Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Hot Enough To Fry a Pancake

 Sujata Massey


A little more than a week ago, I was lying in a darkened bedroom at 4 pm on a Friday afternoon—wracked with fatigue, weakness and thirst. 


The day had started splendidly. I’d driven about 40 miles to the Washington suburbs to visit with my new author friend Shauna Singh Baldwin, a Wisconsin based writer who was visiting a school friend who lived there. Shauna and I’d had a been chatting with me the night before about my new book. It was cool at 8:30, when we walked—Shauna, her friend Ruma, and me. I wore a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses and took a sun protection supplement. Oh, yes--the top below is my favorite 50 SPF rashguard. I have to take extra precautions due to medication-induced sun sensitivity. I'm on Shauna's left.



Because I was making this drive, an opportunity rose in my mind for GOOD FOOD. Specifically, South Indian food. In Baltimore, the South Asian diaspora is mostly represented North Indian and Nepali restaurants. The Washington D.C.  suburbs have both more diverse cuisines. I'd been longing for a dish called uthappam, a pancake of fermented rice and lentil flours that’s studded with tiny bits of vegetables and chillies. Next to dosa, uthappam is one of South India’s most popular exports served all around India. There’s a special magic to its fermented sour taste. If you’ve tasted dosa, you’ll recognize uthappam as a less glamorous, heartier cousin.

The picture below is how Wikipedia defines uthappam.



The ladies and I had a glorious time on the walk through shady neighborhood streets. I told Shauna's friend, Ruma, about my desire for uthappam. To save time, Ruma recommended that I save time by foregoing the restaurant I'd planned to drive to in Gaithersburg. She was a fan of a restaurant called Chettinadu in Rockville, a suburb near Bethesda. 


I said goodbye to my friends, applied more sunscreen, and took off. Due to roadwork and closed lanes, the drive through suburban streets to Rockville took as long as my earlier drive from Baltimore to Bethesda. This translated to about 40 minutes of one-way driving, with the mid-morning sun blazing through my windshield. I felt it. had the brim of my hat pulled low and sunglasses on and a surgical mask covering my lower face. As the sunlight intensified, and the car moved along at ten miles and hour, I thought to myself, I’m doing all of this for a spicy pancake?

Chettinadu's storefront marquee was at the back of a large shopping center parking lot. I've come to take this as an auspicious sign, when it comes to small international restaurants. I exited my car under a cloudless sky and walked a couple of agonizing, overheated minutes to the restaurant. Still fully shielded by hat, mask and dark glasses, I slunk into the restaurant like a too-obvious spy and sat down to wait for my order to finish cooking. You see, in addition to uthappam, I’d ordered a plain pancake known as appam, a mixed vegetable curry, a chicken curry, vadas, and rasam. 


The sun didn’t give me a break on the ride home, and I didn’t feel well when I got inside. I drank more water, ate a little vegetable curry and ate a quarter of the uthappam. Then I toppled into bed. I felt strange. It’s hard to explain, but I was thirsty, and very, very tired, in a way that didn't feel restful, though I did fall asleep. 

Fortunately, it was not actual sunstroke, in which I might have sprung a temperature. This sun exhaustion was almost surely caused by a drug reaction, I learned as I looked at the profiles of two meds I'd taken the day before my car trip.  I was so much better the next morning and attacked the uthappam again at breakfast and lunch. I didn’t have any left the day after, and I wanted more.


But not that drive.

I told myself that if I could make my own uthappam. Many uthappam recipes are in South Indian cookbooks and online. There also are myriad websites where Indian home cooks are sharing healthier versions of classic recipes. 

I was more confident than wise.


I attempted a classic uthappam batter, which ferments up to 20 hours and is made with soaked urad dal and parboiled rice. Both ingredients soften in water for 6 hours and are then ground together with their soaking water into a batter. The batter then ferments from eight to twenty hours. 


It turned out that my air-conditioned house is too cold for this batter to ferment, and my screened porch simply too hot to do anything except grow blue and yellow bacteria spots on the surface. I concluded. For this kind of cooking, you need a mother, aunty, or South Indian chef looking over your shoulder.


