Sunday, May 31, 2015

Looking For Someone To Hate? The ten most-hated professions in the UK

When I’m writing, I always love to play with people’s preconceptions about character and place. Just because I set FOURTH DAY in a cult in California, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean you know who the bad guys are going to turn out to be.

And although ROAD KILL was set predominantly in Northern Ireland, there was very little mention of the sectarian violence, which was still very much ongoing at the time. You have to be aware of it, because it shapes the landscape into which you set loose your cast of characters, but not to the point of cliché. I’ve featured motorcyclists in many of my books, and not a meth lab between them!

My villains have been a varied bunch – usually not the most obvious choice – and not all of them were thieves and gangsters from the off.

But when I recently came across this list of the ten most-hated professions in the UK, I thought it would be fun to reveal them here with a view to the villains yet to come:

Not hard to see why bankers make the list. In the past few years they seem to have encouraged folk to get themselves in debt up to their ears, over-stretched themselves, and then needed bailing out by the British taxpayer. They’ve taken the blame for the latest financial crisis, and are becoming ever more impersonal in their interaction with customers.

Bailiffs have the right to enter your home and seize goods to the value of the debt they’re attempting to recover. Their rights of entry to your property vary according to what kind of debt you’ve defaulted on. If they work directly for the County Courts and are coming after unpaid County Court Judgements (CCJs) or overdue taxes, you’re in trouble. Many bailiff services are now run by private companies, in which case they’re called Certificated Enforcement Agents, who can also carry out arrest warrants without needing a police officer present.

Traffic Wardens (Parking Attendants)
We’ve all heard the stories about traffic wardens ticketing cars for being a couple of inches out of line. I even heard one about a car that received two tickets after the driver had a heart attack at the wheel, pulled over and died still in his seat. Winter snows are a blessing in disguise for motorists, though, as if you can’t see the double-yellow lines clearly, you can’t be penalised for contravening the regulations forbidding you to park on them. On the other hand, there’s never a traffic warden about when somebody parks really badly …

Car Salesmen
I confess I’ve had cause to curse the occasional car salesman in my time. Being assured that a vehicle is ‘immaculate – you won’t find one better’ is infuriating when you drive for an hour, only to look at a rust-bucket. Always the odd good guy, of course, but there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

Estate Agents
I’ve met some delightful estate agents in my time, but I’ve also met some proper stinkers, who wouldn’t know how to value a house if their life depended on it. Why is it always a buyers’ market when you’re selling, but a sellers’ market when you want to buy? And even back when I worked as a professional photographer I had no idea what kind of lens estate agents used to make rooms so small appear so large on the brochure.

Independent Financial Advisors
Before the change in the law here, which now sees IFAs charging their clients a fee rather than relying on commission from the products sold, there were a lot of cases of mis-selling of unsuitable products. The Telegraph has just reported, however, that nearly a fifth of IFAs have ‘sacked’ clients with less than £50,000 to invest, preferring those with at least £150k to play with.

Well, what can I say about the legal profession that won’t see me in court? I’ll let this one speak for itself.

Telesales People
We all know they have a job to do, and they’re only trying to do their job, but do you know of anyone who has actually bought a product from some guy who cold-called them, at home, in the evening, just as the dinner had gone onto the table?

The difference about spammers is that, unlike all others on this list, I don’t think anybody ever has a good word to say about spam. It’s annoying, clogs up your computer, slips past the spam filter when you don’t want it to, and yet important perfectly innocuous emails end up trapped in the anti-spam software.

Tax Inspectors
They had to be there, didn’t they? Everybody has to pay tax … unless, of course, you’re a multi-million pound business who has somehow managed to evade/avoid the consequences. If the rest of us file our return a day late, or make an honest mistake, we will be hanged, drawn and quartered. (Or should that be chopped into 4.8 parts? That’s quartered plus 20% VAT.)

So, the next time you’re reading a crime novel, look out for one of the above professions as the chief baddie. Do you have any you'd like to add? The only obvious one missing from this list is politicians, but perhaps that’s just me being cynical. Or maybe that’s just a book I have yet to write …

This week’s Word of the Week is taeniacide, meaning the killing of tapeworms, or an agent – especially a drug – that kills tapeworms.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Another Acronym in the News

I am off to München.  Indeed, hopefully by now I’m there—assuming early Friday morning horridly stormy weather in Greece has not landed me elsewhere.

Ah, Munich. I love that city. So much to see, so much to do, and home to the legendary Fußball-Club Bayern München.  By football I’m referring to the padless sort drawing a religiously passionate following practically everywhere on our planet but the United States. Bizarre, isn’t it, how this week it’s been the USA—more specifically its Attorney General and FBI—drawing a bead on the future of the sport.

