Sunday, July 31, 2022

Black Ships, Green Trees, and Sapphire Trains: An Afternoon in Izukyu Shimoda

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

162 years, 2 months, and 5 days ago (give or take an hour or two), Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy arrived in Japan with a fleet of nine warships to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which officially ended Japan's 265-year period of isolation and opened trade with the west.

A black ship model on display outside Izukyu Shimoda station

That trip to Japan was Perry's second. The first occurred about a year before, when he sailed into Edo harbor with four other warships, and requested that the country end the sakoku period and open its ports to trade. 

That visit didn't go too well for either side.

Despite its weakened state and ailing shogun, the Tokugawa Shogunate refused to grant Perry's demands. Perry left a few weeks later (doubtless in high dudgeon), threatening to return in a year to force the opening of Japan, by war if necessary.

Perry returned in 1864 with twice as many "black ships" (黒船 -kurofune)--so named by the Japanese for the color of the hulls and the way the ships' tall stacks belched smoke into the air.

A black ship, immortalized on the manhole covers in Izukyu Shimoda

After some hemming and hawing, the failing Tokugawa Shogunate agreed to a treaty, which was signed a few weeks later at Ryosenji (了仙寺) a Buddhist temple on the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula, near the port of Izukyu Shimoda. 

The entrance to Ryosenji

The temple was founded in 1635, and prior to Perry's visit was used as a guesthouse for important government visitors to the area. 

The site where Japan reopened to the world

On May 25, 1854, the courtyard in front of the worship hall played host to Commodore Perry and Daigaku Hayashi, the plenipotentiary representative of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who signed the Shimoda Treaty--a 13-article supplement to the Treaty of Kanagawa that opened the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to U.S. trading ships.

The temple sits at the end of one of Shimoda's quiet, canal-lined streets, past houses that look as if they might have witnessed Perry's march through the street that now bears his name. 

An old shop along the canal in Shimoda

Although the decision to reopen was not entirely voluntary, Japan has embraced the history of the black ships, and the treaty that not only gave the west access to Japanese ports, but gave Japan access to the technology, food, and culture of the west as well.

Another home on Perry Road

Today, the town of Shimoda has embraced its connection to the Black Ships and their commander. The streets, the shops, and even the manhole covers proudly proclaim the area's connection to Perry's fleet. You can buy "black ship soft serve" (yes, it's really black) or grab a meal at the Black Ship cafe. 

Each May, the town holds a "Kurofune Matsuri" that celebrates Perry's historic arrival with floats, parades, and festival foods. 

Viewed through Western eyes, this may seem odd. Why would a town celebrate the arrival of a fleet, and a commander, that forced open its ports against the country's will?

The best answer I can offer is: "because Japan."

Cross-cultural communication brings both challenges and benefits. By the 1850s, many Japanese people understood that their country could benefit from trade with the outside world; the shogunate was weak, and the commitment to isolation was not nearly as strong as it had been 200 years before, when the policy began. Were warships their chosen path to change? Almost certainly not. But once the events were over, the people here had a new choice to make: how to frame the narrative in the years to come. 

It's possible to disagree about the "best" way to handle events like these. It's possible to ask "why" and "how" and a million other questions, and each of those questions has its place.

But it's also possible to take a train from Tokyo, and ride three hours south down a rainy coast on a train called the Saphir Odoriko

The view en route to Izukyu Shimoda

... walk along the canal to the harbor

Izukyu Shimoda
... past a local shrine

Inari Shrine, Izukyu Shimoda

... and stand on the very spot where an ancient country opened its gates to the modern world

Ryosenji courtyard

And feel the weight of the history, with all its complexities, and understand that it's not your place to judge the people who went before--who made the choices they made, for good or ill, which now form part of the twisted, tangled web of the history we weave. 

And then, when the moment passes, you walk back to town and eat Black Ship ice cream.

Because Japan.


Saturday, July 30, 2022

A Message From the Island of the Mykonos Billionaire




There’s a new club on Mykonos called the Billionaire. For those of you who can’t begin to imagine what a place with such a name could possibly be offering its clientele, perhaps the above photo will kickstart your imagination. 


And for those of you interested in the bigger picture, one that shows the common road traveled by Billionaire and Backpacker alike, the below photo might just give you the perspective you’re looking for.


Frankly, I’m tired of all this high season madness, so much so that Barbara and I are taking off for a four-week jaunt around the Cyclades, expecting that by when we return home, normalcy will have returned. That’s normal by Mykonos standards.


But enough about glitz and gory.  This about a more upbeat topic.  Me.


Six months ago, I wrote of how thrilled I was to have achieved a childhood dream by seeing my eleventh Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, A Deadly Twist, included as one of four abridged novels appearing in a bi-monthly volume of Reader’s Digest Select Editions.


As I noted in January, I grew up in working class Pittsburgh, where a Reader’s Digest magazine could always be found lying somewhere around the house, and most assuredly in every doctor’s and dentist’s office.  To me, authors whose names appeared on the bindings of its Condensed Books (as they were called between 1950 and 1997) were like gods to me. Seeing my name on the binding of volume #383 had me feeling as if my game jersey now hung in the rafters alongside some of my writing idols.


