And, yes, I think that hotel deserves five stars on Trip Advisor just for its discerning taste in literature.

PS.  And big congratulations to Leighton on the wonderful review Every Bitter Thing and Chief Inspector Mario Silva receive in tomorrow's New York Times Sunday Book Review!

Jeff — Saturday


  1. Jeff. Leighton got reviewed with his fourth book so maybe four is the magic number for getting the New York Times to say a few good words.

    I congratulate your friends on their intrepid nature. I could never do it. My travel destinations have to have museums and they can't have large bugs or reptiles.


  2. Jeff

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing it with us. January 4 for the new book. Time to pre-order methinks.

    Married to the Greek guy

  3. Beth,

    Who needs a magic number with friends like you!

    And, Jacquie, who needs anything more than a Greek husband. STOP, don't answer:))