Monday, January 31, 2011

beefcheek, yogurt and the King of France

"Beeefchhekk," my French neighbor Isabelle was saying...yes I'm making beeffchheek".
She grinned "I found a new butcher, today he had a whole half PIG in the window."
A Parisienne, Isabelle, looked thrilled that she'd found a great butcher in San Francisco near the French school where she teaches.
It took a few seconds for me to twig that yes, she must mean beef cheeks or maybe that was tete de veau? A brown sauce simmered on the stove.
Isaballe cooks little pastry puffs with mushrooms, can whip up a gallette de roi with almond filling in a few hours. She flings these culinary delights together in her small kitchen with a sang froid, I envy. One time she admitted, yes, in the interest of time, she'd used a store bought pate brise, but of course it was imported from France, full of butter. Brittany butter. Her husband Andi, no slouch, makes foie gras at Xmas
Isabelle and Andi, appreciate and savor ingredients. Cooking is part of their life. But they wouldn't call themselves 'foodies'. In America we might. But for the French, food embodies a way of life, an important thread that holds friends, families and work mates in a weave. It's a way to celebrate and enjoy, not a chore, but something they enjoy doing. Cooking and eating.
And like many French friends after dinner she eats yogurt. So I asked her why?
Isabelle grinned and said I will tell you about the discovery of the Yogurt.

It happened in very ancient times, she said, at the fringes of the Balkan peninsula and Turkey that one started to find the first trace of the yogurt in the local population.
In France, Isabelle said, we had to wait until the reign of François 1st (1515-1547) to see yogurt for the first time. The King was suffering from chronic intestinal disorder and he found a Hebrew speaking doctor who'd settled in Constantinople and specialised in curing such problems. According to Isabelle, the doctor visited the French royal court and for several weeks gave the king daily treatments composed of fermented ewe milk dairy products.
The king was cured and the doctor went back home, covered with gold, with his secrets and without anyone knowing what and how.
Thereafter, Isabelle continued, the yogurt disappeared for a long time ...
Until 1901, when Metchnikoff, the Russian scientist, was researching at the Paris Institute, on the aging of the European population.
He discovered that the Bulgarian people lived far longer than most wealthy Europeans. He conducted research studies to find the cause and discovered that long living poor Bulgarians fed themselves almost only with fermented dairy foodstuff called 'yogurts'.
Metchnikoff ordered a few liters of it to conduct chemical analysis. He isolated the first bacteria: watched the fermenting process and named it 'Bulgarius Lactobacillus'.
Then Metchnikoff isolated a second bacteria responsible for the pitching of the milk - Streptococcus Thermopilus - which was a taste bringing bacteria.
People in France, Isabelle related, began to culture and make yogurt but for only medicinal and digestive purposes. Moreover, when the French army came back from the Thessalonika campaign with very serious instestinal problems, the official doctors cured the sick soldiers with yogurt.
With excellent results the reputation spread into the ears of a young Spanish entrepreneur who, during the Roaring Twenties, took advantage of the new interest among European women for keeping a thin profile, he decided to launch the 'yoghurt fashion'.
European women, Isabelle said, grabbed those small yoghurt pots to get a thin profile.
This Spanish entrepreneur, called Carasso, built a small factory unit in Barcelona and achieved a real commercial success. His son Daniel, forecasting an even greater need of the market, decided then to cross the French-Spanish border and settled a bigger factory in France.
Even today, the brand name still resounds all over the world, Danone. Eh voilà, you have the discovery of the yogurt according to my French friend Isabelle.
Cara - Tuesday

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Strawberry Fields

Just spent an amazing day at the Cerritos Public Library, south and east of Los Angeles.

The event was the annual "Mystery on the Menu" -- 180 patrons, 15 mystery writers, several panels, a great lunch, and a fine buy&sign event to follow.

Lots of good writers and friendly library users, but the star was the library itself.

That's it, up there -- towering curves of hammered titanium inspired by Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum, that house one of the most beautiful and functional spaces I've ever been in.

This library should be a national destination and a national model for community priorities and self-reliance.  Attention has been paid to absolutely everything, with special emphasis on kids.  This is the entrance to the children's library.

The TV monitors are beamed from a camera that's pointed at a bench just to the right of the entrance. Kids sit there and mug at the camera and scream all the time -- they're superimposed onscreen over an animated dinosaur that keeps bending down to eat them.

To the left of this entrance is a floor-to-ceiling aquarium that kids flock to; it forms one wall of the kids' space.

And inside the children's library, what else?  A tyrannosaurus and a cloudy daytime "sky" that slowly changes from day to night and back again.  And kids -- kids with books -- everywhere.