For those of you who’ve just emerged from a time warp, this week’s most widely covered story since mid-week has been the US’s declaration of prosecutorial war on the leadership of an acronym that has actually achieved world-domination. No, not ISIS or ISIL.  I’m talking about an organization exercising ultimate power over the global aspirations of 209 independent nations, and courted by economic powers such as Russia and Qatar as supplicants bearing gifts for its favors.

Yep, it’s FIFA.  Soccer’s Fédération Internationale de Football Association is back in the news with yet another scandal surrounding the nearly two decades’ reign of its ultimate ruler, Sepp Blatter. This time it’s the indictment of nine top FIFA officials by the US Justice Department on corruption charges.  Blatter is not charged (yet) but many see this scenario as following the time-honored prosecutorial strategy of getting those down the food chain to save themselves by making deals that will bring down the big guy. Time will tell.

What struck me most of all about the scandal is how so few reporting on the story seem at all surprised by the revelations.   That made me wonder about how much our values have changed in the last hundred years.

The 1919 World Series (that’s American baseball) triggered the infamous “Black Sox Scandal,” when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing games and the series to the Cincinnati Reds on behalf of gamblers.  It triggered outrage and a whole new way of running the game.  Most poignant to me was a reported exchange outside the courthouse between one of the players (Shoeless Joe Jackson) and a young boy who’d grabbed at his coat sleeve and begged of him, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” 

I wonder how the youth of today immersed in the game of soccer is responding to the FIFA scandal?  Sadly, I fear more with a shrug than disbelief. That seems to be the state of sport these days…and elsewhere.

The world is full of people with power and money doing as they please and getting away with it. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has put our Congressional and Executive Branches (more) into play on their behalf.  And around the world, leaders elected on promises of reform have not proven themselves immune from the seductions of the darker side of ultimate power.

Far too many in this world have been disappointed far too many times, for far too long, by far too many words. “They’re all alike,” is too often the common view held by the subjects of those in the public and private sectors charged with leading by example.

And still we wonder why so many young are drawn to extremes of drugs or politics—each promising a different order.  What else could one expect of young lives spent steeping in the frustrated disappointment of their elders?

We need look no further than FIFA for proof of all this.  Let us not forget who has been in charge of the world’s most popular sport, and who, by its leaders’ conduct, has shown generations of young the rules to play by.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Well, Christie Or Non Christie?

Well today I have a burning question for you all, something that is considered not really proper to talk about in polite crime writing  circles, although it is discussed and argued about, behind closed doors, whispers in the restroom,  murmurings in the cloisters and gossip at the vicarage.

So are you or aren’t you? Do you or don’t you?

Are you in my boat or out my boat?

Are you a devotee or a non believer?

Put simply, do you like Agatha Christie or not?
Are you with me and Sophie Hannah?  We believe that Agatha is a complex narrator of time and place, a shrewd observer of the human condition. Or are you with Lucy Mangan, who thinks Christie is not so much as a ‘whodunit’ but an ‘idontgeddit.’ And then there is some Chandler bloke who disliked Christie. But he wrote crime books and never put an innocent blonde in any of them so I am not listening to his opinion.

It is now a  popular pastime amongst upstarts  and pipsqueaks to ‘Christie bash’ and I will have none of it. She is often thought of as a master plotter and little else. Stereotypical characterisation, class ridden, often xenophobic are the criticisms flung her way.
Lucy Mangan in the Guardian reports that most of Christie’s time was spent on plotting and that, as a writer, she found the actual 'get the words on the paper stuff'' a bit of a chore.  Lucy quotes Christie; "I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right," she once said. She began with the crime and worked backwards. "Then, when you've got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing."
Mmm, well I too spend  a long time plotting. Is that not what crime writers do?  If I didn’t and the story didn’t pan out I’d have to go back and redo the whole thing. I looked up what Mangan writes as a novelist herself. Her book is called ‘Hopscotch and Handbags.’
So I think we are comparing apples and pears here. And I think the lack of a crime writers heart is bourne out by the fact she gave up on the book ‘ The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ‘ despite recommendations from her friends to read it, as she would never ‘get it.’

I am sitting here looking at my book case. It holds two books about the book ‘The murder Of Roger Ackroyd’ as that book nearly changed/destroyed crime fiction for ever.
PD James   was another non Christe-ite, objecting to her  "cardboard cutout characters" and likened her to "a literary conjuror . . . The American writer Edmund Wilson also objected to her on the grounds that he liked murders that happened "for a reason, rather than just to provide a body".

