Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's Halloween! Or is it?


Halloween is tonight. BOO!

In past years I’ve generally ended my six months in Greece on this day.  My reasoning was simple.  Returning to New York City on Halloween meant that many of the same characters I’d grown used to seeing on Mykonos would be out in force on the streets of Manhattan.

Besides, I wasn’t missing out on any Greek ghouls or goblins (at least not of the unelected sort), because Halloween is virtually non-existent in Greece, except by expats for their children and some places catering to tourists.  That’s not meant to suggest Greeks don’t like to party in costume—the ancients invented it.  Modern Greeks do it big time during Apokries, a three-week festival preceding Greek Orthodox Lent (think February), also known as Carnival.  I’ve described those festivities of Lent before (It’s Mardi Gras Time in Greece), but today I thought I’d concentrate on the costumes.

As reported a few years back on a website called Hubpages :

Adults dress up and throw parties or frequent the town cafes and bars dressed in masks, wigs and funny, scary or risqué costumes. For example men often dress up as outrageous women with high heels, short skirts, huge inflated false boobs and an overdose of lipstick, blusher and false eyelashes. Others may dress up as priests or wear masks of well known politicians, actors or film characters. They often carry props such as plastic battons, streamers, confetti, tins of foam, whistles and clackers; all adding to the rowdy party atmosphere.

Children - even babies - enjoy the fun too of course... masquerade parties are held in villages and schools for the young ones, who dress up in all manner of costumes from witches and warlocks to telly tubbies and angels.

Masqueraders use their disguises and masks to call anonymously at the houses of friends and neighbours, who try to guess their identities.

Cakes and sweets are offered to the masquerading children on these house calls, or shots of whisky or the local fire water to adults in disguise. This is usually a ploy to entice the masquerader to remove his mask to uncover his identity!

 So similarly there is a kind of trick or treating here in Greek Apokries, but ..... they get to do both. The treat is offered - the sweet, cake or whisky, but is then usually followed by the trick - throwing confetti, streamers or foam all around the house (yes I know it's tame, and just in fun, but you try cleaning up tons of the stuff from your carpet!).

At the end of the three-week period Apokries culminates with the Grand Carnival Parades which are held all across Greece. The largest and most famous of which is held in Patras. There are also large parades held in Athens and in Rethymnon, Crete, amongst many others.

Tonight will be NYC’s turn to show how dress up is done big time in the Big Apple with the famed Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.

But I’ll be in Portland Oregon. :(  Then again, there’s still a chance I’ll meet up with some bizarre, not from this planet creature.  After all EvKa has promised to join up with Tim Hallinan and me at Annie Bloom’s Books for our joint book event this Monday, November 2nd, at 7 PM.

I’m so afraid.


Friday, October 30, 2015

The Tale Of The Marionettes.

During and after the war, the west of Scotland accepted a large amount of Italian migrants, mostly from the area around Barga. They integrated well into the community, setting up coffee bars, ice cream parlours and restaurants. All the great ice cream makers in Scotland are Italian, all the ice cream vans have names like Porrelli or Paraducci. The world famous Nardini empire might have been broken up by a family feud but, as it is an ill wind that blows no froth off a cappuccino, it means that we now have a Nardini's ice cream parlour and coffee shop right in the west end of Glasgow, where I set my novels.
And where I need to go for research.

The old puppet theatre

A family called Girasole moved from Barga into the West End of Glasgow around 1937 and started the Girasole Puppet Theatre ( the tiles of the premises above had a rather elegant Art Deco style  sunflower on each of the arches) which became the West End Puppet Theatre, which became the World Famous Vinicombe Street Puppet Theatre although its fame never really spread much further than Vinicombe Street itself.  It was a marionette theatre.  Automatonophobia is the fear of marionettes which is irrational and therefore a true phobia.  Pupaphobia is fear of puppets in general and as I would not like to meet Miss Piggy down a dark alley when I had chocolate and she was hungry, it is a true fear, therefore not a phobia.

In its hey day, the  building above had the two outer windows draped in red velvet curtains, blood velvet, huge swathes of them. Another curtain covered the upper portion of the central window and the puppets  of the moment would hang below, backdropped by some  appropriate scenery, bracketed by the sunflowers.  Did they move? Sometimes they did, pulled by invisible strings from the master puppeteer hidden behind the upper curtain. You can imagine the consternation of the passing shoppers, minding their own business, thinking about what to make for the tea and then out the corner of their eye they see the window display dance around. It was rumoured that the police told them to stop doing it as crowds of people stood and watched, causing an obstruction on the Queen's highway. This was in the 50's, way before Ipads.

As a kid, primary seven, our class went to see the Girasole Puppet Theatre, I think it was then billed as the greatest puppet show on earth.