But the library hasn't forgotten about older users.  This is one of the computer terminal areas.

There's so much more that I could take two more days to show you the pictures and talk about it.

Here's what's astonishing.  The library is 100% paid for, funded by the community and the merchants who do business there.  The community floated and subscribed to their own bond issues, contributed through "Friends" organizations and, essentially, made the library a primary community priority.  At one point, when expenses got out of hand, a proposal was made to sell the whole thing to the state, and the community voted it down and ponied up.

 And Cerritos, while not a depressed area, is no Beverly Hills, either.  They made a decision that a library should be one of the hearts of the community and they stood by the decision for forty years of building and rebuilding.

When the commitment to this institution was first made, the ground the library stands on was used for growing strawberries. In fact, the first groundbreaking -- in April, 1972 -- was postponed for several months to let the final crop of berries mature.  That knocks me out.

Cerritos is a widely diverse community -- mainly pan-Asian, but also white, Latino, and African-American -- with a broad spectrum of socioeconomic levels.  And it's got books at its heart.

Oh, and it's also home to the top-performing high school in California. (And the third best in America, according to U.S. News & World Report.) Gee, wonder if there's any connection.

Tim -- Sunday

Houston, We Have a Problem.

Yes, I’m afraid you do, oh fourth largest city in the United States.  Let’s be honest, if someone says the name of one of America’s three more populated cities, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, there is an immediate sense of energy in the air.  But mention Houston—the true energy capital of the world—and the enthusiasm meter flatlines.

"Smokey City" Pittsburgh, midday 1940
I know that syndrome far too well, for I grew up in a place long-suffering from the same ailment: poor public image management.  To this day people ask me if Pittsburgh still is as smoke-filled as it was in the “old days.”  Since the skies over Pittsburgh have been clear since the late 1940’s, and Forbes Magazine (again) picked Pittsburgh as “America’s most livable city,” I’m not quite sure how to respond to such an ill-informed comment other than with a fist-pumping “GO STEELERS.”  [No offense intended to the wonderful folks of Green Bay, Wisconsin, but one must stick with one’s hometown football team in the Super Bowl, unless of course you happen to be the native Pittsburgher coach of the Packers.]
Sam Houston (1793-1863)

But this is not about expressions of civic pride for Pittsburgh.  This is about Space City/Bayou City/H-Town.  And there are at least a half-dozen more nicknames for that southeast Texas metropolis down by the Gulf of Mexico created by two New Yorkers (the Allen Brothers) in 1836 and named after the President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston.  Yes, Texas was indeed an independent country between 1836 and 1845 and some down here seem to long for those days to return.

As far as I can tell, Houston generally gets picked-on in one of three ways: for having hot humid summers, no zoning, and one of the fattest populations in the United States.  But the weather is really no different from Florida, there are beautiful residential communities to be found all over the city, and at least four other Texas towns rank higher than Houston on the “fat list.”  Besides, “Fat City” is the nickname for New Orleans.

Murder By The Book, Houston
So, why am I suddenly springing to the defense of a city I’m just coming to know? Answer: because it’s the right thing to do.  The fact my son and his family just moved there and I kicked off my book tour this week for Prey on Patmos at Houston’s wonderful Murder By The Book is purely coincidental.

What is the real Houston?  Let’s start off with a pithy description given to me by a Houstonian.  “Houston is Los Angeles without the pretensions.”  Having far more friends in Los Angeles than Green Bay, I hasten to say those are not my words, but at least it’s a place to start.

So, how do those two great cities compare?

Downtown Houston
Though both LA and Houston have distinct downtown areas, to get around either city you must live in your car because mass transit is virtually non-existent.  Nor does either have what most would consider traditional, neighborhood street life; rather each seems an amalgam of small towns connected by freeways.  Yes, Houston is flat while LA has its mountains and canyons, but that is a difference likely lost on most commuters plodding along on their respective, clogged rush-hour freeways.

Downtown Los Angeles
On the natural disaster front, LA has its earthquakes, Houston its hurricanes.  A tradeoff.

Both cities have terrific restaurants, shopping, and civic pride.  Both have lovely residential communities, though the price of a home in Houston is likely to be one-tenth that of a similar one in LA.

1956 film of Edna Ferber novel
But how can one possibly find a comparison in Houston to the glitzy intriguing world of LA’s Hollywood.  Simple, ever hear of Enron?  Yes, LA may have the movie business, but Houston has big oil, big gas, big medicine, and the U.S. Space industry.  When is the last time you heard a commercial on an LA radio station for Saudi Aramco oil soliciting teachers to relocate to Saudi Arabia?  Or on behalf of the C.I.A. offering career opportunities in the National Clandestine Services?  The stories filmed in LA arise out of lives lived in Houston.  [Okay, a bit dramatic, but you get the point.]