Well I have just listened to the Christie short story collection, the Tuesday Night Club. ( I think that’s what it is called. Does anybody else with Ipod and kindle devices suffer from the fact that they don’t get an image of the cover each time they pick it up and put it down? So the title can float past you?)
And what are the motives for murder in those stories? Love. Avenging love. Avarice. Politics. Religion.  Yip, pretty much what  crime writers have been writing about since the year dot. The only thing she really misses out on are serial killers, as they haven’t been thought of yet.
And reading about psychopathy nowadays, she was writing about it back then. She just called it something else. I agree you might have to dig a big bit deeper to get to the killer’s psyche but I argue that it is still there.
Take ‘Towards Zero’, one of my favourite Christie books. How far back are the seeds of murderous thought sown?  In Christie’s day it might appear simplistic, but the genesis of that idea is pure ‘Criminal Minds.’  Hotch would nail Neville Strange as the unsub I’m sure of that, but not until at least 40 minutes into the episode.
So, let’s get down and dirty. Over 4 billion (with a b, not an m) copies of her books sold since 1920. She is THHHHEEEE most translated author on the face of the planet.
Google gave her a logo of her own to celebrate her 120th birthday.

The case for the defence now rests. As we cannot trust the ‘Witness For The Prosecution.’

Caro Christie    29 05 2015

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Add this to your to-do list!

Given that a quarter of me hails from Bergen, Norway, and that I had recently read that a Viking settlement had been found near the mouth of the Hudson River, and that Minnesota, my other home, is home to the Vikings, I looked forward to visiting the famous Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, on the Roskilde Fjord, about forty kilometres west of Copenhagen.

I didn't realise what a gem it is.

View onto Roskilde Fjord from inside the museum

Another view onto Roskilde Fjord from inside the museum

A thousand years ago, Roskilde was the capital of Viking Denmark, and continued to be so for several hundred years.  At the time, it was a thriving town with extensive trade connections to all points of the compass.

Its success also brought danger.  Leaders from other parts of the sprawling Danish empire wanted to wrestle control away from Roskilde.  Knowing this, the inhabitants of Roskilde devised a plan to fend off attackers.

To reach Roskilde, an invading fleet would have to sail down the whole length of the Roskilde Fjord – a journey that would take several hours even in the very best conditions.  So Roskilde developed a series of signal fires from the mouth of the fjord.  Should enemy ships be seen, a fire would be lit.  A bit further down the fjord, spotters would see this and set fire to their own pile of wood.  And so on.  It wouldn’t take very long before the alarm would be raised in Roskilde itself, leaving time to muster the defences before the invaders' boats arrived.

To slow the advance of an attacking fleet even more, a barrier was erected in the shortest of the channels heading to Roskilde, near a place called Skuldelev, forcing the boats to take a longer route, which was guarded with a movable barrier.  The Skuldelev barrier comprised five different Viking boats that had been purposefully scuttled and filled with rocks to prevent passage.

They were found in 1962 and are known as Skuldelev 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.  Originally there were thought to be six ships, but later, researchers concluded that 2 and 4 were from the same ship, subsequently called 2.

And it certainly was one of those discoveries archeologists dream about – five different Viking boats, with much of the timber still intact.

Obviously there were enormous difficulties in recovering the boats – they were under water and had been so for a thousand years, the timber was incredibly delicate and could easily disintegrate if allowed to dry, and there were thousands of pieces lying around that needed to be numbered and classified in three dimensions so the entire scene could be recreated exactly.

The way they proceeded was to build a coffer dam around the boats, slowly drain the water, while at the same time keeping it wet through spraying, then proceed with the recovery.
Once recovered, instead of letting the wood dry out, archeologists sprayed it with a form of large-molecule polyethelene glycol (PEG 4000), which impregnates the wood, allowing it to be displayed in the air.

The coffer dam

Remains of a Viking longboat

Then they studied each of the ships and built frames as accurately as they could to support the wood they had found.  All five of these ships are in the museum.

Skuldelev 1 was a cargo ship about 16 metres long and 5 metres wide, displacing 21 tons.  It is 60% preserved.  Using principles of dendrochronology and the location of tree species, it is pretty certain that it was built in western Norway around 1030 from oak and pine.  A replica, called Ottar was built in 2000/2001.  

Remains of Skuldelev 1

Another view of the remains of Skuldelev 1

Ottar - replica of Skuldelev 1

Skuldelev 2 was an oak-built, sea-going warship, possibly of the skeid type.  It is approximately 30 metres long and 4 metres wide.  It would have had a crew of 70-80 soldiers and would have been very fast, with 60 oars and a large sail of about 110 square metres.  It is thought it was built near Dublin, Ireland, in about 1042, with wood from trees felled in a place called Glendalough.  It is 25% preserved.  The replica was built from 2000 to 2004 and called Havhingsten fra Glendalough (the Sea Stallion from Glendalough).

