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

We'd love to see you at one of our events.  Please visit or for details.

How to Write a Cable TV Miniseries

Annamaria on Monday

The following instructions are based on a study of these successful series: Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias, The Game of Thrones.

First, choose your setting
Historical settings work well, especially if they involve costumes of opulent fabrics, stately architecture and colorful interior decoration, and if they take place at a time when the countryside is open and beautiful and entirely free of suburban sprawl.  Mythical places are also acceptable even if they mean drab costumes and plain buildings, in which case the use of magic is recommended.

The most important aspect of the setting is that story absolutely MUST take place at a time where position in society has more to do with birthright than with morals or intellect and where combat—both between individuals and armies—involves hacking.  This last point is essential.  The weapons of combat MUST not only draw blood, but easily remove digits, hands, feet, arms, legs, heads, and by the end of Episode One of Season Two, the splitting of at least one body at the waist.

Two powerful factions:  One is led by an older man (Mr. BIG) who is in danger of losing his position.  The other is led by a person of almost equal power (Mr. Just-Shy-of Big) or by the person whom Mr. BIG deposed in the not too distant past (Mr. Used-to-be Big). There need not be an ultimate prize for which the factions are competing, except for dominance over one another.  There must be no obvious good guys and bad guys.  The series will end, if it ends, when one of the leaders dies. Alternatively, there can be one dominant faction led by an aging but still virile king/chief/Caesar/capo (Mr. BIG) and two or three contending factions—led by younger men (Messers Wanna-be BIG 1, 2, etc.) whose strength is on the rise, but who must also compete with one another in their pursuit of the throne of Mr. BIG.

From time to time, as the story and/or the ratings threaten to lag, one of the characters who seems essential and/or who is actually attractive to the audience will suffer a seemingly life-threatening injury or illness.  Scenes in this regard can be slotted in wherever necessary.

Each faction is led by a powerful, charismatic leader, consumed with greed for dominance, entirely devoid of conscience, and possessing an insatiable sexual appetite (regardless of his age).  His weakness: he has a child on whom he dotes—if a son, the young man is weak of will, if a daughter, she beautiful and scheming, not to be trusted.  These can be identical for both factions, or Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG might have a scheming son and a weak willed daughter.  Her weakness must then be for hunky men who are not loyal to her father.

The main warriors are all hunky men capable of hacking all day and ravishing women all night.  Rarely, one of them may, however flawed he is, be capable of truly heroic deeds and posses a humane sense of honor.  At least one successful series (Rome) has had such a character (Titus Pullo), played by a hunk who can also act.  In such cases, he will become beloved by at least one female fan (Me).

The young women are all beautiful and hardly short of nymphomanaical.  Unless they are frigid.  Those past their childbearing years are either faded beauties (Lady Sexual Predator) or evil to the core (Duchess Wrinkled-Mother-of-Mr. Wanna-be BIG).

Children younger than ten are there to be used as props—to create tension if they are in physical danger or audience responses of shame/titillation/anxiety if they are witnesses to illicit sex.

The Script
Season One – Episode One
Scene One-Mr. BIG discusses the precarious nature of his grip on the throne with his trusted advisors, including an incredibly sexy clergyman or woman who has taken a vow of celibacy. (This is true even if the oversexed Mr. BIG is himself a clergyman who has taken a vow of celibacy.)   The scheming and immoral nature of BIG’s rise to power is made evident.  One of his trusted advisors comes across as less than trustworthy.  His son’s weakness is revealed.

Scene Two – Mr. Dodgy Trusted Advisor has sex with BIG’s wife/daughter/sister.  Close-up of female waist-up nudity.

Scene Three – this takes place in a sunny bucolic setting, next to a glistening stream in springtime.  Hand-to-hand combat between the son/step-son/nephew of BIG and a kinsman of Mr. Just-Shy-of BIG’s family. Blood is shed.  No body parts are removed.  Mr. JSB’s family member makes it back to his own camp before he dies.

Scene Four – Dodgy Trusted Advisor informs BIG of the fight and the death of the enemy chief’s kinsman, which leads to a shouting match between BIG and the son/step-son/nephew who had jeopardized the uneasy peace between the factions.  The young relative leaves the room.  BIG and the others see that they must gird themselves for war.

Scene Five – BIG’s offending young relative goes for solace to his mother/aunt/sister/female first cousin.  She is extremely sympathetic.  In words, the two are straightforward, but in attitude, they are quite seductive toward each other.  No actual sex incestual sex takes place.  A small child enters just as the scene ends.

Scene Six – JSB’s camp is in an uproar over the death of their precious kinsman.  Various strategies are suggested for dealing with this affront.  Many hotheads call for blood.  A supposedly celibate clergyman in JSB’s court advises a more moderate response but is loudly rebuffed.  JSB questions the clergyman’s loyalty, and the priest is driven from the room in shame.

Scene Seven – The possibly disloyal clergyman brings his hurt ego to JSB’s wife/sister/daughter.  Soft core porn scene ensues, involving views of female full frontal nudity and the clergyman’s very attractive naked butt.

Just before the roll credits….
Warriors in both camps sharpen their hacking tools.  A rider receives a message from the hands of JSB and speeds through the night toward BIG’s castle/fortress.

Season One – Episode Two
Scene One – WAR!!  Hacking left and right.  Many spear carriers and archers die while loosing limbs.  One horse is killed with an arrow in his eye.   An essential warrior in BIG’s army is very badly wounded.  JSD’s General looses an arm.  No decapitations, however.  JSD’s army comes out ahead.  Nothing is really decided.

Scene Two – BIG, who is roaring drunk and fully clothed, debauches his wife’s blond lady-in-waiting.  The scene ends with her stealing down a dim corridor, her dress in tatters, her beautiful bare chest heaving.  She meets a child in the hallway.

And so it goes…  You should be able to take it from here by using the following guidelines.

Plot-Thickening Scenes: three in each episode, two from one side, one from the other.  Choose from the following:
Small group discussions by sub-factions plotting against their lord or against someone he loves but who is disloyal.
Large group arguments where many advisors try to sway BIG or JSB.  In such a scene, it is impossible to tell for sure who is sincerely for or against their lord.  Ambiguity leads to a longer rather than shorter run in any series.
One-to-one meetings conspirators in dark corridors or stables where plots are hatched between traitors.
The mysterious death—NOT by hacking—of a character the audience might have actually liked.

Hacking Scenes: War in ever third episode.  One or two other hacking scenes in every episode in which there is not a war.  Chose from:

Large group melees
One-to-one duels, ending in the death of one participant, or both
Stabbings in the back
Hacking rules:
At least two decapitations by the end of Episode Four
Women may be killed, but they are not hacked apart if they are blond and/or blue-eyed

Sex Scenes: At least one long one or two short ones in each episode, given in the following order.  The amount of nudity and the time the camera lingers on the body parts increases over the life of the series:
Illicit sex involving betrayal of BIG or JSB
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a member of the clergy
A man ravaging a woman dear to this wife
Sex between a clergyman and a person married to someone else.
A man raping his wife
Illicit sex viewed accidently by a child who is likely to report it.
Seduction of a virgin by a member of the clergy
Sodomy.  The sex of the participants is irrelevant.
            Multigenerational group sex

Okay, folks, there you have it.   If you use this and become rich and/or famous, you must share with me 15% of your earnings and invite me as your date for the both the Emmy and the Golden Globe Awards.