Stop! you say.  Everyone knows Houston is redneck, while LA is
Houston's Wunsche Bros. in Old Town Spring
chic and sophisticated.  Not sure what that means.  Yes, politics in Houston is more conservative than in LA, but isn’t the fairer measure of a people the way they treat others rather than the color of their necks?  Houston’s robust economy has and continues to welcome those fleeing difficult economic times elsewhere in the country, and let’s not forget how wide Houston opened its heart to the rush of New Orleans refugees fleeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Honorable Mayor of Houston

And, oh yes, this redneck, conservative town just elected a new mayor, Annise Parker.  A Democrat, female, and the first elected mayor of a U.S. city with over a million residents who is openly gay—something NYC, LA, and Chicago haven’t come close to doing.

Now, about managing that public image thing…win a Super Bowl (or seven), it does wonders.
Downtown Pittsburgh today
By the way, tonight (Saturday) at 5 PM I'll be at Poisoned Pen Books in Scottsdale, Arizona for a joint good time event and signing with Donis Case, Dana Stabenow, and Tina Whittle, and on Monday at noon I'll be at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  I'd mention my signing next Saturday at M is For Mystery in San Mateo, California, but I think I'll save that bit of BSP for next Saturday's piece.

Jeff – Saturday

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Village that Time Forgot

You're probably well aware by now that I have an interest in the lost or the missing, such as disused stations and tunnels, anything to which the term 'ghost' can be applied. Then you can imagine my excitement when I heard for the first time about a 'ghost village' in the UK. I've come across abandoned communities before, and visited one, Dunwich in Suffolk. But the people moved from Dunwich because of coastal erosion and while it was fascinating it had little of the creepy, ghostly feel I want from my deserted places.

Then I read about Imber, an isolated village on Salisbury Plain, just another dot on the map in Wiltshire. It's there in the Doomsday book, with a population of 50, and probably because it was so remote, its inhabitants hardly increased over the centuries. In the mid-20th century it is estimated 150 people lived there, but it boasted a glorious 700-year-old church, as well as a pub, and it seems like it was close-knit and friendly community. Until the Second World War.

Over several decades, the Ministry of Defence had been buying up swathes of Salisbury Plain for training exercises for troops. The outbreak of war increased the need for such land, as did the presence of American soldiers, who needed to practice fighting in built-up areas. So the War Office effectively conscripted a village, and Imber it was. The residents were given 47 days notice to evacuate their homes. As there was a war on, and everyone was keen to do their bit, they left, after being told they would be able to return in six months. Some even left a few canned goods and provisions in their cupboards. That six months soon became the duration of the war, but still few complained and they were compensated moderately for the inconvenience.

When the war was over, the MoD intended to repair the properties damaged during manouevres and let the people back. Or so they said. Nothing happened. The villagers kept asking questions about when they could go home. Eventually the MoD said they would never be able to return: the land was going to be kept for training purposes.

This obviously went down like a bucket of cold sick. The villagers organised public rallies in support of their return. In 1961 a public inquiry was held which, unsurprisingly, found in favour of the army. The only sop thrown by those in power was a promise to maintain the church, and to open it to the public for services once a year, on the Sunday closest to St Giles' day (St Giles being the name of the church.) However, there was to be no homecoming for the residents, though one exiled Imberite was allowed his last wish of being buried in the church graveyard of his former home.

Since then, Imber stands frozen in time. The houses and pub are dilapidated, damaged by the various exercises carried out there, though the pub sign still hangs; elsewhere, there are ugly concrete facades erected for training purposes. The church is kept up, and it is possible to visit the village on various days of the year. Something I fully intend to do, because the opportunity to wander around is too good to miss. Those who have been say it has an atmosphere all of its own.

