Wednesday, April 14, 2021



Shutterstock/Rena Schild

The Trial of Derek Chauvin

I have been closely following the trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin. I've missed very little of it. A couple of days ago I had one of those weird "parallel universe" experiences when the absurdity of what we are witnessing hit me in the face. The jury is being asked to accept that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck with as much force as possible (calculated by pulmonary expert witness Martin Tobin to be some 90 pounds in total) did not cause Floyd's death. 

The case is historic in many ways, one of them being that it has an extraordinary amount of documentation from multiple types of cameras from different perspectives. So powerful are the videos that the only way Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, can defend his client is persuade the jury that something else was going on--the well-known "look-over-there" trick. 

Merriam Webster defines misdirection as

1. a wrong direction

2. a: the act or an instance of misdirecting or diverting
    b: the state of being misdirected

What Eric Nelson is engaging in is definition 2a in order to lure the jury into definition 2b. (Funnily  enough, that's what mystery writers do as well.)

Defense lawyer Eric Nelson (screenshot)

Planting seeds of doubt

If only one jury member dissents from the others, it will result in a mistrial, which in some ways is the worst possible outcome. At any rate, Nelson's task is arguably both difficult because of the video and easy because he only needs one jury member to "look over there." Much as we'd like to deny it, all jury members will bring along their belief systems and prejudices, and one of them may have just the right frame of mind for Nelson to wedge his way in and raise a doubt: Maybe, just maybe, if Mr. Floyd didn't have all those things "going on," he wouldn't have died:
  1. Drug use: that Fentanyl stuff can be pretty lethal. Floyd might have had an overdose. Plus, the methamphetamine could have combined with the Fentanyl to produce a deadly combination.
  2. Heart disease: Floyd had those bad coronary arteries. In fact, one of them was almost completely occluded. That could definitely kill someone. Plus, his heart was enlarged, so that sounds like something pretty bad.
  3. Covid-19: Floyd had the disease some months before, and that could have made his lungs less compliant, which would make it harder for him to breathe.
What makes these ideas so farcical is that if Mr. Floyd had a perfect cardiopulmonary system, pristine coronary arteries, a drug-free analysis, and no previous Covid-19, he still would have died because someone was kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. But what is logically simple and clear to one person may be cloudy to another. I call this confused thinking. 

An example of confused thinking is the idea that Sandy Hook was a fabricated event, or that Covid-19 is a hoax. In the latter case, this would mean all the countries of the world; every government; every doctor and nurse in every ICU across the globe who claim to have taken care of Covid-19 patients; all the media reporters from the US to New Zealand to South Africa to Nigeria to Morocco to Italy to Sweden; all the hospitals and clinics in the world; all the EMS personnel who answered calls to Covid-stricken homes, and all the families who claim to have lost their loved ones to Covid--yes, all of these people got together and agreed to make up a disease that actually doesn't exist. Confused thinking.

Ugly undertones in the trial

Black people recognize when a racist slur is being raised, whether blatantly or subtly. For example, when cross-examining the black MMA witness, Nelson was bent on getting the man to admit that he (the witness), had been angry at the defendant, which was the reason for all the derogatory names the witness called Chauvin. In fact, it was outrage, not anger, but still, anger over someone being killed right in front of you would be a perfectly defensible reaction. But that wasn't the point. The point was to paint a picture of an "angry Black man" who was "distracting" Chauvin from his duties, somehow causing Chauvin to sustain the assault for more than nine minutes.

There were other racist-based notions put forward that were designed to engender negative feelings toward Floyd, even though it is not Floyd on trial, it is Chauvin. For example, the idea that Floyd was one of these worthless, inner city, criminal drug addicts. Nelson even suggested Floyd might have taken drugs intra-rectally, a baseless and rather offensive idea. Several jurors might have been repulsed by such an image, and once such an insinuation worms its way into the brain, it's hard to get it out. There's a double standard applied to drugs: when people of color use drugs, it's a crime (remember the 1980s?). When white people use drugs, it's an epidemic.

What the defense is trying to do is generate such a negative picture of Mr. Floyd that his murder somehow becomes justified. It represents the attempt to make the blameless become the blamed. "Yeah, I know it was kind of bad Floyd was killed . . . but you know he was a drug addict, right?" Confused thinking.

