Monday, October 19, 2020

Guest Blogger James McCrone: Democracy by Appliqué

 I am delighted today to host James McCrone, my friend and delightful fellow member  of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Jamie is the author of the Imogen Trager novels—Faithless ElectorDark Network, and the new Emergency Powers—“taut” and “gripping” political thrillers about a stolen presidency. His work also recently appeared in the short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2 (July, 2020).  Jamie has an MFA from the University of Washington. A Pacific Northwest native, he lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.

Jamie's topic today could not be more relevant - a discussion of how Americans conduct presidential elections and why our system is so arcane and complex. - Annamaria


I’m struck by the patchwork uncertainty of it all.


July’s Supreme Court ruling concerning Faithless Electors has done little to quell the potential for chaos in this November’s election. I can’t shake the image of 2020 America as some shambling Akakii Akakievich, from Nicolai Gogol’s fine story The Overcoat (1842), as he pleads with the tailor Petrovich to patch his winter coat.



“Yes,” says Petrovich dubiously, “patches could be found…but there’s nothing to sew them to. The thing is completely rotten…”


Patches are meant to be temporary. The application of a first patch to something heralds the beginning of the end of the garment. But like the hapless Akakii we’re still insisting on trying to patch over something that won’t hold, namely the United States Electoral College system.


This is, of course, the peculiar institution whereby US citizens vote indirectly for president. Indeed, there’s nothing in the US Constitution that says everyday voters have any voice in electing the president. It is only Electors meeting in their respective state capitols on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” who decide who shall be president. (This year, that date is Dec. 14.) When Americans vote for the presidential and vice presidential candidate of their choice, either by mail or in-person, this November, they will actually be casting a vote for a slate of electors, equal to the number of a state's electoral votes, who will cast a vote on their behalf in their respective state capitals on December 14.


The founding fathers’ generation found it necessary to apply the first electoral patch by combining the vote for president and vice president, a response to the first truly contested election, which had resulted in a tie (the 12th Amendment in 1804). Of course, their very invention of Electors was itself a patch, meant to disguise an easily ripped seam. 


In the 19th century, states seeking to augment their power turned the Electoral College into the winner-take-all affairs we’re familiar with, where a plurality of votes for one candidate (not necessarily even a majority) in a given state means that all that state's Electoral votes go to the candidate who won the plurality. A second patch was applied right over the first. In response to that patch, two states, Nebraska and Maine, fashioned their own patch to make the Electoral result in their states more democratic by splitting their Electoral votes among the plurality winners. 


Later, states began making laws requiring Electors to vote for the plurality winner. Because Electors were originally envisioned as free actors, it was unclear whether those state laws would stand Constitutional scrutiny. This past July, however, the Supreme Court, seeking to avoid “chaos” in the 2020 election, applied the most recent patch, stating that the state laws were Constitutional. 


All of this on a garment so ill-fitting and ineptly made that it needed fundamental retailoring after only three uses (1804)! 



So, yet another patch. For now. 


And this most recent patch isn’t even a very good one. The Supreme Court ruling merely allows states to make laws restricting the freedom of Electors. 32 states (with a total of 325 electoral votes) have no such laws, thereby still leaving open the possibility of Faithless Electors, those who vote contrary to their pledge. No one is suggesting all 32 states would throw their votes one direction or another, but what if the contest was close and only 3 or 4 Electoral votes separated the candidates? (Bush v. Gore anyone?) 


There have been documented bribery attempts and even violent threats to coerce Electors to switch their votes in past contests. Even without those problems, there is the uncertainty of the Electoral College process itself, and the fact that it has five times returned a “winner,” who lost the popular vote (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016). There remains ample potential for chaos. The National Popular Vote initiative is another potential patch, if well-meaning. 


Sadly, it’s deeper than my admittedly drawn out metaphor.

In The Overcoat, when, after forgoing meals in order to pay for it, Akakievich’s coat is stolen, he appeals not to the police, but to “a very important personage.” In Czarist Russia who you know is what’s most important. And it’s common knowledge that without some intervention by some patron the corrupt police will not only not help Akakii, if they were to find the coat, they’d keep it themselves!


Status determines the level of justice in Akakii’s world, as it does in ours. And like in ours, those who have gained high status have little or no accountability, and perhaps even less care or concern for those below them on the ladder. “Without law, there’s only power,” is a tag-line from my earlier work, Dark Network, and I can’t help wondering what Gogol would make of our times. Gogol might note that often law is what protects the powerful.