It wasn’t time to quit. I could attempt one of the new, instant uthappam recipes from the armies of Indian food bloggers. They are instant in the sense that they use a little yogurt or baking soda to get the batter bubbly. Here are the ingredients before mixing and the finished batter below.


 I defaulted to easy by picking a recipe calling for ingredients that were already in my house. Indians are increasingly health conscious and making changes to traditional dishes. Several uthappam recipes using oats as the main flour caught my eye. I decided to try “oatmeal uthappam," in which rolled oats are ground into a kind of flour or left whole if they are instant oats. the batter doesn’t ferment overnight like classic recipes, but it has a good bacteria boost from probiotic plain yogurt. 


The pancake was quite thick, as the recipe author warned, and it took three tries till I could get it to semi-uthappam shape—although it was uneven. Quickly I discovered less is more with the vegetables toppings, and given the fibrous quality of oatmeal, water must be added to make the batter suitably thin.  Spreading the batter had to be fast and the vegetables needed to scatter within the next 30 seconds and be gently pressed down. I arranged everything right next to the frying pan and worked as fast as I could. 

In India, uthappam are fried on a tawa, which looks like a large round frying pan, typically cast iron or aluminum. I found cast iron worked better for me than stainless.

Broken pancakes would never be served at Chettinadu, but they were at my house. And there was a pleasant tang. I at the second pancake, because the first was an. utter run, and by the third pancake, I had one that flipped out of the pan and into the plate without breaking. Although it still wasn't round.

In a way, making these pancakes was a lot like trying to write a book. My pages are a mess at first--I've just got to keep returning to the work and learning my way through the story. With practice, we inevitably get the skills.

I judged my uttapam a 6 out of 10, and my husband gave it a 9.

So the third one was better! 

Here's the recipe I tried by food blogger Swasthi from  Indian Healthy Recipes.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Everybody counts...

Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch; for me, one of the greatest crime protagonists of modern era, on page and screen. The 7th and final season was released on 25 June

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

All good things must come to an end, as they say, and that was the case over the weekend as one of my favourite crime dramas, ever, released its final episodes. 

Bosch is not just a superb show - great writing, acting, cinematography, tone - that brought an outstanding crime fiction character and book series to millions of viewers around the world. It's a show that's been kinda weirdly entwined with my own life over the years. Moreso than usual. 

For a whole lot of reasons it was a bit of a reflective time for me when I sat down to binge all eight episodes of the seventh and final season on Saturday (after meeting some work and other deadlines).

So I thought I'd spend today's post looking back over Bosch, not only because "all good things must come to an end", but because, as my mother used to say, "good things come to those who wait". 

In Season 7 Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver) investigates a fatal fire that may be entwined with local drug dealers as well as murders related to a financial scam.

It's easy to forget, after seven great seasons, that crime fiction fans had to wait a long time for the character of Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch to be brought to screen. When season 1 of Bosch launched in early 2015 - with no one knowing how Amazon's first venture into TV drama was going to go - it'd been 23 years since the character debuted in Michael Connelly's first novel THE BLACK ECHO.

The dogged detective's road from page to screen was anything but smooth. Yet it was that very passing of time that helped Bosch be so much more than what it could ever have been as a Hollywood film. 

Hopeful, but who knows? Ali Karim, Michael Connelly, Ayo Onatade, Mike Stotter, and Craig Sisterson at the London premiere of Season 1 of Bosch in early 2015. 

A little over six years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to the London premiere of the nascent Amazon Prime drama based on Michael Connelly's seriously good books. I was stoked to attend (and not just because it was my first public outing a few weeks after becoming a stay-at-home Dad to a new baby - so apologies for the slightly dishevelled and sleep-deprived look). Having interviewed Connelly a few times when I was living in New Zealand for newspaper and magazine articles, and on stage, I knew this was a milestone in a rollercoaster journey for Connelly and his iconic character. 

Back in early 2011, Connelly and I were sat onstage before a sold-out audience in the largest cinema of a big multiplex in downtown Auckland, talking about his storytelling, his books, and The Lincoln Lawyer film - which was set to make its New Zealand premiere at the conclusion of our chat. 