Anticipatory fear

Some may not see George Floyd's death in the same way African Americans do: a lynching. The only substantial difference between the old-style lynching by hanging and Floyd's killing is that he was horizontal on the ground instead of upright swinging from a tree by the neck. Michael Donald, currently featured in the CNN series The People Vs. The Klan, was hanged, but lynching is of course not restricted to hanging. Emmett Till's murderers beat him almost to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw is body into the Tallahatchie River. Mack Charles Parker was treated in much the same way by a white mob. James Byrd, Jr., was dragged to death after being tied to the back of a vehicle.

Lynching is by definition extra-judicial, but African Americans cannot but help conflating lynchings with killings by police officers, because we are all aware that in the United States South, police forces were originally designed to preserve the practice of slavery. Slave patrols were created to hunt down runaways and prevent revolts. So, the killing of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a host of other victims hearken back to those days, and generate a particular kind of anguish and despair among African Americans that others might find difficult to grasp. The reality remains to this day: it's nigh impossible to get a white police officer convicted for killing a black person. 

The anticipation or even the contemplation of a Derek Chauvin acquittal sets up incredible dread and apprehension in the minds of African Americans. It's the fear of reliving the profound psychological pain that will result if that scenario comes to pass and reliving the resulting demonstrations and unrest. And all the while, African Americans go back to that fundamental question: "Why, exactly, do they hate us so much?" 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Mette McLeod – an Expert Eye on Russia

Annamaria Introducing Mette McLeod

Russia has been on my want-to-visit list for a long while.  I hope to correct the omission one lovely post-COVID day.  In the meanwhile, Zoe has introduced me to someone who can provide a vicarious visit, here today, and in her acclaimed debut novel.  Meet Mette!

Mette McLeod grew up in Norway and trained at the Norwegian Defense Intelligence and Security School before being recruited to the Intelligence Service. She went on to work as a journalist reporting from all over the world, including two years as a correspondent in Moscow. Her writing is inspired by people she’s met, real events and situations. She lives in Bergen, Norway, with her husband, two children and a Welsh lurcher.


She took an MA in Creative Writing at City, University of London, receiving a Distinction for her novel RED HAVEN, and won the PFD/City prize. RED HAVEN was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association.


From gilded halls to rusty doors


Russia is a place of extreme contrasts. I was fortunate to live and work there for two years, and as a journalist I got to see a great many sides of Russian society up close. It was an incredible place to report on, but there were too many stories that didn’t fit into any article, and too many places I visited that I never had enough column inches to describe.


Through my debut novel, Red Haven, I found a way to share some of those stories and places. Below are just a few that made it into the book - whether in their real-life forms or with a bit of creative licence. Locations anyone who’s been in Russia for a significant amount of time will recognise.

Men on high horses riding into the ballroom

There is an area just west of the Kremlin where all the streets are named after a trade: the tablecloth alley, the bread alley. And then there’s the cook’s street, Ulitsa Povarskaya. Just behind a small, white church on the neon lights-decorated Novy Arbat, you can find the Norwegian ambassador's residence, which I used as a setting for my imaginary “Casino Mitrofan” in Red Haven. In the 1880s the house belonged to the businessman Mitrofanov Grachev, who built it into the stately home it is today. It is said that a man once made a very grand entrance to a ball by riding his horse up the wide marble staircase. 


Norwegian Embassy stairs

After the 1917 revolution the building was nationalised along with most other properties, and it then became the German embassy. But after the second world war, when the Soviet Union had helped liberate northern Norway from German occupation, the Soviet Union and Norway each converted the former German embassy in their country to that of their counterpart: Germany’s embassy in Moscow became Norway’s.


Ballroom of the Ambassador's residence

There are real casinos in Moscow, plenty of them, but I wanted to share some of the beautiful pre-revolution architecture that you can still find in Moscow by using this setting for Red Haven’s casino scene. So much of the old architecture has been destroyed, both during communism and since 1991. A great many historic buildings have been gutted, with only the facade remaining. But not this one. The ambassador's residence has a beautiful mirrored ballroom where cherubs dance across the ceiling in a painting from 1888, elaborately decorated sitting rooms and a dining room with a built-in nook for Russian-Orthodox icons. There’s also a grand piano that Prokofiev once played.  