Plus I want to know what happened to those cans of food.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Michael and I have just emerged from a torrid several weeks of responding to our UK editor’s suggestions for the third Detective Kubu mystery, Death of the Mantis.  The suggestions were excellent and have improved the book.  Of course, there was a short deadline because she wants to bring the South African edition out in May.
Death of the Mantis has as its back story the plight of the bushmen in the Kalahari.  However I’m not going to discuss that in this blog – perhaps later, after the current set of lawsuits has run its course. 
In our book we have created a fictitious place in the middle of the Kalahari, which we call The Place.  It is revered by Bushmen, who regard it as the most important religious and cultural site in their world.  In the real world, there is a similar place in the Kalahari, that the Bushmen regard as the birthplace of Mankind. 
The Male hill
It is called Tsodilo, and comprises four hills that rise abruptly out of the desert in northwest Botswana.  The largest hill is called The Male by the Bushmen.  It is the highest point in Botswana at 1,400 metres above sea level, rising 410 metres above the surrounding desert.  Then there is The Female; then The Child.  The fourth hill has no name, although it is thought to be the Male’s first wife, whom he left for the taller Female
The Female hill
The Tsodilo hills area was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.  The preservation is only 10 sq. km in extent (about 3.6 sq. miles).
There are probably two reasons for this proclamation.  First it has seen human habitation for 100,000 years.  The original inhabitants were probably the Bushmen, who are generally acknowledged as being the First People of the Kalahari.  There have also been a number of Black tribes, such as the Hambukushu, who have lived in and around the hills.  All of them regard the hills as sacred.
The Bushmen believe that the gods made mankind at Tsodilo.  They point to the knee-like impressions on The Male – the most sacred of all places - where the First Spirit knelt and prayed after creating men and women.  They believe that their ancestors and gods live in the caves and overhangs of The Female.  Similarly, the Hambukushu believe that their tribe and its livestock were put on earth at Tsodilo by their god, Nwambe.  They point to the hoof prints in rock on The Female in support of their belief.
The second reason for the proclamation of Tsodilo as a World Heritage Site is the stunning rock paintings – over 4500 in all.  Although I have not been able to find consensus as to their age, guestimates range from the oldest being 20,000 years old to being 2,000 years old.  It is probably one of the two or three richest sites on the planet for such art.
It is not only the number of paintings that is remarkable, but they frequently are of a different style than other sites, the nearest of which is 250 kms away.  When I went there, the most stunning painting I saw was that of two whales next to a penguin.  One whale is spouting.  The nearest ocean, the Atlantic off Namibia, must be 1000 kms away, across some of the most inhospitable and demanding terrain.
A penguin and two whales

The older paintings are in red, and the later ones sometimes in white – an unusual colour for rock art.  The red ones are made from red ochre extracted from hematite, which is plentiful in the area.

A common image at Tsodilo is of men with semi-erect penises.  I have read, but not verified, that it is typical of Bushman men to have a semi-erect penis as their everyday lives.  Some people think that the figure paintings represent a trance dance, which results in an altered state of consciousness in which, the Bushmen believe, the dancer can heal the sick and control the natural and supernatural.  The dancer can also communicate with the ancestors.

Bushmen with semi-erect penises

The highly controversial Laurens van der Post visited Tsodilo (The Lost World of the Kalahari).  In it he tells of when his party ignored the advice of his Bushman guide and killed a warthog and steenbok in sight of Tsodilo, which upset the spirits of the hills.  When they reached the hills, a camera inexplicably kept jamming, tape recorders stopped, and the party was attacked by bees.  These things only came to an end when Van der Post buried a written apology to the spirits below one of the spectacular rock faces.
I know Tsodilo is far off the normal tourist routes, but it is one of the special places on earth.  It is intensely spiritual, as well as providing a fascinating glimpse into the past.  If you visit southern Africa, I recommend that you put it on your itinerary.
Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oh dear

I am in a sour mood. Not surprising considering I have been invited to attend 2 Þorrablóts, exactly one year ago translated in a separate blog on the issue as: the Feast of Disgusting Food. Two weekends in a row I will enjoy the aroma and enticing taste of fermented animal parts that are usually not on any menu, left out for marketing reasons related to their lack of appetizing appearance (heads) or former function (testicles).

One of the parties is held at my firm for our largest clients, the opportunity to hobnob with those who pay for our work over rotten shark oddly enough not coming along too often. The other is held by a group of people originating from the area where I based my latest book, the ghost story taking place in the abandoned town in the remote Westfjords of Iceland. Both parties will of course be fun, aside from the cuisine these events tend to be enjoyable – as soon as your nose has clogged up. This turning point is in Icelandic referred to as "becoming one with the smell" and although you breathe more freely it is with the knowledge that every grain of your body and every particle of your clothing, now stink horribly.

There is more sour news from here up north – the election for the constitutional parliament that took place late last year has been deemed illegal, leaving the 25 representatives that were to take seats at the beginning of February out in the cold. Luckily for my candidate - naked ass sailor guy - he did not get voted in so he remains at sea, fishing, possibly still in a state of undress. For one of the oldest republics in the world this High Court ruling or revelation regarding the election is something unacceptable. Turns out that the voting process itself was in so many ways misshapen that a randomly chosen election for third grade class president in any school anywhere, would prove to be more professionally conducted. The blogoshpere and the media are out for blood in their search for culprits but I don‘t personally care much where the blame lies, it is more the crumminess of everything lately that has me worried. Who in their right mind prints traceable, numbered ballots? Uses cardboard semi-partitions placed on desktops to makes election booths? Or transports ballots in open shoeboxes to the counting office? Really? I don't even want to know the names of those responsible.  