Based on a cracking novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was a significantly better adaptation than the first Connelly book turned into a film (Blood Work, helmed by Clint Eastwood). A great legal drama that was also a key step in Matthew McConaughey's return to dramatic roles (aka the 'McConaissance'), and the Texan actor's road to an eventual Academy Award for Dallas Buyers Club

Star and author on the Lincoln Lawyer set; McConaughey reminded people of his dramatic chops with his superb turn as slick defense lawyer Mickey Haller

During that conversation, where I asked questions like what Connelly had seen in McConaughey (at the time known more for shirtless rom-com roles) to believe he'd make a great Mickey Haller - I'd expected it might have been the actor's earlier fine performances in the likes of A Time To Kill or the excellent Frailty, but in fact Connelly revealed it was McConaughey's slick and slightly smarmy turn in Tropic Thunder - we also chatted about Harry Bosch. Would he ever come to screen? 

The news wasn't what our audience wanted to hear - the rights to the Harry Bosch books had been optioned by a Hollywood studio in the mid 1990s. Scripts were written, nothing eventuated. For fifteen years, as the book series and readership grew, Harry Bosch was stuck in ‘development hell’.

Sitting beside him, I could sense Connelly was frustrated. While still hopeful. As great as the Mickey Haller books are - and the film was terrific too - Harry Bosch is Connelly's masterpiece creation. 

You can't write the annals of contemporary crime fiction without discussing the relentless Los Angeles investigator. But back then, we didn't know all those years of Hollywood stalling and misfires would end up being a blessing in disguise. 

Craig Sisterson, then-debut Kiwi crime writer Ben Sanders, and Michael Connelly in Auckland in 2011; a lot's changed for all of us over the past ten years

“They never could really capture the character in 110 pages of script, and so they were actually smart in not making a film because it would have just been a by-the-numbers detective story and that’s not what the books are,” said Connelly a few years ago.

One trait of Harry Bosch, however, is that he keeps going to get to the truth, no matter the obstacles. In a funny way, that’s what happened with his move from page to screen. A couple of years after that Auckland Q&A, Connelly had won a court fight to get his rights back, and a Bosch pilot was filmed.

The lost years made a key difference. “It seemed like a bad story, stuck in development hell for over a decade,” Connelly told me in 2017 when we reminisced about that Auckland event. “But now here, it was almost meant to be. I needed all those extra books. I needed Harry to be older, so this show could be what it is. It’s a headscratcher, it’s so amazing.”

Who knows how this will go: Titus Welliver, Ayo Onatade, Michael Connelly, and Craig Sisterson at the London premiere of season 1 of Bosch in early 2015. 

Connelly teamed with experienced producers Henrik Bastin (American Odyssey) and Eric Overmeyer (The Wire). The trio shared a vision of a long-form character-centric modern noir deeply rooted in ‘real Los Angeles’, the city's gritty reality rather than the glitzy tourist fantasy. But who would play Harry?

“If you're not watching Bosch on Amazon, you better get started. Titus Welliver IS Harry Bosch,” declared Stephen King in a tweet ahead of Season 4 in early 2018. Few who’ve seen the series would argue. Booklovers have had many disappointments when it comes to book-to-screen adaptations over the decades, but Bosch epitomised ‘worth the wait’. And a good chunk of that has been down to the bravura, nuanced performance of Titus Welliver in the title role.

It was a tough role to fill. Bosch is a stoic and internalised character, relentless and driven while not demonstratively dramatic. Connelly was the one to suggest Welliver, a consummate character actor (with almost 100 different film, TV movie, series and guest roles) for the title role in Bosch.

He’d seen Welliver in films like Argo and The Town, and as Silas Adams in Deadwood, but it was a more obscure appearance that caught Connelly’s eye. Battling insomnia late one night, Connelly loaded up Kiefer Sutherland’s post-24 show Touch on his DVR. “Titus was a guest star playing a guy with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had this very subtle performance, behind the eyes. I thought he’s projecting the interior Bosch perfectly.”

Connelly saw something in Titus Welliver that made him ideal for the difficult-to-portray character of Harry Bosch. 