A diamond-embellished iPhone in the hand is worth a fortune in the bank

Fancy a set of crystal rims for your car? Your very own helicopter or private jet? Or a diamond encrusted mobile phone? This and much more was available at the Moscow Millionaire Fair, an annual fixture on the city’s “see and be seen” calendar, with a strict dress code. 


Private jets on offer at the Moscow Millionaire Fair

But buying these ludicrous luxuries isn’t only about conspicuous consumption. Twice during the 1990s, ordinary Russians lost all their savings to banking collapses, so there’s a big incentive to convert disposable income into something tangible each month, rather than stash it away. And plenty of people do have cash on hand.


Diamond-encrusted mobile phones
at the Moscow Millionaire Fair

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, government-provided housing was privatised and in many cases ownership was simply transferred to the current inhabitants. That meant a lot of people owned their homes outright. With a low birthrate (most couples only have one child), many contemporary Russians have inherited a city-centre home from their grandparents, giving them very low living costs. For those with a decent income, with little to no faith in piling up savings, there’s a pressing need to find a way to convert their money into luxuries on a monthly basis. 

Where men go their own way

Is there a collective noun for man caves? There should be one in Russian. Many Russians live in small flats in high rise apartment blocks with no outside space and nowhere to keep a car. That means garages are arranged in large clusters, often far from where the owners live. But these owners don’t necessarily mind that. Their small flat may be shared with multiple generations of their - or their wife’s - family. For many men, the garage complexes are a haven, a refuge, a place where they can be their own boss. 


Garages with chimneys

Some use the garage only as a place to mend their car, but others have far more elaborate setups. The smoke from the chimneys can reveal a woodfired banya (Russian sauna); in many you’ll find sofas, cans of beer and bottles of vodka. Many have an extra floor on top, or a greenhouse full of vegetable plants. The garage complex in my photos is in Murmansk, a city in the north west of Russia, but it could be anywhere. 


A field of Russian garages

Despite Russia being a place with some seriously organised crime, I’ve felt remarkably safe travelling around the country on my own over the years. Though I’m not sure if I ever was alone. The first time I went to Russia, I had recently left the Norwegian Intelligence service, and I clocked two men following me around the streets of St. Petersburg on my very first day there. I decided then that I’d stop looking for anyone following me or my phone being bugged; It would just make me paranoid thinking my every move was observed by others. Though the clicking on the phone line was hard to ignore... 


Mette’s debut thriller, RED HAVEN, is out now:


Meet Aurora “Rory” Conroy: ex-military, private investigator, specialist in finding and extracting kidnapped children. She’s doing her dream job, but after her sleaze of a boss crosses a line, she finds herself cut adrift. Starting out on her own, an old schoolmate gets in touch with what looks like the perfect case for her first assignment. But is it?


Amazon US


Amazon UK

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Separating the Shoes From the Chaff in Iwate

--Susan, every other Sunday 

Some time ago, I visited Michinoku Folklore Village in Iwate, a prefecture in the northern Tohoku region of Honshu (Japan's largest island).

Michinoku Folklore Village in the snow

The folklore village--one of many such "living history" parks in Japan--consists of historic houses and other structures (like mills, local shrines, and storehouses) that have been moved from their original locations to a protected park where visitors can come to learn about life in Japan's late medieval and early modern (mostly Edo and Meiji) periods.

The interior of a 19th century merchant home

In addition to the houses themselves--all of which are open for visitors to walk through--Michinoku Folklore Village has a converted 19th century schoolhouse that now serves as home to displays of farming artifacts that show how Iwate's villagers lived from the 17th-20th centuries.

Farming life in the pre-modern era

I'm a sucker for historical artifacts in any form, and for folklore villages in particular--especially when a visit involves a brisk walk through the snow--but one display at Michinoku captured my attention more than usual, mainly because I'd never seen such an elaborate display of antique shoes.

O-waraji (literally "honorable sandals")

The display included not only traditional o-waraji (sandals), but heavy work shoes

heavy-duty work shoes

The bands of colorful fabric around the tops of the work shoes were designed to prevent the edges from chafing ankles, as well as to prevent the shoes themselves from fraying. 

There were snow boots:

16th century Uggs

and even wooden "mud shoes" used to prevent the wearer's feet from sinking irretrievably deep into the mud that forms in paddy fields (and low-lying village paths when the spring thaw comes).

Complete with handles, so you can pull them out of the mud when they get stuck.