One thing did make me smile today and that was an e-mail containing what was said to be the new form for the Icelandic tax return that will soon arrive. It was noted as being much simpler that previous forms and turned out to be just that. There were only three lines to fill out: 1) How much money did you make last year? 2) How much is left? 3) What are your account details so that we can withdraw it? The essence of our now crippling tax system has pretty much been captured, but the process is more appealing that what awaits. By all means, just get it over with and don't punish us unnecessarily with lots of paperwork. We will pay - we know our country needs money.

But at least Iceland is not Tunis or Egypt. I am sure they would swap with us any day, bloody riots for bogus ballots not such a bad deal. Unless the food would turn them off, deliciously spiced couscous for unsavory carcass parts probably won’t cut it.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, January 24, 2011

What the French were obsessing about last week

Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Should a country celebrate the work of one of its most venerated writers of the 20th century, even if he was also notorious as a vociferous anti-Semite?

That's the dilemma French officials struggled with last week, as they readied to honor Journey To the End of Night author Louis-Ferdinand Céline amid objections they'd be paying tribute to an unrepentant Nazi supporter. When I read Céline, a man of contradictions, his work gobsmacked me. As a doctor he treated the poor, prostitutes and worked almost exclusively with the underserved. His life was a maze of contradictions yet his novels are amazing. He grew up in the Passage Choiseul, near the Palais Royal, in a mezzanine space above his parents shop of which he writes scathingly. The son of shopkeepers, he left school, travelled, did odd jobs but later passed stringent entrance exams and put himself through medical school. No mean feat in France.

But the controversy erupted last week when French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld went public with his hostility to an annual event celebrating figures from France's cultural pantheon that, this year, includes Céline. I posted about Serge Klarsfeld's work last year,

Journey To the End of Night remains one of the most translated books on the planet, and Céline's status as one of the most influential authors in the past 100 years remains intact. However, Klarsfeld maintains it's impossible to separate the artistic accomplishments of a man who, elsewhere, used those same talents to write ferociously anti-Semitic screeds--and whose support of the Nazis and flight to Hitler's Germany earned him a prison term and stamp of “national disgrace” from a post-war French court.

"Céline's anti-Semitism is a discredit to him as a both man and as a writer…(and) his talent must not allow us forget the man who called for the killing of Jews during the Occupation,” Klarsfeld said on Jan. 20, when he called for Céline to be stricken from the event the following afternoon. “The Republic must respect its principles.”

Richard Prasquier, president of the umbrella organization assembling most of France's Jewish movements concurred: “This writer spent the last years of his life in anti-Semitic madness. I can understand him being the object of a colloquium, but not a national celebration.”

By noon Friday in Europe, it appeared French government and cultural officials were intent on retaining Céline in the ceremony when it would begin last Friday despite protests. The reason? Though the author's hateful anti-Semitism is indisputable, Céline experts such as Sorbonne professor Henri Godard argue what's being honored is the equally incontestable mark his legitimate work left on French and global literature. Ignoring that, he contends, would be a similar denial of his place in literary history as turning a blind eye to his infamy as an anti-Semite would be in examining his entire life.

Though that sounds convincing to some, it now seems clear whether Céline remains among the French artists honored Friday afternoon or is pulled at the last minute, the controversy surrounding the event means no one attending will feel much like celebrating. Celine is also the author of three pamphlets violently anti-Semitic, including his widow, still alive, refuses to reissue since the end of the war.

Quite the paradox is Louis-Ferdinand Celine - 1894-1961 - since he's often considered the greatest French writer of the twentieth century with Marcel Proust. In 1962, a year after his death, the anthology of Lagarde and Michard, bible for generations of students, already summed it all: "The hatred that were thrown into excess: Bagatelles pour un massacre (1938), Ecole corpses (1939), Fine Linen (1941), have they ever disfigured the face of Celine?

"One can love Céline without being an anti-Semite as one can love Proust without being a homosexual!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy quipped during a visit to India in 2008. While Sarkozy’s reasoning was peculiar, it nonetheless reflected a dilemma that many lovers and caretakers of French literature wrestle with: how, and even whether, to honour the late author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Half a century later, the disorder remains intense. Céline's still in the center of controversy. In the NYReview of Books Wyatt Mason has a penetrating article on uncovering Celine that goes into depth

Update - Mitterand the minister of Cultural Affairs, and no stranger to controversy himself over the 'novel' he wrote in the 90's concerning tourist pedophiles in Thailand, has stricken Celine from the list.
Cara - Tuesday


In 2009, when Bouchercon was being held in Indianapolis, a gang of us went out to dinner.