When I spoke to Connelly and Welliver at the London premiere of season one in 2015, Connelly shared how Welliver had immediately grasped the essence of Harry Bosch. He isn’t a supercop, he makes mistakes, but he’s dogged and driven, with an internal sense of justice. 

“Titus played a scene from the pilot and talked about the character,” recalls Connelly. “We waited for him to go out of the room, and we all just looked at each other and said ‘that’s Harry Bosch’.”

Welliver credited Connelly with creating a character with tremendous humanity. “So many police characters, they’re either completely heroic and slightly unrealistic, or they’re the darkest of the dark ... What appeals to me about Harry is that he’s an attainable character, a human character... For me as an actor, it’s the richest character I’ve ever been able to play in my career. He’s greatly nuanced.”

While Welliver has aced the titular role since episode 1, there’s a real sense of ensemble with Bosch. Each season has been packed with “real pros”, series regulars and guest stars. A gritty authenticity shines through. The acting across the board has been impeccable, like a symphony orchestra of hyper-talented musicians all working in concert. Lots of different characters have had time to shine in various episodes and seasons. 

Madison Lintz, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino, Titus Welliver, and Lance Reddick are part of a remarkable cast that's taken viewers on a remarkable ride for seven great seasons

Interestingly, Bosch departs from the books in several ways (blending stories, shifting timeframes, elevating or replacing characters) while still striking a note-perfect tone in terms of the overall spirit of Connelly's work. Characters like Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar (played by Jamie Hector) and Chief Irvin Irving (Lance Reddick) are by Connelly's own admission much richer and more nuanced than their book counterparts. "In the books, Harry is there all the time," said Connelly. "On TV you don’t have Bosch in every scene, so you can develop those other characters into something more than clichés."

Over the course of seven seasons, Amy Aquino brings a real humanity to Bosch’s immediate superior Lieutenant Grace Billets, Madison Lintz delivers grew from an adolescent to a young woman and delivered some of the show's most harrowing moments as Bosch's daughter Maddie, and Troy Evans and Gregory Scott Cummins hit the mark with aplomb as comic-relief detective duo Crate and Barrel. Scott Klace does the same, with some great lines, as Sergeant Mankiewicz. 

Others like Mimi Rogers (attorney Honey "Money" Chandler), DaJuan Johnson (Detective Pierce), Paul Calderon (Detective Robertson), Jacqueline Obradors (Detective Vega) and Linda Park (Jun Park) have delivered many great stories and moments as they've become key figures over the seasons. 

One of the many things I've always loved about Bosch is the way the writers and crew give the actors space with sparse dialogue and long silences. The actors deliver, time and again. Drawing us in with lots of layers. The soundtrack is unusual for a crime drama - lots of ambient sounds and rare moments of music. Rather than ‘dramatic tones’ or soaring music to underline what’s going on, or to tell the audience what it should be feeling, in Bosch it’s left to the actors and locations to tell the story.

Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, investigating a murder at the iconic Angel's Flight in Season 4

The locations are oh-so-important in Bosch, enriching the crime stories and bringing Connelly's fictional world to vivid life. For me, Connelly is the modern chronicler of Los Angeles, taking readers deep into the grittier and more complex realities of a city world-renowned for its glamorous facade.

While some of the timeframes and character relationships from the book series have been shuffled in Bosch, one thing that hasn’t is the way the stories bleed a gritty, realistic view of Los Angeles. This isn’t the glossy fantasyland envisaged by overseas tourist hordes or portrayed in other hit television shows like Entourage (a show I thoroughly enjoyed, don't get me wrong) or the later seasons of Nip/Tuck.

That sense of authenticity has always been vital for Connelly. 

"I’m writing about a guy who doesn’t exist," he told me in one interview during the early seasons of the show. "Harry Bosch is imagined. If I’m going to sell him as a realistic character, whether it’s in a book or a TV show, I’ve got to anchor him in something that is real, solid, and accurate."

Los Angeles has been Connelly’s muse for almost thirty years, and when the chance came to finally bring Bosch to screen, he was adamant that it would be shot in the city itself, using as many real locations as possible. Like the telling details in his books, that commitment shines through in the screen adaptation, bringing an incredibly strong sense of place to all seven seasons.