Most shoes were woven by women, using leftover rice straw from the annual harvest. The sturdiness and functionality of these items never ceases to amaze me--and while I'd seen most of these styles in different places from time to time, I had never seen them all in a single place.

The exhibit also included some of the wooden loom forms used for weaving various kinds of shoes:

Shoe Looms

as well as a larger loom used for weaving straw "cloth" that was used for making rain gear. 

Weaving straw

I read a lot of history books, and learn a lot through words and print, but displays like this have a way of collapsing time and making history both real and far more personal. It's one thing to know that people wore hand-woven shoes made from straw or grass, but another to see not only the shoes they wore (or even modern replicas, which many of the ones on display in Iwate clearly are) but the actual, handmade looms and other tools they used to make them.

In the mountains, good shoes often mean the difference between life and death. That was particularly true before the advent of modern life: in a medieval mountain village, if your feet got frozen, or injured, you could not work, or walk, or do the things you need to do to live. In the modern world, it's easy for many of us to take shoes for granted, but it wasn't that long ago that shoes like the ones in this display were still the norm (and, in some places, it's still true today).   

The craftsmanship of Japanese woven shoes is impressive, even by modern standards--and while I'm not in a hurry to climb any mountains wearing them, I'm absolutely impressed by the many people who did just that (and more) in years gone by.

The museum and the village had far more on display than "merely" shoes--in fact, the sandals took up only one small corner of one floor--but they impressed me enough that I thought I'd "shoe" them off to you as well.

It's possible to buy modern reproductions of traditional sandals in many places across Japan. So, tell me: would you be interested in walking a mile (or two) in a pair of rice straw shoes?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Guest Blogger--Jonathan Siger: The Murdered are Everywhere



This past week, communities around the world observed Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day--to recall the victims of the Holocaust.  I thought it appropriate share the thoughts of a distinguished writer of non-fiction on that solemn day.  

Jonathan Siger is rabbi of Congregation Jewish Community North in Spring, Texas.  In addition to his pulpit work, Rabbi Siger serves the Hillel Foundation at Texas A&M University as a Senior Jewish Educator.  In addition, he is a River Chaplain Associate of the Seamen’s Church Institute and a lead volunteer Chaplain for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.  He’s also my son, and what he wrote speaks to far more than the Jewish Experience—especially these days.

I don’t get the question so much anymore, but for years, it was asked all the time. “Why did you become a rabbi?” Like many of my colleagues, I developed a stock ‘elevator speech’ with which to answer. And so, I often respond with the following: It was a way to combine what I was naturally best at, with what I was most passionate about. And this is true. It’s still true. But it is not the whole truth. I wanted to be liked, and I wanted to feel important.

I also wanted to defy the Nazis.

I first learned about the Shoah when I was seven years old. My parents had split by then, and we were visiting my mother’s parents in Massachusetts. They had a rock on the mantle over their fireplace with “Masada” written on it. They had a map of Israel on the wall. They had an awesome basement with a playroom and a workshop for my grandfather.

There were great things in that workshop. Tools, and an old guitar that sounded horrible and was missing strings but was still a real guitar, and a cool necklace with a big medal on it. I emerged from the basement, striding into the sitting room off the kitchen, strutting around with my new-found treasure. It turns out that the necklace was a battle trophy; something one of my uncles had brought back from the war. An "Iron Cross", as it happens, taken from a dead Nazi.

My grandmother was mortified at the sight of me wearing it. I wasn’t in trouble, but she snatched it from me, and I never saw it again. And that is how I learned that my grandmother had family that died and how that symbol reminded her of how the letters had just stopped coming in the late fall of 1941. Due to the diligent and invaluable work of a cousin, we learned the horrifying details a few years ago: dozens of members of the family died together at the Rumbala forest massacre outside Riga, Latvia.

The mass graves in which dozens of my family members lie buried along with 24,000 other Latvian Jews.


The site as it appears today

My grandfather's family from Lapy, near Bialiystok, were apparently all executed in the street when their town was liquidated. Among the dead our cousin Ciril, who, based on this picture alone connected with some kind of theatrical production, was definitely both my kin and kind.


