Thursday, March 31, 2022

Agatha and I

 Bryony Rheam for Michael - Thursday

Bryony Rheam

Bryony Rheam is a Zimbabwean author who lives with her family in Bulawayo. Her debut novel This September Sun won Best First Book award in Zimbabwe and went to #1 on Kindle in the UK. Her new book, All Come to Dust, also an award winner, was chosen as one of ten top African thrillers by Publishers’ Weekly who described it as a “stunning crime debut”. I loved the book, and it was my pick of mysteries set in Africa for 2021. Paula Hawkins (author of The Girl on the Train) clearly felt the same way, describing the protagonist, Chief Inspector Edmund Dube, as “a fictional detective as memorable as Hercule Poirot”.

That would have made Bryony’s day because of her long association with Agatha Christie’s books. Here she tells us about that and how it motivated All Come to Dust.

Welcome Bryony to MurderIsEverywhere.

In preparing what to write for this blog, I looked back on some old blogposts of mine where I discussed the importance of Agatha Christie in my life. One of the lines stands out for me and seems to have taken on a deeper meaning than I meant at the time. I had just finished researching Agatha Christie’s trip to Rhodesia in 1924, a trip that resulted in her writing her third novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, and I had delighted in being able to follow her on part of her journey to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. I wrote: ‘When I began my research, I thought I was following Agatha Christie on part of her journey, but now I wonder if the journey hasn't become my own.’

My journey with Agatha Christie began many years ago with my maternal grandmother. She was a lovely lady: very clever, well-read and funny. Having left school at the age of fourteen, she was largely self-taught. She loved to read, and she read anything and everything, but, in particular, she loved Agatha Christie. On Friday afternoons, I would take her books to the library for her, and I would exchange one lot of Agatha Christies for another.

She must have read them all; she must have read them two or three times, but it did not bother her. As an adult, and as an ardent fan of Christie’s myself, I now understand part of this desire to read and reread her novels. My grandmother was brokenhearted - she had lost her son in a car accident when he was twenty-one. She struggled, but she could not overcome severe depression and grief. All reading provides an escape, but with Christie it was so much more.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is considered the "Queen of Crime". Although not alone in doing so, she is credited with the development of the crime novel into what we know today and its growth in popularity. She is best known for a "closed murder" story in which the crime can only have been committed by a limited number of people, each with their own particular motive for doing so. Everyone is a suspect and usually it is the least obvious person who "dunnit".

The murders are not gory; there are no detailed descriptions of prolonged deaths, the pain and injuries inflicted or the mutilated body. That is not important. What is, is the method and the motivation. The planning behind the murders is always meticulous: the murderer knows who will be where when, how many minutes he or she has to cross the garden and enter the study window, how important it is that the poison is administered with the bedtime cocoa and not the after-dinner coffee, or how the drinks on the tray must be arranged just so in order that the victim chooses the correct one.

Of course, they make other errors which eventually lead to their downfall. Yet it is this absolute attention to detail that I believe makes Christie novels so intriguing. It’s the puzzle that’s important and puzzles can eventually be solved. All the pieces are there; the reader just has to put them together correctly – which of course we rarely, if ever, do – and that’s exactly where Christie’s genius lies.

Despite her upper-middle class background, Agatha Christie always felt like something of an outsider, which likely accounts for two of her most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, being on the margins of society: Poirot is a foreigner and Marple is elderly. As such, they are able to bring attention to both the idiosyncrasies and the shortcomings of English society.

But there is another way in which Christie undermines the very essence of Englishness, and, in doing so, also undercuts the stereotypes associated with it. Her books capture that beautiful feel of an orderly life: the clock ticking in the drawing room, the letters on the breakfast tray, the train arriving at exactly three minutes past four. Her characters who lead such orderly lives are well-spoken, polite and know which spoon is for the soup and which for the dessert. The undermining of all this is what unsettles us so much. How could the vicar’s wife devise a murder so clever and with such calculation that it takes the powers of a super sleuth to detect the flaws? How could the murderer have written such hateful letters in the beautiful library; how could they have thought of putting poison in the tea served so punctually at four o’clock on the terrace?

It unsettles us. Christie takes us into the dark areas of the places we consider safe. More than that, the very things that add to that lovely slow rhythm of conventionally English life - trains that run on time, tea at four o’clock, an efficient postal system - seem to have been used against us. If these things, these people, these places are unsafe, then where is not? We would feel less vulnerable on the streets of New York or in the ganglands of Glasgow. As readers, we feel we have got into the car of the stranger our parents always warned us about. But they were smiling, they were welcoming, they had double-barrelled surnames we say – and so we seal our doom.