Bosch filming inside the iconic, century-old Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, one of many longstanding real-life restaurants and bars the show and its characters frequent

You won’t see lingering shots of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard or the Chinese Theatre, but over the course of seven seasons we're taken to the historic Biltmore Hotel, through abandoned tunnels under downtown streets, and Angel’s Flight. Characters breakfast at Dupars at Farmers Market or the Nickel Diner, drink at dive bar The Smog Cutter or Musso & Frank Grill, or contemplate their dwindling options by the concrete banks of the LA River.

Due to the high regard in which Connelly and his tales are held by many in the real-life LAPD, parts of the first season of Bosch were even shot in the LAPD’s real headquarters. 

It's a further layer of authenticity to a show that bleeds it, and helps (I think) to also give Bosch a timeless quality, as it connects to longstanding establishments and buildings in the city, rather than focusing on the glitzy ephemera in a place that reinvents and changes regularly. 


I should probably finish up with a conversation I had with Michael Connelly a few years ago, about a particularly special scene. This one wasn't in an iconic location, but one of those gritty oh-so-real ones where the show so often dwells. It was around the time of Connelly's 60th birthday, and he was on set. 

A highway underpass littered with urban detritus, a parked motorhome in desperate need of a scrapyard. A hooded youngster with a hissing spray can, a stylised shark coming to life on a concrete sea. 

The Bosch team were shooting the opening moments of season three, which were also the opening pages of Connelly’s first-ever Harry Bosch novel THE BLACK ECHO. 

“I was walking around in a daze, thinking about the amazing path I’ve been on,” Connelly told me. “It’s probably about 28 years after I first wrote the opening of THE BLACK ECHO, having no idea back then if my book would ever be published, and here we are filming a version of it.”

As I think back to that stage in Auckland a decade ago, where Connelly and I chatted and he had seemed hopeful yet frustrated that his Hollywood detective was stuck in Hollywood development hell, it makes me smile to reflect on all that's happened since. Not just good things to those who wait. 

Great things. 

Congratulations to Michael Connelly, Titus Welliver, and all the cast and crew of Bosch. You've given us all a wonderful ride for seven seasons (and no doubt will keep doing so as more and more viewers enjoy the series in perpetuity). Kia ora rawa atu as we say back home; thanks heaps! 

What are some of your favourite book-to-screen adaptations? Favourite crime dramas? Are you a fan of Bosch and if so what are some of your favourite moments or seasons? Please share in the comments. 

Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

E noho e, kia raungāwari

(Wait and be flexible, or Sit down and bide your time)

Monday, June 28, 2021

Historical Novel Society Conference Report

Annamaria on Monday

This past week, the Historical Novel Society of North America staged its biennial conference, virtually.  Unlike the mystery conferences most of us are used to, this one is organized along the lines of an academic symposium.  Those who want to present submit proposals, which require a rigorous amount of information.  As with our mystery conference, decisions are made behind the scenes, using undisclosed criteria.

At mystery conferences, authors pretty much always get a chance to be on a panel, so we all get a crack at hawking our wares,  But the topic and the panel-mates are pot luck.  With HNS, a group may jump through the many hoops to submit a complete proposal and still be turned down.  (One consolation here is that one does not have to buy a ticket to the event until after that acceptance decision is published.)  The big advantage with HNS is that authors get to pick their own topic, the questions they want to answer, most important who will be presenting with them.

This year, I was very pleased to present with three of my very favorite historical novelists.  HNS also provided us with a moderator, Mary Tod and  a tech support volunteer, Jodi McMaster, both of whom made top-notch contributions and allowed us to shine.

Regular MIE readers will recognize my fellow panelists from their previous visits to these precincts.  Here they are in alphabetical order, along with the bios we submitted with our conference proposal.  I am also including snippets of reviews of some of my favorites of their books.  The reviews all come from the Historical Novel Society Journal. 

 James R. Benn is the Dilys and Barry award nominated author of the popular Billy Boyle WWII mystery series—fifteen books to date—as well as two stand-alone books. His novel The Blind Goddess was long listed for the 2015 Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, and his works have garnered numerous starred reviews from major review publications. Benn is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and has a Master’s in Library Science degree from Southern Connecticut State University. He worked in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years before leaving to write full-time. 