Here is  how Scott Fitzgerald felt about it all almost a hundred years ago (from The Great Gatsby): “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” 


Fortunately for us, unlike the serfs and aggrieved clerks of Czarist Russia, we can do more than just clean up the mess, even if the upcoming election - our tool for doing so - is careworn and a patchwork. We can vote. It’s how we let those in power know to whom they’re accountable.


You can learn more at



Sunday, October 18, 2020

Why NOT to Bring Back Hanging

Zoë Sharp


This blog was sparked off by one written by my fellow Murder Is Everywhere blog-mate, Caro Ramsay, about Dr Harold Shipman. Shipman was a British doctor convicted in January 2000 of murdering fifteen of his patients, although the total number of victims is estimated at 250, making him the most prolific serial killer in modern times. Many of his patients were elderly—but by no means ill or infirm—with the oldest aged 93 and the youngest maybe a child of four.


Shipman was sentenced to life imprisonment with the recommendation that he was never to be released. At the time of his trial, there were plenty of calls for the doctor to be hanged for his crimes. In fact, he committed suicide by hanging and was found dead in his prison cell at Wakefield Prison less than four years later.


There were those who celebrated this news as being no more than he deserved. But, his death prevented the relatives of his victims and possible victims from gaining any kind of confirmation or reason for his crimes.


In Shipman’s case, the evidence against him—once it was investigated—was overwhelming but that has not always been the case in the judicial system in the UK. Sadly, miscarriages of justice have been going on for hundreds of years. Take the case of Joan Perry who, along with her two sons John and Richard, was convicted of killing wealthy William Harrison in Chipping Campden in 1660.


Despite the authorities’ failure to find Harrison’s body, the Perrys were convicted and hanged. Harrison reappeared two years later, claiming to have been abducted by pirates to explain his absence. The only good thing to come of this grave error was, it is reckoned, a reluctance by British courts to hand down sentences for murder unless the body of the victim was found.


In 1895, Adolf Beck was the victim of a notorious case of mistaken identity, combined with poor investigative methods and by the police rushing the case to court. A Norwegian by birth, Beck was accused of being con man John Smith, who specialised in impersonating the aristocracy in order to swindle ladies of their valuables and write dud cheques. He was found guilty at the Old Bailey, despite having been in South America at the time some of his alleged crimes were committed, and sent to Portland Convict Prison, where he was even given Smith’s prior convict number.


Beck was paroled in 1901 for good behaviour. Three years later, he was again arrested for being Smith, and again tried and convicted. It wasn’t until the real Smith was arrested while Beck awaited sentencing that the error came to light.


Beck was pardoned by King Edward VII and awarded compensation of £2000, later raised to £5000 after a public outcry orchestrated by a campaigning journalist. A Committee of Inquiry was established to investigate the shortfalls and this led directly to the formation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. The case is, apparently, still cited by judges as an example of how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.


It was the Court of Criminal Appeal which overturned the death sentence handed down to William Herbert Wallace, an insurance agent from Liverpool, after he was convicted of the murder of his wife. This marked the first occasion a capital sentence was quashed.


During the last century, there were notable cases where people were convicted and hanged, only to be later cleared of all wrongdoing. In 1949, Timothy Evans initially confessed to the murder of his wife and young daughter. Although he later retracted this confession, he was convicted—partially on the evidence of his neighbour, John Christie.


Four years after Evans was hanged, Christie was exposed as a serial killer who had almost undoubtedly been responsible for the crimes for which Evans was executed. This case was influential in the eventual decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.


In 1952, Derek Bentley was hanged for a crime he did not commit. Of reduced mental capacity, Bentley was with another man, Christopher Craig, carrying out a burglary when they were cornered by police. Craig apparently shot and killed a policeman but was underage so could not be executed. Bentley was hanged, despite the fact he had already been arrested when the fatal shot was fired, due to the legal principle of ‘joint enterprise’. After a long campaign, Bentley was pardoned in 1993, and his murder conviction finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998.


In 1965, the death penalty was suspended and effectively abolished in England, Wales, and Scotland for capital murder, although it remained on the statute books for treason, piracy with violence, arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards, and military offences, until 1998. In fact, no executions had been carried out for any offences other than murder since 1946.


Northern Ireland was not covered under the 1965 Act and the death penalty for murder was not officially abolished there until 1973, although no executions had been carried out since that of Robert McGladdery for the murder of Pearl Gamble in 1961.


Whatever your feelings on capital punishment, it is worth bearing in mind the miscarriages of justice that have taken place in the UK since it was abolished here. A number of people have spent years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. At one time they might have been hanged for them.