The inimitable Peter Rozovsky ( )
was walking next to me when we entered the restaurant.

This was the mural facing us on the wall:

“Ha!” said I. “Picasso. Les Demoiselles de Avignon.”
“Ha!” said Peter. “Matisse. La Danse.”
Peter, of course, was right.
He usually is.
Les Demoiselles de Avignon is this one:

I knew that.
I really did.
I just…misspoke.
That’s my story anyway.
And I’m sticking to it.

What’s this got to do with plagiarism?
Bear with me.
I’m getting there.

Flash forward to the first hours of New Year’s Day, 2011.
During the celebration on Copacabana Beach the symbol for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was unveiled:

If you haven’t got time to watch the video (2 minutes and 57 seconds), cut right to the chase and look at this:

And, now, compare it with this:

It’s the logo for the Telluride Foundation,   a Colorado-based organization that exists to promote philanthropy.

See any similarity?
Lots of folks do.

They allege that the Telluride logo was directly lifted from the Matisse.

And take away the legs and the red dancer from the Telluride logo,  and you’ve got the Olympic logo.

Fred Gelli, of Tátil Design, the Brazilian agency that created the logo, says no.
He acknowledges that there are similarities between the two, but is unwilling to go any farther than that.

His detractors say the similarity is just too great, that even the color dispersion is nearly identical.

I asked Peter Ratcliffe, a designer who’s been doing some book covers for me, what he thought.
He said yes to inspiration, no to plagiarism.

And thought it was a cool idea that the Brazilians have come up with the first 3-dimensional Olympic Symbol:

What do the rest of you folks think?

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Edgar Allan Who?

On Wednesday, January 19, 2011 -- Edgar Allan Poe's 202nd birthday -- my thriller The Queen of Patpong was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America as Best Novel of 2010.

I've argued with myself over whether to write about this here, and I'm happy to say I won the argument.  This kind of thing doesn't happen all that often, and it's easily the most interesting event of my week.

It's especially interesting because it follows my being dropped by HarperCollins, which had dampened my spirits substantially.  It also follows my agent's brilliant inspiration to ask HarperCollins, who were feeling a little guilty, to return to us the audio book rights, with which they had done nothing.  Within 24 hours of the Edgar nomination, we signed a very sweet deal for the audio.  And we get to keep all the money.

Now I want to know who's going to be reading the books aloud.

So as of today, Poke is Edgar-nominated but homeless and about to make the transition to audio.

One other thing HarperCollins hadn't done much about was foreign rights.  The day after the Edgar nominations were announced, an international e-newsletter called "Publishing Perspectives" led its front page with a suggestion to publishers all over the world that they take a look at The Queen of Patpong and three of the other nominees in different categories.  I hope somebody reads the newsletter in Japan and Germany, because those are the two "big" markets (in terms of advance) where Poke has not been sold.

The full list of Edgar nominees in what I like to think of as "my" category is:

Caught, Harlan Coben
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin
Faithful Place, Tana French
The Queen of Patpong, Yours Truly
The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton
I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman

That's a strong list, although I have no idea why all seven of the writers on this site aren't on it. Year in and year out, there's one book that didn't get on many people's radar and makes them scratch their heads and go, "Huh?" and this year I wrote it.

If I'm going to be honest, I have to say that the nomination completely and totally blindsided me.  I hadn't given it a thought.  The world is such a small place these days that the first person to send me congratulations was Ken Bruen, over in Ireland.  Then the e-mails came in twenty and thirty at a time, and all my friends at Murder Is Everywhere were among the early responders.

So, world, what's next?

Tails of the Piano Bar

Montparnasse Piano Bar, Mykonos, Greece

Plus Tales.

During tourist season it seems at times that the entire world is on holiday on Mykonos.  Age, race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual preference makes no difference; that Aegean Greek island is popping for everyone.  But of all the nightspots catering to the myriad sorts contributing to Mykonos' 24/7 in season lifestyle, just one brings everyone together.  For thirty years, tourists, locals, yachters, Broadway and West End performers, have flocked to the Piano Bar, now located amid the narrow lanes of Little Venice as the Quartier Latin-style Montparnasse Piano Bar sitting at the edge of the sea across a bay from Mykonos’ signature windmills.
Little Venice at sunset

Steve Allen and Jane Meadows
It is the Aegean’s “La Cage au Folles,” sans dancers, for here it’s all about cabaret.  And if you think that guest from the audience who did a song or two seemed familiar, you may be right, for between sunset and two in the morning—when everyone’s off to continue the night in the island’s ‘til sunrise clubs and discos—the Piano Bar is a must stop for visiting musical theater folk.