The good thing, of course, is that she rescues us. The detective arrives, the plot is worked out and the murderer is caught. Except perhaps for Murder on the Orient Express, everything is sorted out and any loose ends are firmly tied up. The puzzle is solved and the dark places dissolve. Once again, the calm ticking of the clock is restored. That is what I find so satisfying and that is what appealed so much to my grandmother. She had come to fear life. Her experience told her that anything can be taken from you at any time, even people you love with your entire self. Being a good person, living a good life – what did it mean? It was no guarantee that you wouldn’t be dealt a terrible hand. But if the dark places were not made light in her own life, at least they were in fiction.

Bryony with Matthew Pritchard

In 2014, I was a winner of the Write Your Own Christie competition organised by  The prize was dinner with Agatha Christie’s grandson, Matthew Pritchard, and her publisher at HarperCollins at Greenway, her home in Devon.  It was an emotional moment for me, one that linked the little girl who spent afternoons listening to her grandmother’s stories of life in India and Persia to the adult with a longing to write a crime novel of her own.

Outside Agatha Christie's house 
in Greenway

Yet it was to be another six years before this became a reality. All Come To Dust was published in Zimbabwe in November 2020, the UK in September 2021, and in the US this month. When I sat down to write it, I wanted to follow the structure of a classic Christie novel. However, there were some very obvious differences that I had to negotiate: present day Bulawayo is very different to the England that Christie wrote of from the 1920s to the 1970s. A closed murder seemed unlikely; in fact, it felt claustrophobic. The more I thought and planned, the more that it became apparent that many of the conventional tropes of the western crime novel would not work.

Zimbabwe’s police force is riddled with corruption.  It is also generally quite inefficient and there would certainly be very little forensic investigation into a death. However, I still decided to use a policeman to investigate the murder. He is also an outsider, a man who wants to do good in a world that seems overwhelmingly corrupt. He spends his time typing up traffic offences, trying to put the world to rights through the meticulous recording of events that will probably be settled by the payment of a bribe to someone on the force.

The lack of forensic investigation was a bonus for me as I, like Agatha Christie, could concentrate on the puzzle and not get weighed down by having to bring in technical detail. Nor did I go into any great description of the murder itself for I do not feel the need to do so. This is probably one of the reasons why reviewers often describe All Come To Dust as ‘an old-fashioned’ murder.

Yet this would suggest a ‘happy ending’ and, while it is true, that the mystery itself is solved, there is also a strong sense that any form of justice in Zimbabwe is not administered in the conventional way.  The sense of restored order evident at the end of an Agatha Christie novel is also not present. The peace is hesitant, wary, aware always that it is under threat.

Modern day Bulawayo

I might not have set out to undermine the archetypal crime novel, but it became increasingly clear that the structure did not sit well in an African setting. It seemed obvious therefore to try and highlight this disconnect rather than ignore it. In doing so, I was able to explore modern Zimbabwean society through an eclectic range of characters, each bound in some way to the past and fearful of the future.

When I finished writing All Come To Dust, I decided that I would not write another crime novel. I had set myself a challenge and I had completed it. But now I see crime writing offers so many opportunities to explore the inconsistencies evident in Zimbabwean life. And so it is that the quest to follow Agatha Christie’s journey has led me to a journey of my own. I can only be excited of what lies ahead.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Victorious KBJ


History in the making

The Hon. Ketanji Brown Jackson (KBJ) is poised to make history as the first African American woman on the Supreme Court. Let it not go unsaid that since its first sitting in February 1790, of the 115 justices who have served at the Court, 110 (95.7%) have been men, and all but seven of them have been white men. Two (0.017%) have been black men (Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas), and four (0.035%) have been women: Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett (after the death of Ginsburgh), but there has never been a black woman. The Supreme Court has largely been the territory of white males, who typically don’t like sharing privilege with people who don’t look like them.

After President Biden nominated Judge KBJ, an outcry rose in some senatorial circles that “the president shouldn’t be considering race as a criterion for nomination to the Court.” The source of this pedantic objection? White men. The laughable irony of this statement was apparently lost on them: What, if anything, has the Supreme Court been but a twisted affirmative action program for white men? So, yes, this is a nomination of huge historical importance in the United States.