I recall getting off the bus, full of  fizzy juice and sweeties and the building in front of me was this one ...

Which looks much more like a theatre than the theatre does. It's now a night club/eatery.

It still has the painted seahorse on the side of the building.

The road is a dead end on to the main road of Byres Road and these building are right at the corner. 


So the bus blocked the view of what was across the street. We ran up the side alley to what we thought was a stage door. Oh it was so exciting. Probably made more exciting with the inherent sense of danger to one who believed then, as I still do, that puppets have a desire to kill the human race and are probably in league with those master criminals the teddy bears. However I digress.

Mrs Babbapulle  told us all to get back into line. The bus reversed to reveal the puppet theatre 
in all its red velvet glory. .

Signora Girasole was a flamboyant character. She always started the show off, walking in front of the stage with the presence of an  opera diva on her day off, Her hair was jet black, cottage loaf style, her make up was  severe,  her manner was severe.  She would tell us what was going to happen, then a puppet fluttered down.  It was based on Tinkerbell obviously, probably just a mix of  fine lace, glitter and two bits of chicken wire on a string but we were impressed.  She would tell us the moral of the story - they always had a moral - but before she finished the  naughty boy puppet would appear and make rude gestures behind her back. It was pantomime. Her face never cracked.

Reading up on them now, the story is quite sad. She had been an actress and designed the puppet clothes and  their make up, their facial set if you like. Her husband was a master craftsman, a puppet maker  who specialised in marionettes. The show we saw was called The Enchanter, a cross between  Babes in the Wood and Peter  Pan.

 After five minutes you forget that they are puppets.

Then tragedy struck and the theatre was sold,  and bought over to become a garage which it has been for the last thirty years or so- the sign on the tiles outside now says the Botannics Garage.

Recently, the puppets, the scripts and the costumes have all come to light and are up for auction.

The premises are in a smart, trendy part of Glasgow. This building below is the public swimming baths, you can just see the old theatre at the end of the street.

Across Byres Road is the lane we went looking for on our quest for the old Girasole residence. These lanes are common in Glasgow. The property here is the most expensive in the west coast so every nook and cranny is now occupied.  I live ten minutes from here in a 130 year old four bedroomed  house with a two bedroomed granny flat in the huge garden and all that costs less than a one bedroomed flat here!

The Girasoles lived down here, a short walk to work - the back end of their  house had been converted for the puppet workshops.
We saw the back of this house

with a tailor's dummy in the window.

 We saw this tiny garden, a house built in what was obviously a stable or an out house.

Then we saw something that looked rather familiar from the news pictures I had seen.

This building turned out to be ...

 a garage within a big sliding door.

This looked like it. A white house with beautiful Rennie Mackintosh windows. It runs into the back of the tenement flat that would have been  the dwelling house.

The current owners have converted it into a house and added some modern Rennie Mackintosh designs.

Imagine this little lane being your walk to work, it is incredibly quiet - less than two minutes walk from the West End Hilton!

Going the other way.

The back door architecture. The steps down show just how much people have burrowed under to use every scrap of land.

Behind the gardens sits a  home - well a secure living facility - for the elderly. We could tell it was it by the very ornate fire escape at the rear.  Was this where Signora Girasole lived out her later years?

These windows have a magnificent view over the gardens and the city. These are locked gardens that belong to those that live in the surrounding square - each house has a key. The gardens do not allow children, dogs, or playing with a ball.  They are there for quiet contemplation and peaceful thought which you probably need after driving round for forty minutes to find a parking place.

It is rumoured that Mrs, sorry Signora Girasole lived out her final days here, staring out the window and talking to her puppets in Italian.  She had one son, who had one son and that son is now fighting for the remaining puppets  and  more importantly to him, the original plans of their puppets that his grandfather so carefully laboured over. The meticulous costumes they wore and the stories they told. And why?

It's all going under the hammer, with unsure provenance.  And Pietro is not happy.

It's a sad tale. But is it a convincing one?

Because I just made it all up. But yesterday I was on my flaneur for research for my next book and somehow, looking at the pictures it all came together. The book hopefully will be called Standing Still. As in the song, "The Duch of the terrace, never grew up, I hope she never will." By The Stranglers.  Their Waltz in Black will terrorize  anybody even slightly automanophobic. 

 I am away at my annual Grantown Crime Fest - the place with the gorilla on the street - another huge puppet!

Caro Ramsay  compulsive story teller   30 10 15

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Death in the Family

Michael and Stanley - Thursday

Tuesday saw the release of the new Detective Kubu mystery, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.  We were delighted to have the launch once again at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookshop in Minneapolis and are grateful to Pat and Gary and all the friends and readers who came to support us.