This includes the Birmingham Six—six Irishmen wrongly convicted for the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, in which 21 people were killed and 182 injured. The Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, all convicted for bombings during the mid-70s in Guildford and Woolwich. The convictions were quashed in 1989 and 1991 respectively.


Even a cursory search produces thirty instances of wrongful conviction for murder or murders which might possibly have led to execution. In one case, that of Sean Hodgson, he spent 27 years in prison before his innocence was finally established by advances in DNA evidence, and he was released by the Court of Appeal in 2009. Later the same year, new DNA evidence pointed to a man who committed suicide in 1988 as being the most likely killer.


One thing is certain. For capital punishment to be even close to acceptable, there has to be absolute integrity in the entire judicial system and one-hundred-percent accuracy in the collection, examination, and interpretation of the evidence. Which country on earth can boast that?


This week’s Word of the Week is gallows, from the Proto-Germanic word galgô, meaning a pole, rod, or tree branch. This possibly comes from early hangings when the person sentenced to die would be tied to a bent-down tree which was then released. Early Gothic Testaments refer to the cross of Christ as galga, before the Latin term crux, meaning cross, predominated.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

We Have a Winner



Who among us is at peace these days? 


Not I.


Who among us sees the world as better than it was yesterday?


Not I.


Who among us has hope?


I do. Perhaps because I read poetry, and one of my very favorite poets just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Congratulations Louise Glück.


I was introduced to her work by my son, who’d taken a poetry seminar with her at university and had the honor of dining with her and her family. He raved about her skill and compassion. “The Wild Iris” was the first of her collections that I read, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. 


There is something about poetry that calms my soul and inspires me to work harder at finding the proper meter for my own prose.  These days, it also serves as my antidote for the consequences of failing to stay properly social distanced from 24/7 cable network news coverage.  To see what I mean, here is a poem published in her 1992 The Wild Iris collection, titled “Vespers.”


In your extended absence, you permit me

use of earth, anticipating

some return on investment. I must report

failure in my assignment, principally

regarding the tomato plants.

I think I should not be encouraged to grow

tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold

the heavy rains, the cold nights that come

so often here, while other regions get

twelve weeks of summer. All this

belongs to you: on the other hand,

I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots

like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart

broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly

multiplying in the rows. I doubt

you have a heart, in our understanding of

that term. You who do not discriminate

between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,

immune to foreshadowing, you may not know

how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,

the red leaves of the maple falling

even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible

for these vines.


© 1992 Louise Glück




In these times, I’d venture to say we’re all “responsible for these vines.”


On an unrelated matter, I extend my congratulations to all the Sacramento Bouchercon 2020 folk who turned a seeming pandemic disaster into a much-praised on-line success.  To Co-Chairs Michele Drier and Rae James, and national board chair Mike (“Mystery Mike”) Bursaw, as well as the many volunteers who kept the  Bouchercon flag flying high over this weekend’s virtual tour de force, I say “Bravo” and thank you on behalf of the crime lovers community.


Next year in New Orleans!



Friday, October 16, 2020

Dr Death


493 deaths over 23 years is quite a record for a serial killer.

It’s the number of victims of the British Doctor Harold Shipman, in the years spanning 1975-98.

He was born in 1946 in Nottinghamshire, England and died in 2004 at HM Prison Wakefield, West Yorkshire by suicide.

I’ve never written poetry much but I did write a poem about the victim Kathleen Grundy who was the victim ‘too far’ and the one who brought about his downfall. She died on 24th June 1998 aged 84, and she was well known, being a former mayoress of Hyde. She had been well, but ‘was old’ so her death was largely accepted until her daughter got a copy of the will. The lawyer had faxed it through to her, as he was perplexed that a woman like Kathleen would leave such a badly typed legal document, and that the will the lawyer had drawn up to her wishes was now superseded by this rather unprofessional looking document.  The will had been changed totally. It was now all in the favour of her GP; Dr Harold Shipman.

The daughter and her husband tracked down those that had witnessed the signing of the will; it had taken place at the doctor’s surgery. They went to the police and that started a very big ball rolling.

It was a mere suspicion that Mrs Grundy may have come to an unnatural end, but there had been no post mortem her body needed to be exhumed so on the  1st august 1998 at 4 am  the small digger arrived at the cemetery.  Exhumations are always done during the hours of darkness.

It turns out that Harold Shipman was the last person to see Kathleen alive. He was also the first person on the scene after she had been found dead. And he signed the death certificate. He decided on the cause of death.