Diversity is important
When confirmed, Judge KBJ will come to the SCOTUS with some of the same qualifications of the other justices: she graduated (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law, as did Breyer, Roberts, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, while Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh studied at Yale. However, she is the only judge among them to have served as a public defender. That experience gives her a broader outlook on not only the American justice system, but the injustice system. Writes Laura Coates, a former prosecutor, "Public defenders are not soft on crime — they are hard on injustice. In a country where race and bias are far too frequently elevated above fairnesenders are the welcome foil to balance the system.”

It’s true that Jackson won’t significantly tip the 6-3 conservative-progressive imbalance on the Court, but think of the effect her assenting and dissenting opinions will have on people’s thinking. It could be a subtle shift, but one of a kind never seen by SCOTUS before, regardless of the Court makeup.

Equanimity under duress
If you weren’t able to catch Judge-soon-to-be-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, then you missed a master class in how to hold one’s position in the face of enemy fire. To use a regrettable analogy, the mostly white Senators of the Judiciary Committee are Russia, and the KBJ is Ukraine.

The likes of Josh “Hypocrite" Hawley and Lindsay “Grandstand" Graham launched missiles at KBJ that either missed their target or were shot down by KBJ herself or by Democratic members attending the hearing.

Apparently flummoxed Josh Hawley questions Hon KBJ (Image:

The MO of the Republicans was to set up a false-flag operation--the assertion that KBJ is “soft on crime” and has too much “empathy” for child pornographers. The basis of the accusation is the claim that the judge has historically displayed “a consistent pattern of giving child porn offenders lighter sentences,” as Sen. Marsha Blackburn said. But some fact-checking shows that this is not accurate. Jackson’s sentences in five of the seven cases mentioned by Hawley were consistent with, or above, probation’s recommendation. In two, Jackson’s sentences were below the government and probation’s recommendations. Hawley conveniently left out another seven cases KBJ sat on, in two of which her sentences were consistent with the prosecutors’ plea agreements.

But let’s not get distracted by the details. These odious, bloviating men were making an accusation and forming an opinion based on a false or unproven premise. If they had queries about her sentencing “methodology" (KBJ’s word), then ask her without presupposing a notion which, on its face, is highly unlikely. After all, KBJ is a mother, she has two daughters, and she asserted this clearly during the hearing. Members of the American Bar Association (ABA) panel that investigated Judge KBJ's legal record rejected GOP claims that she has been soft on child pornography offenders.

Personal observations
  • Compared to the self-centered, entitled antics of then-nominee Brett Cavanaugh, played brilliantly by Matt Damon in a must-see skit on SNL, KBJ was as serene as a clear-water stream in a verdant forest.
  • Up against Jackson, Ted Cruz looked like a clown (my apologies to professional clowns), particularly with his absurd posters.
  • Judging from the looks on some of Jackson’s attackers, particularly frat-boy Josh Hawley, it’s quite possible they were having difficult time following Jackson's reasoning, because, well, she's probably a lot brighter than they are. I liken it to an amateur tennis player lobbing a ball to Rafael Nadal and not even seeing the return for its blistering speed.
  • None of these white males know what it’s like to be constantly doubted as a black woman, constantly having to excel beyond what is conventionally required of white men, and shrug off the slights directed at her every day.
  • The bottom line: in the battle of boorishness and ignorance against steadiness of character and courage of conviction, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was victorious.


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Singapore is (finally) Opening Up!

Ovidia – every other Tuesday 

Today, in celebration of my 35th wedding anniversary (yes, I know that’s likely just a coincidence but I’m going to accept it as a gift anyway!) Singapore is finally moving towards a new phase of living with Covid-19!

Starting today (Tuesday March 29) mask-wearing outdoors is no longer mandatory on the island. It’s still ‘encouraged’ but no longer mandatory.

It might not sound like much, but after two years of restrictions, fines and safe distancing ambassadors patrolling us it feels huge!

Also, groups of up to 10 fully vaccinated people are now allowed to congregate in restaurants and private homes. Best of all where I'm concerned, live performances will be allowed again (super as I hope to have one play ‘Hitting (On) Women’ in a pop-up theatre venue!) and theatre capacity is raised to 75% (fantastic news for another July show!)

Other restrictions including travel are easing too—I’m finally daring to dream of traveling to Bouchercon and Crimefest again!

Seemingly in anticipation of restrictions easing, there were luminous waves on Changi Beach last night. I wasn't there, so these pics are off social media. (apparently it's caused by light-emitting plankton)

I heard there were over a hundred people on the beach—and after midnight it wasn’t even an illegal gathering!
Since I missed out on the beach I did a bit of a walkabout in the Chinatown area where I'd had a meeting. 