Backlist! With request to support wonderful Books for Africa!

Awaiting purchase!

More signing!

Standing-room only!

Michael talking
The idea for the story originated during a trip Stanley made through northern Namibia and Botswana.  In Namibia, even in the smallest towns, he noticed a proliferation of Chinese-owned shops.  He also saw several instances of local Namibians joking with the Chinese, who appeared not to want to join in the fun.

When Stanley was driving between Katchikau and Goma Bridge in north-west Botswana – a road we’ve both driven several times before – he found the road now paved, with no economic reason justifying the upgrade.  Then he saw a new, small village next to the road – a Chinese village – surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.

The metropolis of Katchikau
Subsequent research showed that many infrastructure projects were being done by Chinese companies that imported Chinese labor, ignoring the locals. So there was a situation where locals were being side-lined by the Chinese; the Chinese were making no attempts at integrating with the locals and were isolating themselves; and the natural friendliness of the locals was being rebuffed by the Chinese.
What a good backdrop for a murder mystery!

And we discovered a lot more as we dug deeper.  Chinese companies were using the muscle of their government to undercut other contractors, and often offering barter deals for raw materials in the poorer countries.  And sometimes they also combined low quality with low prices.  The new airport in Gaborone was years overdue when the Botswana government eventually fired the Chinese contractor; the new power station has yet to reach better than fifty percent capacity without failure.

The new airport -
 after it had been finished by a German company.

Chinese-run infrastructure project
For the story, we wanted to do two things.  First, we wanted to take both Kubu and ourselves out of our comfort zones.  Second, we wanted the backstory to paint the picture of what we saw with respect to the Chinese in Africa.

To accomplish the first goal - taking Kubu and ourselves into places we hadn't been - the story has Kubu's beloved father murdered at the beginning of he book.  To make things worse, Kubu is sidelined from the investigation for fear that his presence would contaminate any prosecution.  Can Kubu stay out of the investigation?  Of course not!  Each time he tries to do something, his boss Mabaku gets angrier, eventually banishing Kubu to New York to deliver a speech to Interpol in his place.  Kubu's frustration is so great that he actually stops eating!

For the backstory, we situated a Chinese-owned mine near Shoshong—a historic town a few hours drive from Gaborone.  The mine wants to expand and promises jobs in an area far from the diamond riches; however, the elders want to preserve the culture and history of their village.

Modern Shoshong from the hills
As an aside, few people outside Botswana have heard of Shoshong, yet in its day it was the most important inland town in southern Africa – much more so than the current capital of Gaborone (which hardly existed at that time). 

The town thrived because it was strategically placed on the main road between Zimbabwe and southern Botswana.  It became an important trading centre and was host to hunters, missionaries, and famous explorers - including David Livingstone.  Some Europeans settled there, and traces of their tin-roofed rectangular houses and artefacts have been found in the area. 
However, the river dried up, and a prolonged drought caused the town to be abandoned in 1889.

The river today
Today, little is left of old Shoshong - only the remains of a few stone walls and the graveyard, and the memories of the elders of good times past.

Kubu's frustrations are somewhat mollified by having to investigate the apparent suicide of a government official. The threads lead him to the US embassy and to the Chinese owners of the Shoshong mine.  And eventually to the reason for his father’s murder.

For the past week or so, we've been gnawing on our fingernails waiting for reactions to our newest baby.  Every writer knows what that's about.  Fortunately, the initial reviews of A Death in the Family have been positive!  So forgive this annual BSP (Blatant Self Promotion) blog and allow us to quote a few:

The fifth rip-roaring mystery in the Detective Kubu series…exceptional police procedural plot…—South African Sunday Times

 Kubu returns with a vengeance – but what is prowling in the darkness of Botswana is more dangerous than the four-legged predators.  Then there are the Chinese who just may be the most dangerous of all … I love it!
Charles Todd (New York Times best-selling author)

Engrossing fifth mystery…as always, Stanley (the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) brings to life a Botswana different from the one familiar to Alexander McCall Smith readers.
—Publishers Weekly

Like all the Kubu books, this one weaves societal and cultural problems into the plot. In this case, it's the generational divide between young people in the village of Shoshong who want the mine to expand because they need jobs, and the elders, who remember when promises of new houses and other goodies were made and not fulfilled. The way the young people speak to the elders is shocking to many older people who fear Botswana's traditions of respect are eroding. When there is a riot in the village during an elders' meeting, Kubu figures someone instigated it.
But was it the Chinese or one of his countrymen?
Sears and Trollip, both retired professors, have been in and out of Botswana much of their adult lives and their writing reflects their love for the landscape and the people. Kubu is an endearing character, even when he's angry, and you feel the people of Botswana are safe when this big man is on the job.
Mary Ann Grossmann in The Pioneer Press.