The exhumation was treated as a crime scene and soil samples were taken from above and below the coffin. The samples later showed too much diamorphine.

Shipman was arrested on 7 September 1998, and amongst his possessions was a Brother typewrite, with the exact uneven font that was apparent on the badly forged will.

It’s interesting that another GP in another practice had already been to the police as she was being asked to sign, to her mind, far too many cremation certificates for Dr Shipman’s practice.  That GP also noticed a pattern to these deaths; they died at home, they died in the afternoon, they died while fully clothed, they died and left their front doors open.  A detective did look into her concerns  but found nothing abnormal – when I said ‘look into’, he didn’t speak to Shipman, or any of the families of the twenty one patients on the list that the GP had compiled.

These twenty one deaths were reinvestigated after Kathleen Grundy’s case had come to light, and the female GP had been right- these victims had not been ill. They had merely been old. And they had been killed.

To many the idea that this plausible, family doctor – a very good doctor, very caring and competent- was a murderer was just unbelievable to most, especially his patients. A small injection in the arm, in their own home and the victims just slept away, elderly, mostly women, mostly on their at the time they died.

On January 31st 2000, he was convicted of killing 15 people and got a life sentence for each. The Shipman Enquiry  under Dame Janet Smith put the number of victims at about 250  but admitted that there may be many many more. Shipman himself committed suicide on 13th January 2004, a day before his 58th birthday.

So how did a quietly spoken English doctor become regarded as the most prolific serial killer in modern history and he is still the only British doctor known to be guilty of murdering his patients.

As a 17 year old, Shipman had witnessed his mother’s protracted painful death from lung cancer, and had also witnessed the GP coming into the house and  giving her injections of morphine – and he saw close up how it eased her pain.  While that explains a lot, the fact he was stealing jewellery from his patients and tampering with their wills, adjusting records after death to write up the degree of suffering they endured from diseases they didn’t have so he could account for the amount of morphine he had been ordered for his own use. He was an addict.

He started work as a GP in 1974 but as early as in 75 he was found guilty of forging prescriptions of pethidine to feed his own drug habit. He was given a fine of £600, and advised to attend a rehab centre to treat his addiction. You can see why the number of murders he committed is almost impossible to ascertain with any accuracy.

It would have been impossible for Shipman to get away with such crimes for that length of time in Scotland, as our cremation certificates would have passed through the hands of the same fiscal due to the geographic reasons and hopefully, the disparity in the numbers that particular GP’s surgery was processing compared to others, would have been noticed very quickly.

After Shipman there were a series of recommendations lwhich led to changes in medical procedures, and they include more monitoring of GPs by their peers which more or less ended the single GP practice, most are now  group practices and any rumours of a ‘Dr Death’ amongst them would be  heard and acted upon.

But there’s a common belief that Shipman murdered the elderly who were weak and frail. Nothing could be further from the truth, he killed the elderly who were fit and able, but society was very quick to believe that, somehow, their deaths were acceptable and beyond questions, simply because of their age, and that raises all kind of questions as how easily we disregard the elderly.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

A dose of reality

Stanley - Thursday

The initial COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa was very strict. The only reasons I could leave my flat were essentially to buy groceries or go to the doctor or pharmacy. I wasn't allowed to leave the premises for exercise, which saw me walking up and down the stairwell. Sadly, I was also locked down alone as Mette was in Denmark.

Certainly, it is an experience I wouldn't want to repeat. However, it really wasn't all that bad. I am comfortable being alone; the economic downturn didn't really affect me because I'm retired; my retirement assets were dented, but not so dramatically as to negatively impact my lifestyle; the internet allowed me to maintain contact with friends; and, despite the total ban on alcohol sales, my little cellar was sufficiently stocked to keep me going.

My flat is somewhere in there.

There were a few niggles, such as the lockdown happening a few weeks before the renovations to my flat were due to be completed. This meant I had to continue renting alternative accommodation for an additional 3 months.

As the lockdown eased, and shops started opening, it was easier to notice that things were not back to normal. There were restrictions on how many people could be in a store at a time, but there were also fewer people working in the store. Restaurants started opening gradually for take-out, but, of course, there were now no waiters. Yet, although life wasn't back to normal, it wasn't so much out of kilter that it really affected me.

My friends and I frequently talked about how difficult it must have been to live in the sprawling townships or squatter camps of South Africa, where people were packed closely together. Yet, in a sense, it was an academic exercise. We could imagine the hardship, but we were doing so from a distance. Then I received a text message from a woman who had worked for me seven or eight years ago. She and her husband had no work, and the family was starving. Suddenly the situation became personal.