Mostly, the streets are still painfully empty. 

There's construction hoarding up--it feels like whenever there’s an economic downturn, official construction / reconstruction projects increase. 

One older 'Uncle' in a shop watching the news because there were no customers to watch told me, ‘Take whatever you want. What for I collect money? Maybe tomorrow World War 3 will start. Then we all die,’

Chinatown has always been a place where hard work meets hard realities. 
After all, this is where the samsui women lived.

As many as 200,000 Samsui women came to Singapore in the mid 1930s. They came from the Sanshui District (‘three waters’) of Guangdong and, before leaving China, took a vow to never marry. They wore large red head dresses as a symbol of that vow. They were respected for refusing to work in opium dens or as prostitutes and most found menial employment in construction.

They pretty much laid the foundations of today’s Singapore, and under far worse conditions than most of us will ever experience. And they did it because they had to—day by day, brick by brick. 

I was happy to see the Chinese checkers players are back. And though the five-foot way is considered 'outdoors' most are still wearing their masks.

But it’s also hard to stay negative in Chinatown.

Because Chinatown is all about survival--those are durians in the painting, by the way.

I love these wooden cake moulds--

Good luck charms--now with an emphasis on health!

And of course eateries and the promise of food. 

Again, it's really sad how empty these places are. But I'm hopeful it's all going to change soon. From today onwards.

When I went back to see the depressed Uncle in his shop, he had a grandson with him who'd made him switch off the news so he could watch cartoons. 

He seemed more cheerful but warned, 'How can Russia like that, nobody do anything? Then tomorrow, if China invade Singapore, also nobody do anything?'

'I don't China wants to invade Singapore,' I said. 'I'm sure not,'

He snorted. But this time he accepted payment for my dried burdock tea, which I think was a good sign.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Jane Peterson's Star on the Rise

 Annamaria on Monday

I first wrote here about Jane Peterson in 2015, both because she was woman adventurist and because she was a much under-appreciated American Impressionist painter.

That first post was discovered by a researcher looking for Peterson's paintings in private hands, hoping to find some to be included in the first Peterson retrospective exhibition in 40 years. As it turned out, the curators took four of the five Peterson's in the collection that my dear-departed husband and I had amassed over many years. When that exhibition opened, I wrote another post in 2017, in which I rejoiced that Jane Peterson was finally beginning to get her to due.

My two pictures, as displayed at the 2017 exhibition, lower left and right

I am delighted to say that painters of the past who were not white men are now, at last, beginning to be appreciated for the artistic value of their work.

Here's a closer look at "Venetian Lagoon" by Jane Peterson

A wonderful example of this trend: the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown, New York is mounting, this coming summer, an exhibition which will include some of the paintings from my collection. Here is what the museum website says about the exhibition:

Unmasking Venice: American Artists and the City of Water

May 28 – September 5, 2022

Unmasking Venice: American Artists and the City of Water features paintings, etchings and 3-dimensional objects that explore the two Venetian worlds depicted by American artists during the late 19th, early 20th and 21st centuries. The “picturesque” demonstrates the attraction to Venice felt by American tourists, while the “realistic” depicts the grittier realism of an everyday Venetian’s life. The exhibition includes work by a diverse group of artists, including Jane Peterson and Fred Wilson, and draws some interesting Venetian connections to the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art through the glass industry. A catalog will accompany the exhibition.


Sponsored in part by The Clark Foundation, Nellie and Robert Gipson, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas O. Putnam.


This is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as part of the Art Bridges Initiative.

I was particularly struck by the inclusion of Jane Peterson's name as one of the brags about the works to be shown.  Little by little, Jane is finally garnering well-deserved adulation.

This exhibition will include two of the Petersons that I own, as well as a picture by another wonderful woman artist – Helen Nicolay, who is still under-appreciated, but now will be getting some attention by her inclusion in this show.

Helen Nicolay (1866-1954) was born in Paris, where her father John George Nicolay was the United States Consul. He eventually became Abraham Lincoln's private secretary. After Lincoln's assassination, John Nicolay wrote an exhaustive, 12 – volume biography of Lincoln. Helen served is his secretary in this effort. It is believed that she was heavily involved in drafting the 11th volume because her father became ill. And that she completed his effort by writing the 12th volume largely on her own. Besides being a marvelous painter, she was also an author in her own right. Twenty titles are shown with their cover art on the website dedicated to her history.

She painted many exotic and fascinating places while traveling with her father after Lincoln's death. I have the privilege of owning two. This one of the Aswan souk in Egypt:

My photo of the water color taken "though a glass, darkly."