This latest Detective Kubu Mystery is a gem, although the Botswana assistant superintendent of its CID is one frustrated detective throughout most of the novel.

—Ted Feit

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bouchercon and Beyond: summer travels in the States

This has not been an easy blog to write. Not because of topic or lack of inspiration, but for this reason:

What this means is that I’ve been away, and now I’ve returned the cat is determined not to let me out of her sight – or reach – for long. It’s very sweet, but a bit of a bugger when it comes to typing.

Like many of my fellow Murder Is Everywhere bloggers I’ve been over in the States for the annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. This year it was in Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina.

I’ve been to Raleigh before – a fact which seemed to surprise many Americans. I did some photoshoots there, back when I was still a photojournalist. It’s a clean, safe-feeling city, with a great choice of restaurants, although I confess I spent the majority of my visit this time inside the conference hotel.

I’ve been to quite a few of these events since my first Bouchercon in Toronto in 2004, but this time was particularly special for me because I was privileged to be one of the two International Guests of Hono(u)r. (Ably interviewed, I might add, by our own Jeff Siger.) The organisers even gave me this beautiful hand-turned oak bowl just for turning up. I wasn’t expecting anything, so was glad I’d dragged out a frock for the Anthony Awards anyway.

pic courtesy of John Thoma Bychowski

It was a weekend of highlights, including getting to spend a little time with one of my literary heroes, Dr Kathy Reichs.

pic courtesy of Ali Karim

Another was being present at the official launch of the Bouchercon short story anthology: Murder Under The Oaks, edited by Art Taylor. Around eighteen of the contributors to the anthology were attending Raleigh, so Art decided we would each read a very short extract from our story to make up the panel event.

pic courtesy of Gigi Pandian

My story, called ‘Kill Me Again Slowly’ is a Charlie Fox tale, but a little out on a limb compared to my usual fare. Just let it be said that the opening scene takes place in Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, where Charlie and her principal are at a table for six with Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe and Oscar Wilde. This is the bit I chose:

As we weaved back toward our table, I murmured into my client’s ear, “If it all goes bad, you know what to do.”
“Yes ma’am.”
I let my gaze wash across the patrons, the staff and the musicians. Nobody was watching us too closely, or trying too hard to avoid doing so. Nobody’s attitude had changed. But I was only too aware that I was in a situation where nothing could be trusted.
“If you want to know what God thinks of money,” Dorothy Parker was saying to the table at large as my host politely handed me into my seat, “just look at the people he gave it to.”
Marilyn Monroe gave a breathy giggle and said, “Oh, I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.”
Dorothy Parker rolled her eyes.
Airily sipping his champagne, Oscar Wilde said, “Who, being loved, is poor?”
Groucho Marx rested his elbow on the table, his chin on his cupped palm, and gazed at Marilyn Monroe. “Marry me and I’ll never look at another horse.”
“Oh!” Marilyn Monroe glared at him, threw down her serviette and leaped to her feet. “Respect is one of life’s greatest treasures.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I mean, what does it all add up to if you don’t have that?”
She leaned down for her purse, but when she straightened there was a bolo machete with an eighteen-inch blade in her right hand and she held it like it wasn’t her first time.

And let me just say that all the dialogue for those ‘real’ characters was taken from things they are quoted as actually having said. It was huge amounts of fun to put together.

From Raleigh I went up to NYC, where I got to spend a little time with the charming Lee Child and his wife, Jane.

pic courtesy of Linda Shockley

And also to hang around with Linda Shockley and enjoy the view of the Hudson from the roof of her apartment building; and deliver a lecture at the Center For Fiction as part of their Master Class series, at the kind invitation of the delightful Jonathan Santlofer.

pic courtesy of Linda Shockley

Then it was down to Daytona Beach in Florida to stay with a very dear friend. Why Daytona? Well, this is one very good reason:

And this is another:

Daytona in October is home to BiketoberFest, and if you like to watch people cruising round on hot-rodded Harleys, that’s the place to go. I could not believe the size of the chrome front wheels on some of those bikes. Nor could I imagine how they would go around corners, but that’s another story …

And just in case I was getting used to all that sunshine, my last day in Florida was a fitting preparation for a return to the UK.

This week’s Word of the Week is Gardyloo, meaning the act of discarding waste substance from a height. It was used as a warning cry often heard in medieval Scotland as slops were emptied out of upper floor windows into the street below. The word is a corruption of the French, “Garde à l’eau!” – “Mind the water!” but may possibly where we get the word ‘loo’ from to describe the lavatory. It was still in use as late as the 1930s and ’40s when many people still had no inside toilet.