My eyes were opened further about a month or six weeks ago. The affluent area where I live in Cape Town started seeing increasing numbers of 'street people' - men and women living on the street under cardboard boxes or old blankets, mainly Blacks or people of mixed blood, but also some Whites.  They were desperate for food. Some sought contributions of cash or food at stop signs and traffic lights, while others scrabbled through dustbins set outside houses for scraps of something to eat. 


Nowhere to go.


Some people find humour in dire circumstances.

The real effects of the pandemic were becoming apparent to me. 

I belong to a neighbourhood WhatsApp group that was originally set up to alert members about potential safety issues. It is a study in contrasts. Some members organise the making of hundreds of food parcels every day that are taken to the townships; others keep calling on security services to chase away 'vagrants' who are digging in their dustbins for food ('bad for the neighbourhood, you know!').

Last week I saw firsthand how deep the economic impact of the virus was.

South Africa opened its international borders in a very limited way for the first time since lockdown started in late March. I wanted to see Mette in Denmark, so I decided, with some nervousness, to fly to Copenhagen, which I did last Thursday via Amsterdam.

Prepared for the trip

What an eye-opener.

From the Uber driver who said he'd had little or no work during April, May, June, and July; to Cape Town airport, which was basically deserted; to the few shops that were open at the airport with only one or two attendants; to only one open restaurant at the airport whose only food offering was pizza; the trip from Uber to my seat on the plane was astonishing. Living in my little cocoon, I had only imagined the extent of the damage. Now I was seeing it everywhere.

The situation was no different on board. I would be surprised if the plane was 20% full. In the area of the plane where I was sitting, only 6 of 30 seats were occupied. Needless to say, the crew complement was drastically reduced, and the flight attendants I spoke to were on their first trip in months.

Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen were even more startling. Both were empty. I must have been through Schipol nearly 100 times over the years. It is always busy. In 2019, it averaged 200,000 passengers a day, with the departure halls holding up to 80,000 people at a time during peak periods. As you can see from the photos, it was basically empty when I arrived and marginally busy when I left three hours later. Many of the shops, which are usually thriving, didn't even open. In normal times, the economic impact of the airport is about $30 billion annually. I can't imagine how little it is now.

At Schipol: Where is everybody?


The lounge was empty.

Schipol starting to bustle

Kastrup was similar. Empty.

It is really difficult for me to grasp the extent of the economic devastation or to imagine how anyone can believe that recovery will be quick. And this situation will only be exacerbated if people continue to disregard safety guidelines. I think we have a long, hard haul ahead.

On a personal note, in some ways being back with Mette has been difficult. So close, yet so far. We decided, given the long trip, that we should practice social distancing for a week in case the dreaded lurgy was lurking on one of the planes. I'm feeling fine, no temperature, no symptoms, so we will probably decide on Friday to get a little closer. Yippee.

Then I have to decide whether to continue on my trip, which called for a month-long visit to Minneapolis starting on November 1. Given the spike in cases in the Netherlands (I transit Schipol again) and in the States, I may decide to stay in Denmark. Watch this space.

And keep safe.



Wednesday, October 14, 2020

CULTURE CLASH: Writing Out Of A Diverse Life


In an era when the American administration has done its best to seal the country off from foreigners and migrants including refugees, I've been reflecting on how exposure to people who look different from you and have different backgrounds can enrich your life. I was brought up in Ghana, which of course was a British colony. I came of age on the campus of the University of Ghana (UG), with its iconic orange-tiled roofs. Both my late Black American mother and late Ghanaian father were lecturers there, in Sociology/Social Welfare and African Studies respectively.

The Balme Library, UG (Photo: Kwei Quartey)

Ghana's connections to Britain, a lot stronger then than now, brought a large number of nationalities from the all over the Commonwealth of Nations. Apart from British citizens, there were Australians, Canadians (for some time, our next-door neighbors were Canadians), Indians, Jamaicans, Ugandans, South Africans, and others I've probably forgotten. Many were part of a memorable cast of characters--some amusing, others quite odd. I recall one British lecturer who wore a floppy hat and had a strange movement disorder and a habit of talking to herself. Whereas some of these professors might have a difficult time gaining employment elsewhere, the academic world can often accommodate such "unique" personalities who are sometimes both brilliant and bizarre. My primary school was much the same as the University--a mini United Nations of pupils.

Universities and colleges are often called "ivory towers," a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world. That was much the case with the UG. Quiet, clean, and rather lush, the campus was neither anything like the hectic urban life of Accra nor the rural sectors of the country, which at the time, accounted for most of Ghana's population. That's no longer the case, as only some 43% live in rural areas.