Nikos and Jody, Proprietors
The Piano Bar is the creation of Nikos Hristodulakis and Jody Duncan, and they’re behind the bar every night, amassing more stories than O’Henry.  I’ve been trying for a while to persuade them to share some tales, hopefully the juicier ones.  They’ve agreed to test the waters, so here’s their first one, chased with a recipe for one of their most popular cocktails. 

Montparnasse Piano Bar Tale #1:  “The Red Hot Mama,” as told by a blond Jody leaning over the bar and ignoring the dark-haired Niko making faces behind him.
Mykonos' Grand Diva, Phyllis Pastore

The place was dead.  It emptied out right after Phyllis’ midnight set.  That happens sometimes.  No matter, it will fill up for her one o’clock gig.  Everybody loves her here.  Some say they come to Mykonos “just to see Phyllis.”  And she believes them.  She should, she’s the Grand Diva of the island when it comes to cabaret and loves to accessorize her songs with props­–none more famous than her bright-yellow foam rubber, McGuire sisters’-style wig and trumpet-shape, silver kazoo.  The kazoo is reserved for her nonpareil performance of “Dr. Jazz,” the Dixieland staple written by Joe “King” Oliver in 1926 and covered by such other notables as Jelly Roll Morton and Harry Connick, Jr.—but none with quite the style of our Phyllis.

So, there I am talking to one of the waiters, and thinking about what kind of mischief I could get into to kill time, when he asks if Phyllis is going to do Dr. Jazz in her next set.   That got me to thinking about Dixieland, which led to thoughts of New Orleans, and on to the subject of…Tabasco!

The scene of the crime
Phyllis was outside the front door talking to some fans, so I told the waiter to grab the kazoo from her basket of props in front of the piano.  With one eye on the door I soaked the mouthpiece in Tabasco and had it back in the basket before she was back inside the bar.  Now it was only a matter of time.  I couldn’t wait to see her face.

But as the set wore on no one shouted up a request for Dr. Jazz and Phyllis hadn’t even glanced at the kazoo.  This was not looking good.  How could I get her to sing?  I used the old standby.  Cash.  An anonymous written request accompanied by 500 drachmas to the piano player for Phyllis to perform Dr. Jazz guaranteed that kazoo would soon be heading toward her lips.

By now I couldn’t restrain myself and had shared my brilliant plan with several regulars sitting at the bar [“With me too,” says Niko waving from behind].  To be honest, most were horrified and thought it childish…but if the shoe fits… Besides, even the most critical were fascinated at how Phyllis would respond.  After all, she was Italian.  And not a word of warning went out from the crowd.

So, on went the wig, and out came the lyrics for Dr. Jazz, “Hello Central give me Dr. Jazz…” At the point where the lyrics took a break and the piano player took over, Phyllis did as she always did, told the audience that she wanted to be part of the band and picked up her kazoo.

I’m in stitches, almost convulsions.  Here it comes.  The eruption is about to blow, we’re all going to be dead for sure, but what a way to go….  You guessed it, absolutely nothing happened.  Tepotah.  Phyllis played her kazoo as she always did with not even a twitch of discomfort across her angelic face. 

"Curses, foiled again!"
When she’d finished, she calmly and deliberately put the wig and kazoo away, picked up the microphone and said to the packed house, “When I’m in Mykonos I stay with Jody and Niko.  Well, one of my roommates, no doubt the nasty blond one, must have thought it would be funny to pepper up my kazoo.”  She cleared her throat.  “Would someone please tell him that, yes, it did burn my lips, but there was no way I was going to give him the satisfaction of a reaction.  At least not now.  Please tell the convulsing gentleman behind the bar that, payback will be hell, and he’d best sleep with one eye open for the rest of his practical joking life!”
Good conquers evil

That took place more sleepless years back than I care to remember and I’ve matured since then [please take notice of Niko in the background rolling his eyes], so I wish to make a (Tabasco free) peace offering to our still dear friend and performing star.  For the first time anywhere Niko and I are revealing our “ultra-secret” recipe for Phyllis’ favorite cocktail, the Montparnasse Piano Bar Chocolate Martini.  Ours is clear—not one of those dark and creamy concoctions you find elsewhere—so it passes as a regular martini, but one taste and you’ll never go back to the others.

Montparnasse Piano Bar Tail #1, the Chocolate Martini:
Start with a chilled martini glass and roll the lip in powdered cocoa or chocolate.
Fill a martini pitcher or mixing glass halfway with ice.
Add 3 ounces of Vodka, along with 1 ounce of White Crème de Cacao (both clear spirits).
Stir well and strain into the rimmed martini glass.
Drop in a chocolate covered almond as a final treat at the end, but no fingers allowed, you must drink your way to the bottom. 