My cousin Ciril

My grandmother's grandmother from her passport which was seized by the Reich after their invasion of Latvia

As I grew older, I learned I wasn’t the only kid who knew about the Nazis. Other kids knew about Hitler and the camps and the mass graves and about how to torture Jews. Classmates drew swastikas on my belongings, shouted “Heil Hitler” and threw straight-arm salutes at each other as I passed by. How many Jews fit in a Volkswagen, you ask? All what I assume was typical middle-school bullying, in the age of Hair Metal and Suburban Satanic Cult Murder on Long Island. I did what I was told to do by responsible adults, and ignored it.

I came to learn my uncle on my father’s side, Ben Maretsky, had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge and spent the last part of the war in a series of Nazi German prison camps including the notorious Stalag 13. He hid his identity and even passed for an Antisemite. He gave me his eyewitness testimony of the war and the camps, in an age before computers and tablets. He told me his story, and I learned to value stories told by old men who smelled like shaving soap and talc and had faraway gazes, having seen •some things• in their day. I took them in and held those memories as close to my own as I could.

S/Sgt. Benny Maretsky, POW, Stalag 13

I decided I would honor those who suffered so horribly or even died for being what I was. The Nazis and their barbaric comrades and collaborators would not prevail. My Jewish education would be an act of cultural self-defense. I would live a defiantly Jewish life. I would do my part to rebuild.

Not only did I grow up with and around survivors; I had the good fortune to study with some of the best historians of the post-war generation. I came to understand that the Holocaust may have been the biggest, most methodical and cruel attempt to destroy the Jewish people, but it is also only the most recent. The Inquisition and the Crusades were as cruel to the Jews, and lasted centuries. After a thousand years, what folly it seems to be to have thought that the disease would have run its course. What fools were we who dared think it was over.

Yom HaShoah continues, because for millions of us, it has never ended.

Thank you, son, I’m proud of you.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Hanging Hiatus

 I am in that strange land of having delivered a book and waiting to hear if the editor likes it, or if she thinks it's so bad she has had to go on some medication.


                                                   Or merely to amuse while our reader is waiting for a delayed flight!

Firstly, there is imposter syndrome. One of these days I will be found out. I hit the big time with my first attempt at writing a novel. Everything I have written has been published and there will be a time when somebody finds out that I can't write for toffee.

Secondly, I have no idea what I am going to write- as the MIE readers know, it's a chaotic ( I do believe agile is the better word ) process, painful and disorganised ( Ok organic)  and therefore I'm kind of stumped when my editor says  she needs something like a synopsis to take to a meeting. When it was 'her' I used to send in an email that said

Book X  somebody gets murdered and the cops find out who did it

Book Y  ditto

You can see that it was a bit scanty on detail.


                           Writing feels like climbing onto the upper decks of the Titanic!

But then I have never had identical twins, time travel, voodoo or a psychic popping up at the end and giving  the cops the killer's phone number, in  my books so over the years, I suppose some trust has been formed.  With the new buy out and the imprint of the buy out, and the new deal of the imprint of the buy out  with another publisher, she needs a wee bit more to take to the 'meeting'.  For that novel she got a few lines  which were written by a journalist friend as I lay on the carpet staring at the ceiling and spurting nonsense.


                                               The latest incarnation of the first book.

Of course, the book I delivered is nothing like that scenario.  I think she might notice.  She might object. But as yet, I do not know.

When I wrote the standalone Mosaic ( soon to be republished as The Cursed Girls which will confuse everybody including me ), I did mention it to the editor before I started writing it. We had a coffee and cake,  and in the end she nodded and  gave me the green light.

With lockdown, the business,  the builders, the stress - all that has been going on, I was looking forward to having a bit of space in my head when the book was sent away. I had no ideas what to write,  I had no ideas of getting out my bed to be honest.

I pressed send on the file at 4.55 on Good Friday.   Worked Saturday and Sunday... Sunday night two wee earworms of ideas appeared.

One was a rubbish idea.... but I want to write a book about the seven old friends invited to an island  and one by one...... but it's been done so many times before and I don't think I could bring  anything new to it. Then a patient came in who works --- wait for it -- on a quarry on an island off the west coast.  And all there is on that island is the quarry. A small boat goes back and forth once a week, or not if the weather is bad. And a big boat visits to lift up the  quarried  stone that I think is for curling stones.  That idea is on the back burner but tumbling around in my head.

The other was an idea about cults. I could put the cult on an island. With a quarry. Good body disposal there.  And people trying to get their kids back.... a bit of thinking resumed.


                      This a rain map of Scotland, the higher the peak, the greater the rainfall.