At the time, the University provided a perk to expatriates like my mother: a comped visit every 1-3 years (somewhat negotiable) to their country of birth. Not only them, but their dependents as well. That meant my three brothers and I got to accompany my mother to New York City for entire summer vacations. That an institution in a developing country could afford to extend such a fringe benefit seems staggering to me now, but back then, I took it for granted. I would venture to say we were a tad "entitled," which is an uncomfortable word in the modern zeitgeist. Additionally, because my mother was an American, her children were automatically United States citizens (jus sanguinis), making travel to the UK and Europe a cinch. 

My 2nd brother (R), Mom, and me (Photo by unknown)

In the face of all this, my father was uncomfortable about any blatant show of privilege, and he might have squirmed somewhat over the perks and our relative ease of travel abroad. Ironically, he had degrees from two American universities, but the hard way. No one ever paid his fare! But my pragmatic mother had a strong motive to travel, i.e. the ability to visit her mother ("Granny") in New York. Summers with Granny were truly wonderful. As much as my mother loved Ghana, I believe she felt her children should experience the American half of their cultural heritage. 

Moving Beyond The Ivory Tower

At the diametrically opposite end of traveling to her hometown of NYC, my mother as a sociologist and social worker took her students off the UG campus on field trips to remote rural areas, which experience her students greatly appreciated. Much of the goal of these outings was to explore how village life, culture and traditional belief systems could be used to advance development, reduce poverty, and shape social policy.

My mother also allowed us, her sons, to tag along on these trips, and there I felt the heaviness of my privileged circumstances in contrast to rural living conditions. I remember visiting one village where up 
to 80 percent of adults suffered from river blindness, or Onchocerciasis. This dreadful disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which induces such intense itching all over the body that it's impossible to sleep. Eventually, the sufferer goes blind, and in villages were the affliction is endemic, it's common to observe children leading adults blinded by Onchocerciasis. 

A boy leads a blind Onchocerciasis victim (Photo: WHO)

At the time of that field trip, I had already decided I wanted to be a physician, but I believe this wrenching, seminal experience solidified my ambition by raising the curtain on what truly hellish suffering is like and making me want to do something about it.

Cultural Discomfort

Bart, one of my best childhood friends, lived down the road from us on the UG campus, an easy 4-minute walk between our homes, We had a lot of fun and adventure together, and I commonly stayed over for 
lunch and dinner and went on trips with Bart's family and vice versa. They were Dutch expatriates who had lived in Ghana for decades. Hanging out with them was a very different experience from visiting my father's relatives a world away in "real" Accra. My mother, brothers, and I were in the awkward position of not having learned, or been taught, my father's indigenous language, Ga. If he had spoken it to his children from an early age while my mother spoke to us in English, we would have been fluent in both. However, my father might have thought his wife would feel excluded by conversing in Ga with his kids. Already, by Ghanaian tradition, my mother as an American wasn't whole-heartedly welcomed into the affairs of my father and his side of the family, and my father was aware that she at times found that 
exclusion hurtful. In the end, the result was a sharp demarkation between our nuclear family on the one hand and the extended Ga family on the other.

At any rate, the inability to speak Ga fluently was (and is) a problem. My name, Kwei, is so quintessentially of the Ga people (my brothers and I don't even have English names) that any self-respecting Ghanaian would assume we knew how to speak Ga. Repeatedly explaining why that was not the case was (still is) a royal pain in the rear. We took formal lessons when I was a teenager, but there was
no immersion to go with it. 

There was something more profound to the language deficit. Language and culture are intertwined. Interacting with another language means engaging with the culture that speaks the language. My mother was the more present and assertive parent, while my father was more absent and self-effacing. I never had a strong sense that he was fiercely proud of his Ga heritage, or perhaps I never recognized it. Sure, he took my brothers and me to traditional events and family gatherings in town, but I always felt like an outside looking in. I wasn't standing with one foot on dry land and one in the pond. I barely had a toe in the water. And once those small nibbles of Ga culture ended, it was back to the comfortable ivory tower. These experiences were both a culture clash and a culture miss.

The Writing Paradox

While all this culture clash and diversity in my life experience are a bit of a muddle, that jumble is the very materiel and fodder for my writing. In truth, I constantly strive to grasp a culture I feel I just missed--a lost opportunity, in a sense. I have a theory that an author writes to exercise control over a world that's largely beyond control. Rather than run away from my confusion, I'm urged to wrestle with it. Each of my novels is an exploration of Ghanaian culture and an attempt to fully understand it. Mystery is the best genre in which to do it because the central question in mystery, especially murder, is why? Sure, the how is the mechanics of the matter, but what we all want to know is what intricacies of the murderer's mind compelled him to commit the crime. 