Thanks, fellas, see you next month.

Jeff — Saturday

Friday, January 21, 2011

From the Deep

I'm a bit of a Titanic nerd. Or at least I am now. I was always interested in the sinking, but, because of the project I'm involved with, during the past year or so I calculate I've read more than twenty books on the disaster, as well as a number of journals and newspaper cuttings, archived records and online reports. It's an endlessly fascinating saga, which throws up so many questions and mysteries (not just the obvious ones about why it was going so fast despite all the warnings about ice, but less explored conundrums, such as: given all the ice warnings, and the fact other ships in the area saw numerous icebergs and fields of pack ice, are we really expected to believe that Titanic hit the first berg it came across? The reality is almost certainly that the ship was passing icebergs right and left before it struck the fatal one, which makes those responsible even more negligent and reckless.)

However, reading all these books, and there are several new ones released each year, addressing all these unanswered questions, watching documentaries about people diving to the bottom of the ocean searching for clues as to why it sank, it becomes easy to forget that what caused it to sink isn't really that important. The time for justice has passed. Lessons have been learned. What is often glossed over is that Titanic was a human tragedy, a loss of life on a vast scale. Talk of floating palaces, icebergs, confused helm orders and watertight compartments forget that men, women and children, many of them the poorest on board, died freezing, agonising, often prolonged deaths. In all the theories and conjecture, much of which seems to have been hijacked by naval architects and engineers intent on arguing the toss over at what degree angle the glancing blow was struck, the simple story at the heart of it all gets lost, and that's the tale told by the passengers.

I was reminded of this when I went to the Titanic Artifact exhibition at the O2 in London this week, a collection of objects salvaged from the deep over the past 25 years. Items like small pieces of hull, or onboard equipment like the crow's nest bell are all fascinating enough. Yet the real impact comes from the human items that have been recovered: a crumpled top hat; a boot; a pair of ladies' stockings; tiny vials of perfume; a postcard of the Houses of Parliament; endless mundane little objects that formed part of the luggage of those one board. It was enormously humbling. Around me schoolchildren scampered to and fro, burbling excitedly; ordinarily at an exhibition this would be unbearably annoying, but seeing them so rapt by what they were witnessing was actually very encouraging.

Much is made of the lessons learned from the sinking of Titanic. It has become a cliche; anything of any import that meets a sticky end trails with it a reference to the Titanic (my favourite subversion came via spoof chat show host Alan Partridge, when a guest indicated his dire opening show meant his new series was about to endure the same fate as Titanic. 'Titanic? Titanic?' he rants. 'Let me say this. What people forget about the Titanic is that there were four days of very serene, pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg.') The fact is, we do ignore the lessons at our peril. It might never happen again, but you don't have to look far to see that man's hubris, his willingness to ignore the power of nature, has hardly died out. A volcano erupts in Iceland, bringing the airline industry to a halt across much of Northern Europe. Rather than sitting in awestruck wonder at ability of nature to remind us her of her powers, the newspapers are filled with moaning minnies complaining that we are too mollycoddled and weak to even put ourselves at the slightest risk. I'd like to think the kids staring at that crumpled top hat, or putting themselves on the deck of the listing ship, being separated from their fathers and brothers, and loaded on to lifeboats in the middle of the night (if they were lucky) might grow up with a different view.

But I hope the lesson they don't learn is one that many books preach and celebrate, about forbearance, the stiff upper lip, meeting one's doom with a brave face and other baloney. I can live without reading one more word about stoicism and the heroism, and all the myths and tales used to prove it, like how the band played as the great ship went down. 'Music to get drowned by,' Joseph Conrad called it: ' would have been finer if the band on the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing - whatever tune they were playing, poor devils...There is nothing more heroic in being drowned very much against your will, off a holed, helpless big tank in which you bought your passage, than in quietly dying of colic caused by the imperfect salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer.' 

Hear, hear. Reading through much of the contemporaneous reports and inquiry transcripts, a rather nasty, snobbish racism emerges; the upper class English speaking folk took their fate like they should, without much ado, or any kind of show, unlike the 'continentals' and the penniless who screamed and ranted, and tried to get off the ship in all kinds of ways, even - shock horror - jumping into the lowering lifeboats! Egads. 'Be British,' Captain Smith was rumoured to have urged crew and passengers at one point, which presumably meant meekly and humbly accepting your death at the hands of others incompetence and negligence. I'm reminded of the joke: 'I hope I die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. And not shouting and screaming like the passengers in his car.'


Dan - Friday