                                           It is indeed a rainforest.

Then I went back to those famous List murders where the Dad killed his entire family and laid them out together, side by side in one room. There's two storylines there but one good coffee ( black, no unicorns) and a raspberry doughnut,  a fountain pen full of blood red ink ( purchased at Bouchercon Toronto) and a scrap of A4 paper and the two storylines were united in  mayhem and murder.


                                                A coffee outdoors in Glasgow on Tuesday.

Caro Ramsay ( under a rain cloud)


Numbers, numbers, numbers...

 Michael – Thursday

I’ve written about the way numbers can be fake news before, and I suppose it is something of a fixation of mine. The reason is that all data is eventually turned into numbers and then the numbers are equated with information. Unfortunately, that can be as much of a leap as some of the way out conspiracy theories of QAnon. Garbage in, garbage out.

There’s no point in giving an example from the Trump era – almost everything he said needed to be taken with a lorry load of salt. So let’s move to the current incumbent. It’s obvious that he’s honest and committed, and has an impressive agenda. His second huge multi-trillion dollar initiative is a wide-ranging infrastructure bill that will not only update and repair existing US infrastructure, but modernize and green the economy and create 19 million jobs. “Independent analysis shows that if we pass this plan, the economy will create 19 million jobs — good jobs, blue-collar jobs, jobs that pay well.”

19 million? Huh? That is a staggering number. The US workforce is estimated at around 165 million and unemployment in 2020 was some 4%.  That’s about 6.6 million job seekers. Hmm. Where will the other 13 million workers come from. So I went back and read the report more carefully. Ah! It turns out to be over ten years. That makes more sense. Well, that’s growth of say 2 million jobs a year, and only in the areas relevant to the infrastructure program. It still seems inconceivable that the workforce can grow that quickly, especially with good jobs, blue-collar jobs, jobs that pay well, unless there's huge immigration of skilled people. That doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda. 

So where does the 19 million figure come from in the first place? Where is the independent analysis from? It’s a report by Moody’s Analytics on the predicted growth of the US economy over the next ten years using economic models. Ten years is a very long time in the complex modern world. If there’s any salt left over from that lorry load, it may be good to keep it handy. Nevertheless, Moody’s is a serious source for numbers. They say 19 million new jobs from the infrastructure bill.

Except that’s not what they say at all. They are looking at the situation with the economy based at the start of the fourth quarter of last year i.e. devastated by covid. With no government intervention at all, they expect nearly 16 million jobs to be created over the ten years. The American Rescue Plan (the first multi-trillion bill) makes little impact over the ten years – its role is to kick start the economy over the next year or so i.e. to get people who lost their jobs back to work. When the dust settles, the infrastructure plan is expected to create an additional 2.7 million jobs, say 270,000  new jobs per year. That’s completely believable and, actually, terrific!

Note that the president’s statement is logically correct. In logic, if statement B is always true, then statement A implies statement B is also true whatever A is. But the “information” we draw from the way it’s worded is completely wrong.

There's always trouble when we try to reduce reality to numbers. In her new book, Counting, How we use numbers to decide what matters, Deborah Stone points out that we get what we count, so we better count the right things. She mentions Soviet textile factories that were given production targets by total length produced. They produced long narrow strips. And in the era of railroad construction in the US, payment for a project was sometimes based on the total length of track laid. A section in Nebraska took a wide, totally unnecessary, arc to add extra profitable miles of rail.

More subtle examples are found in many areas. In education, there’s an ever raging argument about how to assess students in a way that is fair, culturally neutral, and avoids rote learning. Collaboration is important both in learning and in almost all types of work these days. (Even writing mysteries in our case!) Naturally, reference materials and the internet are essential. Yet most examinations require students to write a paper they haven’t seen before or had time to think about, with no collaboration with any other person, and no use of any reference materials, computers, or the internet. Wow! Exactly how  we expect them to operate in the real world!

Then, of course, there’s IQ measurement. Since we don’t really know what intelligence is, it’s not surprising that we aren’t that great at measuring it. But IQ does correlate with things like income, longevity, professional success, so it is important. Early studies across geographies suggested differences in average IQs. For example, results from high-school students in South Africa and Botswana were below European averages. The numbers were correct. Except that the tests were administered to young kids in English instead of their home language. Garbage in, garbage out.