The one in the exhibit will be, of course, of Venice. Here is "Arcade of the Ducal Palace, Venice by Helen Nicolay:

Photo: Josh Nefsky

I am looking forward to attending the opening reception for the exhibit.  All the more so, now that I have seen an image of the cover for the show's catalogue:

Cover art: "The Clocktower, Venice" by Jane Peterson

It is the only painting in our collection that David bought without first discussing the purchase with me.  He surprised me with it on my 51st Birthday.

Now, one of Jane Person's masterworks is being given a great place of honor - at long last the recognition she so richly deserves.


Sunday, March 27, 2022

How a Songbird Saved the Age of Samurai

 --Susan, Every Other Sunday

It's safe to say most people have heard of samurai--the highly skilled warriors who sat atop the social pyramid during Japan's medieval age--as well as the shōgun(s) who served as the de facto rulers of the country at that time.

Far less well-known is the fact that, but for a split-second decision by a single, otherwise unremarkable little bird, the Age of Samurai might not have come to pass.

In 1180, a long-standing feud between the noble Taira and Minamoto clans boiled over into war. Shortly after the war began, a  young nobleman named Minamoto no Yoritomo assumed leadership of the Minamoto forces and led them into battle in a mountainous region near the eastern coast of Japan, in what is now Shizuoka Prefecture. 

A path through the mountains not far from Ishibashiyama

The Taira launched a surprise attack on the Minamoto near Mt. Ishibashi (Ishibashiyama) at night, in heavy rain; the Minamoto forces were overwhelmed, and young Yoritomo was forced to flee with a small band of his surviving followers. They fled through the mountains toward the coast, hoping to escape by sea. 

Kannon statue along the route to Shitodo

The region into which they fled was controlled by a clan of noble warriors called the Doi; their leader, Doi Sanehira, had a castle on the summit of Shiroyama (Mt. Shiro) overlooking Sagami Bay (in what is now the city of Yugawara, in Shizuoka Prefecture, about 90 minutes south of Tokyo by train).

Minamoto Yoritomo and his followers hurried through the forested mountains, on narrow trails, with the Taira in hot pursuit.

One of the trails connecting Ishibashiyama and Shiroyama

At some point, the fugitives made contact with the Doi, and Sanehira agreed to shelter his young ally, Yoritomo--but not in the castle, which the Taira would have overwhelmed in a siege.  

Trail approaching the Shitodo cave

Instead, Sanehira Doi directed Yoritomo and his followers to a small cave--today, called the Shitodo no Iwaya (Shitodo cave)--on the east side of Shiroyama, about half an hour's climb below the summit. 

Statues of Kannon, the Buddhist avatar of mercy, near the Shitodo cave

Yoritomo and his little band took shelter in the cave.

Stairs leading up to the Shitodo

The Taira approached the Doi, who of course claimed they had no idea where Minamoto no Yoritomo and his men had gone. The Taira proceeded to search Mt. Shiro, determined to destroy the young Minamoto leader (and, likely, win the war) while they had the chance.

More Buddhist statues outside the Shitodo.

When the Taira approached the cave where Minamoto no Yoritomo and his little group were hiding, a little bunting, then known as a shitodo (and similar to a sparrow) flew out of the shallow cave and flew away. 

The Shitodo cave

In what has to be one of history's best examples of why "it seemed like a good idea at the time" generally isn't, the Taira decided that the cave must be empty, because a bird would not have stayed inside with humans present . . . so instead of searching the (notably shallow) cave, they turned around and went away.

After hiding in the cave for several days, Minamoto no Yoritomo and his men fled over Shiroyama and down the far side to Cape Manazuru, where they escaped by ship.

With help from the Doi and other allies, as well as surviving members of his own clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo regrouped, gathered a new army, and went on to defeat the Taira, win the Genpei War, and persuade the emperor to name him Sei-i Taishogun (征夷大将軍), shogun for short.

Thereafter, Yoritomo established the first shogunate (bakufu) at Kamakura--a city on the coast between Sagami Bay and Edo (now, Tokyo), ushering in the Age of Samurai.

Historically, there is no doubt that the Taira forces would have killed both Yoritomo and his little band, had they entered the cave that fateful night. Had that happened, the Taira likely would have won the Genpei War, and the Kamakura Shogunate--as well as the Age of Samurai--might never have come to pass. 

None of us will ever know what made that one little bird choose that one moment to take flight, but Japanese history seems to prove that if a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a bird that flies away at the proper time is worth the entire kingdom.