"If you love a good mystery that’s full of facts about WWII history, you can’t go wrong with a Billy Boyle book. A Blind Goddess takes place in 1944 in Hungerford, just outside of London. Capt. Boyle is called in on a MI5 case in which a local was found dead outside of his boardinghouse. He boards with a German couple who had fled to England and is told by his superiors not to question them regarding the murder. An estranged friend from Boston also has asked Billy to look into the murder of another local, a constable, who was found on top of his father’s grave with his head smashed in. Tree is part of the colored tank crew stationed nearby, and his comrade is being accused by the Army of this murder because he was dating the deceased man’s sister, and also because he is black. This is only part of the injustice and prejudice shown to our black American soldiers by their own while the locals welcome the soldiers into their businesses and homes. When a young girl disappears, racial tensions rise between the black and white troops as the detectives try to discover if there is any connection to the murders.

I really enjoyed this book; the mystery drew me in and kept me on my toes. Billy Boyle is a believable and likable guy, and his friends who work with him on cases add another level of mystery to the novel.”

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of five published historical novels: the Joanna Stafford series set in Tudor England titled The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, published by Simon & Schuster; an 18th century thriller set in Europe’s art and porcelain world titled The Blue, published in 2018; and an early 20th century mystery set in Coney Island titled Dreamland, published in 2020. Publishers Weekly gave Dreamland a starred review, saying, “This fascinating portrait of the end of the Gilded Age deserves a wide audience.” She is now writing a sequel to The Blue, scheduled for publication in 2022.


A former magazine editor with staff positions at Rolling Stone and InStyle, Nancy is currently the deputy editor of The Crime Report at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. She lives with her family in Woodstock New York.

"Bilyeau takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the history of porcelain making and through the world of 18th-century French and British espionage. On that ride, we meet Madame Pompadour at Versailles, walk the halls of the British Museum, and stroll the streets of 18th-century London. On that journey, too, Bilyeau introduces us to a memorable cast: Genevieve, who is faced with seemingly impossible choices which test her resolve and her faith; slick and despicable Courtenay; Sturbridge, clever, funny and always with something up his sleeve. Bilyeau’s research is impeccable, taking what might have been a dreary industrial novel and making it into a living, breathing drama. Kudos and highly recommended!"

 Michael Cooper arrived in Jerusalem in 1966, lived in Israel for eleven years, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and graduated from Tel Aviv University Medical School. Now a pediatric cardiologist in Northern California he volunteers for medical missions twice a year serving Palestinian children who lack access to care. Foxes in the Vineyard, set in 1948 Jerusalem, won the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest grand prize. The Rabbi’s Knight, finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Award for historical fiction is set in the Holy Land in 1290. Soon to be published, Sins of the Fathers, is set in Jerusalem during WWI.

"Cooper does a masterful job of building suspense and telling a riveting story. While there is a great deal here of historical significance—the fall of Acre, the role of the Templars, the warring Moslem factions—the conjoining of St. Clair and Samuel, two such disparate souls is, in and of itself, worth the read. Not coincidentally, it is Samuel and his Moslem “brother,” al-Hasani—again, so dramatically different in their religions, approaches and beliefs—who decipher the inscription. The message beyond this wonderful story is clear: with a common goal, all people of good faith can work together to find solutions."

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Cars As Character

Zoë Sharp

The kind of car driven by the main protagonist of a novel is, for me, a snapshot into the mind of that character. And for the author, it’s often a quick way to give information about the type of person your hero or SHEro is, without having to spell it out.


Dashing characters have a habit of driving equally dashing cars, where the quirkier types of detectives often drive classics. Occasionally, they are both. In the first of Ian Fleming’s novels to feature James Bond, Casino Royale, published in 1953, 007 drives a supercharged Bentley 4.5 litre that is already more than twenty years old.


Purely from a practical point of view, I can see the attraction of using a classic. By dint of it already being out of date at the start of the novel, it can hardly become an anachronism as the series goes on. In the three TV series of Spender, shown in the early 1990s and starring Jimmy Nail, he drives a Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth. A very In car at the time, but not one that’s stood the test of time as well as the original three-door Cosworth with its huge whale-tail rear spoiler.


Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is noted for the MkII Jaguar he used in the TV adaptations, but in the books, he originally rumbled around the streets of Oxford in a Lancia Aurelia saloon.


Leslie Charteris, on the other hand, decided there wasn’t a vehicle quite dashing enough to suit his debonair thief, Simon Templar, alias The Saint. So, he invented one. In fact, he invented several, but the most notable of these was the Hirondel. The Saint was noted to drive this at speeds exceeding a mile a minute—not to be sniffed at in the 1930s!


(artist's impression of a Hirondel, by Ted Lodigensky)

I suppose this was also a very good way of never being caught out with the technical details about a particular model. 


When I began writing about Charlie Fox, I knew very early on that she would be a motorcyclist, and thought it best to give her a model I was very familiar with. Hence the fact in the earlier books she rides a 250cc Suzuki RGV, which I can promise was plenty quick enough to get her into trouble—and preferably out of it again.


When the Suzuki eventually bites the dust, which it does through very little fault of Charlie’s, she fortunately has another bike waiting in the wings, in the form of a Honda FireBlade. I knew I needed to give her a bigger bike because, quick as the Suzuki was, doing a road trip through Ireland in the company of people riding bigger, faster bikes, she’d need to be able to keep up.


And in the first of the Lakes books, I wanted to give my CSI, Grace McColl, something practical for reaching off-road crime scenes. A Nissan Navara pick-up seemed just the thing. There was even room for her dog in the back.


Whereas her colleague, Detective Nick Weston, needed something that hinted he hadn’t quite grown out of his boy racer years. A Subaru Impreza—the STi WRX model—fitted the bill.


Both vehicles said something about their owners, and using them seemed a quick way to build character. Drivers of certain makes of car do seem to behave in predictable ways on the road these days. (And not always predictable in a good way.)


Are there any types of cars you would or would not like to see a character driving, and what do they say to you about the people who drive them?


This week’s Word of the Week is immane, meaning huge, vast, but also monstrous in character, cruel or savage, from the Latin immanis.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

A Long Held Secret Revealed


Photo by Jennifer Cawley, NPR



No, it’s not that tomorrow I’m off to Mykonos for the first time in nearly two years. It’s a far more significant secret, kept for just as long by my friend Ina Jaffe.


For those of you who do not know Ina—paltry few as that may be—here’s a brief introduction as lifted from the National Public Radio (NPR) website:


Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."

Jaffe also reports on politics, contributing to NPR's coverage of national elections since 2008. From her base at NPR's production center in Culver City, California, Jaffe has covered most of the region's major news events, from the beating of Rodney King to the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She's also developed award-winning enterprise pieces, garnering her honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, multiple Gracie Awards from the Alliance for Women in Media, Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, and the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association

Before moving to Los Angeles, Ina was the first editor of Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon, which made its debut in 1985.

Somewhere along the way Ina also picked up a husband--a dear friend to all of us at Murder is Everywhere, mystery writer Lenny Kleinfeld.


This past week NPR published Ina’s latest blockbuster of a story. It’s a secret she’s been keeping for two years, revealed with the style, strength, clarity, and power that’s made her the star that she is.


Here is Ina’s post, titled, “Why I Kept My Cancer A Secret, And Why I Won’t Anymore.”


I've been keeping a secret. I've decided to tell it.

I have metastatic breast cancer, MBC, stage 4. That means the breast cancer has spread to my lungs, bones and brain. There is no cure. Eventually, it kills you.

Actually, I've had it for two years. Keeping it secret served me well. I didn't have to explain myself to friends and strangers while I was still in the hysterical stage. Because, faced with an incurable cancer diagnosis, I did what any normal person would do: I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I sobbed a lot. I was grieving for my own life.

But I had to tell someone, so I told 50 of my closest friends. Also, since I'm a correspondent for NPR, I told my three editors. They've kept my secret. That's not easy to do in a newsroom filled with gossips. I'm incredibly grateful. Meanwhile, I had a chance to get used to working in my new normal. Frankly, it was a lot like my old normal, only with more medical appointments.