In 2007, the Sea Stallion, crewed by 65 men and women. returned to Dublin via the Orkneys and Shetlands, then journeyed back to Roskilde around the south of England.  You can see a short video of this epic journey at and a remarkable long video (90 minutes) by the BBC at  I highly recommend watching the longer one.  

Sea Stallion from Glendalough

Sea Stallion from Glendalough on sea trials

Watching these videos and given my propensity for sea sickness, I probably wouldn’t have been a Viking marauder.

Skuldelev 3 was a cargo ship, 14 metres long and 3 metres wide, possibly of the Byrding type.  It is made from oak and was constructed in Denmark.  It would have been ideal for shorter journeys around Denmark.  It was about 75% preserved.  The reproduction was completed in 1984 and called the Roar Ege.

Skuldelev 3 remains

Inside the Skuldelev 3

Skuldelev 3 at sail

Skuldelev 5 was a smaller warship, possibly of the Snekke type.  It was built of Danish oak, ash, and pine, partly by reusing timber from other ships.  It was about 17 metres long, 2.5 metres wide, and had a draught of only 0.6 metres, which made it almost amphibious.  It could move through extremely shallow water and be easily pulled ashore.  It had 13 pairs of oars and carried 30 fighting men.  It was found about 50% preserved.  Two replicas have been built:  the Helge Ask by the museum, and the Sebbe Als  by a private company. 

Skuldelev 5 replica Sebbe Als at sail

Skuldelev 6 was a combined fishing cargo vessel, about 12 metres long, 2.5 metres wide, and 0.5 metres draught.  It was about 70% preserved.  A replica, Kraka Fyr, is on view at the museum.

Kraka Fyr

What made the museum even more fascinating was that the replicas of all of the boats were made using the same tools and techniques as would have been used when the boats were originally built.  The museum is not only a ship museum, but also a ship-making museum, with sections making rope, sails, and so on.

Boat being built Viking style

But wait, there’s more!

All of the Skuldelev boats are displayed in a custom-built museum on the shores of the Roskilde Fjord.  It is truly stunning.

In 1997, construction started on a harbour next to the museum for the various replicas and other traditionally-built boats.  (Perhaps we should suggest that one be named the Rra Kubu.)  During the construction, nine other Viking boats were found, including the largest longboat ever found – it would have been 37 metres long (about 125 feet) – twice the length of Columbus’s Santa Maria.  Historians speculate that due to its immense size it could have been built for Cnut the Great (commonly known as King Canute).

Keel of longest longboat

The preservation of the timbers from these boats has taken years and employed more advanced techniques than those used on the Skuldelev boats.  Here’s a brief description of how they did it, taken from the informative Donsmaps website (
For the Roskilde ships, PEG 2000, a lower molecular weight form of the preserving agent was used, which penetrated the wood better. It acted as a stabilising agent, and acts as a cryoprotector during the freezing stage, when the wood is dried using a vacuum freeze drying process. The concentration was increased from 10% to 40% over a period of three years or more. The final impregnation was at 95% at 60° C or at 50% at 20° C depending on the degradation pattern. The drying period depended on the thickness of the objects and lasted from a few months to more than half a year. 

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship).

Restoring the great longboat
 The pieces need to be put into moulds in order to obtain the correct shape. At the time of excavation, complete and thorough 3D measurements of all the pieces was undertaken, making this possible. The moulds and wood were placed in the vacuum freeze-dryer and frozen to about -30° C. The ice is then sublimed by vacuum freeze-drying, which takes from 4 to 6 months, depending on the thickness of the objects. 
After conservation, the planks were dry, but not shaped to fit into the reconstructed ship. Moulds for each plank were prepared, and the dry, full PEG impregnated plank was placed on the mould and heated to 60° C in a humid chamber for several hours until the PEG melted and the wood became flexible. While still warm, the plank in the mould was given the correct curvature, fragments were connected with toothpicks or thin wooden and metal sticks and the wood left to cool and solidify. The plank was lifted to the supporting frame and mounted. 

Walking around the dock and seeing the replicas was an amazing experience.  I was totally gobsmacked by the museum and what they do.

Put it on your to-do list.

Stan – Thursday

Acknowledgements:  I have used materials and photos from Don’s Maps ( and from the English version of the museum website ( 

The museum also has a diorama of a hypothetical raid on Roskilde by a Norwegian Viking fleet.  It was in anticipation of such a raid that the barriers at Skuldelev were put in place.  The diorama is replicated on the Don’s Maps Viking website and very much worth reading.