In this maelstrom of issues around interpreting numbers, trying to understand cause and effect versus correlation, and (sometimes deliberate) misinformation, we have to make important decisions. A discussion I had yesterday:

So would you say I should get a jab when they offer it?


But don’t they cause blood clots?

Well, only very occasionally. And only one of them.

But they all do the same thing, right?

Well, no, not actually. It’s complicated.

Suppose it turns out that only a few people get clots immediately, but eventually everyone who has had the vaccine does?

Well, they don’t think that’s how the process works.

But they don’t know, right?



Wednesday, April 7, 2021

What Makes a Death a Legend?

Sujata Massey and Nev March 

Continuing our unofficial celebration of Hammett Prize nominees, I'm shining the spotlight on MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY, by one of my writing friends, Nev March.

Nev lives in New Jersey, and I'm in Baltimore. Our only real life meeting was in New York City at the Edgars symposium in 2019. I was there to win the Mary Higgins Clark prize the following evening (though that day, I had no idea!). Nev already knew she was winning the St. Martins/Minotaur Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Fiction award, which results in publication of one's book the next year. 

Nev intrigued me by sharing that Murder in Old Bombay was partly inspired by one of Bombay's most famous unsolved crimes: the Rajabai Clock Tower Deaths of 1891. I was honored to write the cover blurb for this book. I found that Nev solves the riddle of the deaths by using fictional characters who come together in a way that makes great dramatic and cultural sense. She also introduces us to a fictional Parsi family of great wealth and intelligence, and a clever young Army captain, Jim Agnihotri, who's hired to investigate their family's tragedy.

Nev and a policewoman near the clock tower balcony

It was no great shock that this book is also nominated for the Edgar Award nominee for Best First Mystery, but it certainly is great news. I don't know how things could get any rosier for Nev. But from the answers she gave me, it's clear that she is one of the humblest, hardest working writers around.

You just got nominated for the Barry and Hammett awards! And you’ve got an Edgar nomination for best first mystery. What does the recognition mean for you and your writing journey?

It’s marvelous. When I was writing I didn’t ever imagine Murder in Old Bombay would find such a warm reception. To have a first book out is both surreal and exciting; to have it gain such recognition is enormously rewarding. It also adds a bit of stress, because now my next book needs to match or exceed this level of writing. My writing journey has just begun, so I have to trust that the process works, and that pulling honestly from my truths will be enough. In some ways it’s a bit easier, because I trust my own judgement more.

We’ve talked together about how important books were in your upbringing. In your childhood or teen years, did you want to become a novelist? What happened instead, with your longtime career in the US?
In 1990 my short story 'Must There Be Crying?' was published in Target, a children’s magazine in India, followed by ‘Blue Skies,’ a short sci-fi piece. I was in college; writing was considered a hobby, not a career. After earning degrees in economics and psychology, I won a scholarship to a graduate program in the States. For the next twenty years I worked in business analysis, market research and more, then was laid off. 


This led to some soul-searching. I’d enjoyed my work, conversations with colleagues and made good contributions—should I seek another position of responsibility or turn to what gave me more joy—writing fiction? Writing won, but it was a few years until it paid off.

I was born Sujata Banerjee, but took the last name ‘Massey’ when I married my American husband. As you know, Massey also is an Indian name, so it’s proved a miracle surname for me as a writer. Was Nev your nickname or strictly a pen name? Tell us how you became ’Nev March’. Do you go by Nawaz Merchant in your daily life?

I’ve experienced many forms of racism over these 30 years, and I wanted to give my book a fair chance. A name is a vanity in some sense, a mark of pride that says, "this is mine." Murder in Old Bombay is like my adult child that has gone into the world. To prevent my name becoming a barrier to its growth, I chose to write under a pseudonym. My nickname was Nav, which I modified to Nev. ‘Nev’ is a nod to Neville Shute, an Australian writer I admired enormously. I took 'March' from a childhood favorite, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Jo March wanted to earn a living as a writer, like me!  


How did you tap into your talent and get the courage to believe you could write a novel? Was your writer’s group part of it?
Although I’d written four books before 2006, I didn’t know how to market them. So, with two young kids and a full-time job, I put aside creative writing for a decade. Five years ago I joined my local writers’ group, but it was a year and a half later that I wrote Murder in Old Bombay. My writing group was enormously supportive, but also honest, with tough critiques when needed. 