In one form or the other, the backdrops to my stories have some aspect of culture clash. In WIFE OF THE GODS, a young progressive female medical student challenges the age-old tradition of indenture servitude of girls to a fetish priest in return for his protection of the family against curses. In GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, illegal Chinese gold miners are in conflict with the locals. THE MISSING AMERICAN is where Ghanaian and American values meet like a river lagoon swirling with the sea at high tide. In funny scene in the upcoming SLEEP WELL, MY LADY, our protagonist Emma Djan, who has little or no privilege in her background to speak of, goes undercover as a wealthy woman and discovers why Mercedes Benz owners feel superior. Because that's what a Benz does. Apologies to all Benz owners. Full disclosure, I don't have one.

Finally, I think the well-worn maxim, "Write what you know" is inadequate. You should also write what you care about. If there's no emotion built into the foundation of your writing, it may seem flat. So, as long as I can write, I will continue to delve into culture clashes. 



Monday, October 12, 2020

What's a Police Officer's Job?

 Annamaria on Monday

Fix an answer to that question in your mind.  You think you know what police officers get paid to do, right?  If you ask a police officer anywhere in the United States, the most likely response will be, "To Protect and Serve."  That's what they are there for, right?  We call them "law enforcement." So they are supposed to enforce the law, right?  Think again.

Here is a scene right out of a crime novel:

On his way to work one morning, a guy named Joe gets on to the New York City subway at Penn Station.  He is in the first car--right at the front, where there is a motorman's compartment.  He takes a seat.  Two police officers board the train after him and go into the compartment with the motorman and after a brief delay the train begins to move, but very slowly.

Joe is minding his own business.  Eventually, a kinda dirty, dishevelled guy comes and bangs on the compartment door.  Someone inside says. "Who's there?" 

"The police," he answers.  "No, you're not.  We're the police," comes the response.

The  dishevelled guy pulls a knife--a big one, turns on Joe and says, "You are going to die." And proceeds to start slashing Joe.  On his head, his neck, his face, his arms.  Joe struggles and somehow manages to topple his attacker and disarm him.  Another passenger comes to Joe's aide.  Joe is bleeding so profusely he can't see.

At that point, and not until then, the cops come out of the compartment and tell Joe he can stop struggling against his attacker.  They have him.

Typical of New York, right? A novel or TV show script that began like this would likely never sell.  Trite.  Right?

How about a thriller that begins like this? Scene: Picturesque Castle Rock, Colorado.  A woman named Jessica, mother of three little girls, has an estranged husband who stalks her.  He has been abusive in the past.  She gets a permanent restraining order against him that requires him never to come within a hundred yards of her or their children.  Then, one June evening, he disappears with the three girls.  The mother is frantic.  

This could be the beginning of a thriller, but unfortunately, it is a true story that took only hours to end.  The woman knows her ex has those girls. She calls the police, who tell her that she shouldn't worry.  This sort of thing happens.  She insists to no avail.  She calls them three more times.  At around one in the morning, she goes to police station to beg for help.  Nada.

Just after 3 AM, Simon--the father--shows up at the police station and starts shooting at the cops, presumably because he wants them to kill him.  They do.  They have  to defend themselves, right?

They then found the corpses of the three girls in their now-dead father's car.

Horrifying.  Absolutely horrifying.

What were the cops thinking?  Well, as it happens, what they were thinking has a bearing on the outcomes of what came next in both cases.  You see Joe Lozito and Jessica Lenahan-Gonzales both brought law suits  Against the police for not doing their duty.

Joe's case was thrown out of court despite the fact that the man who attacked him was known to be somewhere in the subway, had killed four people the day before, was the target of a city-wide manhunt, and another passenger had recognized the killer and had also knocked on the compartment door to report that fact.  The judge refused the case because "No direct promises for protection were made to Mr. Lozito...Therefore, a special duty did not exist."

Jessica Lenahan took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where no less than Antonin Scalia wrote the 7-2 majority decision, stating that enforcement of a restraining order was not mandatory under Colorado law. The two dissenters were Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The problem behind all this stems from the fact that, in the US, police officers do not have clear job descriptions.  They are never given a clear definition of what their job is. They get marching orders that usually sound like this: Protect the peace.  Maintain order. Enforce the law. There are piecemeal laws in some states and a string of court decision that can be used as precedents.  But as we all know, a great number of precedents wind up perpetuating bad jugements.