By the way, I have no issue with people who want to keep their cancer diagnosis a secret to the end. If you have the misfortune to have cancer, you get to have it any way you want.

If you can. I've had a titanium rod implanted in my thigh to deal with a bone metastasis. That would not have been my choice. The weirdest thing has been recovery from brain radiation. It turns you into a bit of a zombie. But then you get better. Just really slowly. My fingers on my left hand are still numb. My balance has deserted me. I meander around like a drunken bug. 

Here's why I'm sharing my secret

 I've decided to tell my secret for two reasons. The first is that I realized that much of my initial despair was based on bad information. I was wrong about almost everything. So maybe my confession will shorten the Despair Phase for others.

The second reason is much more in my wheelhouse as a journalist: outrage. I'll get to that in a moment. But first, my mistakes.

I thought metastatic breast cancer was fairly rare. Nope. Up to 30% of women with early stage breast cancer progress to stage 4. I thought that you were more likely to get metastatic breast cancer if you'd been diagnosed with a more-advanced stage of breast cancer to begin with. Wrong again. It's not dependent on your stage at original diagnosis. I was stage 1B when I was first diagnosed in January 2012.


I thought it was my fault. Maybe I drank too much (I didn't). Or gained too much weight (I hadn't).

Those are among many factors that can influence whether you get breast cancer initially. But no one is sure what causes metastases. So again, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Unfortunately, I did have something mostly right. The five-year relative survival rate is about 1 in 4.


And it's worse for Black women. Due to the types of cancers that they get, African American women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any U.S. racial or ethnic group, at 26.8 per 100,000 annually.


All of these things were painful to realize because I'd been planning on becoming a really cool old lady. While covering aging for NPR, I'd met so many inspirational elders that I wanted to be one of them.

This diagnosis doesn't mean I won't be. There are outliers, as they're called. People who live 10 years or more with stage 4. Mark Burkard at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center is studying them to see what they might have in common. So far, it's too early to draw conclusions.

Seven percent is no solution

Which brings us back to the primary reason for disclosing my secret: outrage. As I began to research metastatic breast cancer, I came across the stunning statistic that only 7% of funding for breast cancer research is devoted to metastatic disease. Did I mention that this is the kind that kills you?


This figure is from a multiyear study (2000 to 2013) from the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance. Shirley Mertz, the former president, says the alliance plans to repeat the study beginning this year. "There is anticipation that the percentage will have improved," says Mertz. "But we will not know by how much until the analysis is carefully completed."

So, at this point, you might be wondering how many people have metastatic breast cancer. We know how many people die of MBC. Approximately 44,000 a year in the U.S. But we don't know for sure how many (mostly) women and (some) men are living with it now. A 2020 National Cancer Institute study estimates that 168,000 women in the U.S. are living with metastatic breast cancer.


Meanwhile, in case you were wondering, I feel fine. The only discomfort I have is the result of my treatments. I have no pain from the cancer itself. I know that's coming. I'm just not sure when.

In normal times, I would be taking all those bucket list trips. Obviously, these are not normal times. I've barely left my house except for walks around the neighborhood. Most people think of just writing this past year off and picking up again when everyone gets vaccinated, but that's not easily done when you have a shorter timeline. You know there's no way to ever make up for this year. Really, there's no way to make up for lost time for any year. Cancer patients and others with short timelines are just never allowed to forget that.

Or to stop wondering why only 7% of breast cancer research funding is dedicated to finding a cure for metastatic breast cancer.



Jeff’s upcoming events


Thursday, August 11
Fish & Olive Gallery—Halki, Naxos Island, Greece
European presentation of A Deadly Twist on the island where it is set
Learn more

Thursday, August 26, 5:00-5:50 p.m.
Bouchercon 2021—New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Marriott—La Galeries 2, 2nd Floor
Moderator, Mystery of Crafting Thrillers Set in Foreign Lands

Friday, August 27, 11:00-11:50 a.m.
Bouchercon 2021—New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Marriott—La Galeries , 4-5. 2nd Floor
Panelist, Thrillers in the World of Politics