What does writing a 135,000 word manuscript in four months’ time look like? Tell us when you awoke, when you slept, and what else happened.
Writing Murder in Old Bombay was addictive. I’d keep seeing a scene repeating in my mind like a video on endless loop. Each time the scene was from a different perspective, or have additional dialog and surprises. I’d write just to get it out of my head! Then the next would spool. I’d go to bed at 2 am and have to return to the PC at 4 because the next scene kept repeating. It was intense and I loved every bit! It hijacked me—I rarely knew what date it was. Terrified that it wasn’t as good as I wanted, I leaned heavily on my friends during those months. Three critique partners provided extensive input, and one of them, Jay Langley, helped me trim the 138,000 word manuscript to the final 115,000 words needed by my publisher. I can’t ever thank them enough!

Entrance to the University's reading room


You delve into a true mystery in Bombay, the deaths in 1891 of two young Parsi women who fell from the Rajabai Clock tower on the University of Bombay campus. There were 2 trials with suspects brought forward, but noone was ever convicted. I was deeply struck by the emotion around this case and even refer to it in my next novel, which is set thirty years later. How did you first heard of this crime, and what did it meant to you as a young woman in India? And how did you extract information from more than a century ago?
As a teen, if I tried to do something adventurous (join the hiking club, overnight college trip etc), my parents put the kibosh on it with this phrase: “Remember the Godrej Girls.” It pointed out that girls aren’t safe, even in daylight. Rape was never mentioned, either in public or private. I only knew that something bad happened to girls from my own tiny community. 


Decades later I read an article about their deaths and the murder trial, which was the trial of the century in the 1800s Bombay. When the accused with acquitted due to lack of evidence, two petitions were filed by Parsi citizens of Bombay begging to reopen the case. 60,000 Parsis signed the first, 40,000 the second petition. This is astonishing, since there were only 100,000 Parsis world-wide! 


To research it, I read articles and newspaper archives—the case was in British newspapers, and biographies of Ardeshir Godrej (the young widower of one of the victims) hoping for more clues. Ardeshir (usually shortened to Adi) fascinated me, because he became a serial entrepreneur, and founded what is now the Godrej Conglomerate. How does a 22-year-old recover from the death of his young bride? I wondered whether he might have solved the mystery by hiring a detective, and thereby found closure. An intensely private man, he wouldn’t have made public his investigation. That’s where my novel began.

The novel’s protagonist is Jim Agnihotri, a dashing young Anglo-Indian military officer. Was he always meant to be the novel’s protagonist? I step out of my exact cultural identity (Indian-German) when writing about India because it feels too unusually specific. What advantage does stepping out of your own Parsi identity to become Jim give you in storytelling?


The moment I “saw” Captain Jim, I knew he’d be the novel’s protagonist. The first scene I wrote was chapter 2: his meeting with Adi. An army man, an officer—I could not understand why he was so deferential to the grieving widower. Then I realized he was mixed race, and it all fell into place. In my mind Captain Jim was astonishingly forthcoming, so I could show his intense loneliness from exclusion.

Parsi writers like Rohinton Mistry, Boman Desai and Bapsi Sidhwa have beautifully portrayed the Parsi community as insiders. I wanted to show my community how they are viewed by others, especially by those who love them, who are traditionally not admitted into the Zoroastrian faith.  This loving portrayal allows me to tell tough truths; that those who follow the Zoroastrian path of “good thoughts, words and deeds” may still be bound by old conventions that hurt others deeply. The character of Burjor is based on people I love dearly who I hoped to persuade to a more liberal point of view.


When was the last time you were in India, and when do you hope to return?
I visited India every other year, sometimes three times a year for my parents’ medical care. Mum passed away last year, and Dad is now in the US. Once the covid restrictions are lifted and it is safe to travel, I hope to return and meet my dear aunts and uncles.

Tell us about your next book. Will it feature Jim? Is there a title yet?

No title yet, but I'm working on a sequel set in 1893 Chicago, where millions visit the World's Fair, the magical Columbian Exposition celebrating America's progress. Now employed at a Boston detective agency, Captain Jim investigates the murder of a friend on the fairgrounds. The first Parliament of World Religions will be held that summer, while at the same time the World Convention of Anarchists has assembled. What could possibly go wrong? And, yes, what will resourceful Diana do about it?