What would Joe and Jessica have to have done to make the police responsible?  First, the person wanting protection must ask the police officer directly for that protection. Then, the police officer must agree to provide it.  Third, the police officer must acknowledge the fact that if he or she does not protect you, you will come to harm.  Then, the person needing the protection must show, in their behavior, that they are relying on police protection.

So, if you are planning on getting mugged or you think your kids might be kidnapped--or whatever trouble you think you might have in which you might need to call on the police to help you, be sure to get all these ducks in a row BEFORE you get into danger.  Then if the police are derelict in their duty, you can take them to court.

Even if they had won their cases, Joe would still have scars on his body and on his psyche.  And Jessica...  I cannot bear to think about her.

Credit: Radio Lab inspired this post.  You can find this episode here:

If you want to sound really smart and have lots to contribute to conversations, listen to Radio Lab.  I regularly offer information I learn by listening and therefore am able to come across as pretty convincing.  Thank you RL!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sushi or Not Sushi . . . That is the Question

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

As the member of the MIE team who blogs most frequently about Japan, I'd be remiss if I didn't eventually get around to the topic of sushi.

When people learn that I live in Japan and am allergic to fish (technically, fish oil - and, thankfully, the allergy does not extend to shellfish), the reactions commonly fall somewhere on a scale that runs from "Can you eat anything at all?" (Of course!) to "How sad, you have to pass up all that sushi." (Actually, the reality may surprise you.)

The reaction underscores an interesting truth - despite the wide-ranging and diverse nature of Japanese cuisine (both native and fusion), many people outside Japan associate "Japanese food" either primarily or exclusively with sushi.

Woodblock print of sushi shops in Edo (now Tokyo)

Which is a little ironic, considering that this iconic Japanese dish did not originate in Japan.

The food now known as sushi most likely originated somewhere along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, where people combined raw fish with salt and rice to prevent the fish from spoiling. While that dish dates to prehistory, a version--known as narezushi--came to Japan during the Yayoi Period (300 BCE - 300 CE).

During the Edo period (1603-1868), or possibly slightly earlier, people began to mix the fish and rice with seasoned vinegar rather than salt alone. They also started eating the rice along with the fish, instead of discarding the rice when the fermentation process finished. 

Models of full-sized "proto-sushi" from the Edo period

Over time, people realized that fresh fish taste better than fermented ones (or so I hear - see: allergy), and sushi developed into a fresh dish rather than a fermented one.

As a port town, Edo had access to a large number of fresh-caught fish and other sea delicacies on a daily basis. Markets grew up along the waterfront. Fishermen and fishmongers sold the fish themselves, but enterprising merchants also set up carts and stands nearby selling what we might consider "proto-sushi" - vinegared rice with fist-sized slabs of rice on top.

Scale model of an early sushi cart (photographed at the Edo Tokyo Museum)

The bite-sized version of nigirizushi, which features sliced raw fish on seasoned rice, didn't appear in the gastronomic lexicon (if such a term exists) until the first half of the 19th century. Its popularity exploded after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when chefs from Edo (now Tokyo) spread across the country to flee the devastation in the Kanto region (the portion of Japan that includes Tokyo).

The rest, as they say, is culinary history. Sushi restaurants existed in the United States during the early 1900s, although most of them were forced to close when their proprietors were forced into internment camps during World War II.

Since the 1980s, sushi has enjoyed strong popularity in the United States--but the dish has been eaten (and loved) consistently in Japan (in all its incarnations) since its introduction during the Yayoi period.

There are even vegetarian/vegan versions, for those who don't or can't eat fish. The most popular involve konjac (an edible tuber that does an impressive squid interpretation, as well as a passable whitefish, in terms of consistency if not taste) although other vegetables often enter service for the cause as well.

Konjac sashimi at Ryokan Iwaso, Miajima, Japan

Avocado sashimi, sharing the plate (clockwise) with grated daikon and fresh Yuba (tofu skin)

The easiest places to find vegetarian sushi and sashimi (the proper name for "sushi" that consists only of raw fish, without the rice) are in temples serving shojin ryorui (Buddhist temple cuisine), although some traditional sushi restaurants offer non-fish options also.

Sushi for everyone!

There you have it - a brief history of Japan's most famous (if not entirely Japanese) culinary offering, from humble preservation technique to eye-catching masterpiece.

A vegetarian version of the customary summer "raw fish appetizer" at Ryokan Iwaso

And now for the real question: do you like sushi?