New developments now have me flying up among those rafters unassisted by old jersey #44, in a moment of childhood-dream-come-true déjà vu that has me pinching myself.


The news is simply this.  My 2022 entry in the series, One Last Chance (#12)–set on the Greek island of Ikaria–also has been chosen to appear in an upcoming volume of Reader’s Digest Select Editions! And on top of that, A Deadly Twist will be appearing in a Reader’s Digest volume for Australia and New Zealand.


I’m beyond words at these incredible honors. It makes this guy who maneuvers a 15-year-old Suzuki Jimny in the land of the Billionaire happy and deeply grateful to all who made it happen for me.


Thank you.



Jeff’s Upcoming Events

Bouchercon 2022   Minneapolis, MN
Thursday, September 8th  11:30-12:15 
"Odd Jobs: Writers Write What They Know."
Alan Gordon AKA Allison Montclair (Moderator), Julie Holmes, Donna Andrews, Linda O. Johnston/Lark O. Jensen, Annelise Ryan, Jeffrey M. Siger


Friday, July 29, 2022

St Conan's part 2

Loch Awe is rather awesome.  Once, as a schoolchild canoed all the way down it. It was the week before Christmas.

I don’t think my thumbs have ever recovered.


It’s a nice part of the world, but a bit where most people pass through. Because of the logistics of the Loch Lomond road,  most people in olden times  (pre 1870)  would go up to Stirling and then cut across the top of Loch Lomond to get to Oban and that part of the west coast. We are not talking great distances here.  Normally the Loch road is  one hour thirty minutes from our front door to the campsite. Via Stirling, it’s two hours but no where near as much fun.


Occupied dwellings started to appear along the  Dalmallty/Taynuilt in the later parts of the 1800’s.

And what has that got to do with the price of cheese, I hear you ask.


The church of last week’s blog sits on this road. It’s plain façade to the front,  the ornamental beauty of it looks out over the water.


And, as I hinted, it may look very old, the air is certainly heavy with antiquity and worship. It was only dedicated  as a church in 1930.


The south terrace has the sundial, and the view from that exact point, unspoiled up and down the loch – the guide book says unspoiled and it’s true. It’s also true that often you can’t see your hand in front of your face. On my school canoe trip ( character building ), the  fog came down so thick and fast we had to raft up, and had be rescued – towed by a boat with that really sensible thing, an engine.  We had wetsuits on so weren’t really in danger of extreme hypothermia… just the mild variety.

Anyway, somebody standing on the spot where the sundial is now decided to build the church exactly there. On a fine day, there’s a lot to see from this spot. Ben Lui lies beyond Kilchurn Castle. It tends to have a wee hat of snow for more than half the year.

As the church stands now, there’s a statue of St Conan himself, enjoying that self same view.

Glen Lochy, Orchy and Strae are all visible.  On a clear day when the moon aligns with aquarius an there’s a z in the month.

 There are three very small dark islands visible from that point. Innishail ( Green Isle) was the burial ground for the people of Loch Awe. Another was the base of the MacNaughton Clan. The third, muchcloser to the shore is  Innischonain which belonged to the Campbell clan at some time. It was that family who decided to build St Conan’s Kirk.


The legend says that lived in Glen Orchy, and was a follower of St Columba. He tutored the two young princes of Scotland. 

The south/west facing stained glass window.

                                                Robert the Bruce with a lion at his feet. 
                                                   This is not his burial place....

The head of the clans have their own seats, and cushions.

These McGregors!

Still, the tranquility of a place of worship.

                                                             Seats near the altar for the clan heads

I was curious what this was.....

A simple cross in the corner.

outside stone steps go up to a strange little door...

The central courtyard.

Carvings still in progress.
A local plumber is still working on the gargoyles  outside.

A lovely sentiment...loveth well both man and bied and beast...

And a wee tea room

This is Kilchurn Castle at the south end of the loch.



Thursday, July 28, 2022

How did they do it?

 Stanley - Thursday

We are about a month away from the launch of our eighth Detective Kubu mystery, titled A Deadly Covenant. The book starts with the discovery of several skeletons of Bushmen who had been murdered and buried in the sands of the Kalahari.

Bushmen have played a major role in a number of our books. In A Carrion Death, it is Kubu's Bushman friend Khumanego who teaches him to be observant. The backstory of Death of the Mantis is about the demise of the Bushmen and the need of the remaining ones to maintain their history and traditions. In Dying to Live, a dead Bushman is found in the desert in suspicious circumstances. His body is sent to Gaborone to undergo a postmortem. Although the man is clearly very old, the pathologist finds that his organs are young, and a bullet lodged in his abdominal muscles has no entry wound. This leads to a frenzied belief that he has discovered a plant that prolongs life.

One of the reasons Bushmen play a prominent part in our books is that we have a great admiration for them and an extreme distaste for how they've been treated. For example, it was only in the 1930s that hunting licenses were stopped being issued for hunting them.

"That will be sixpence for the kudu, sixpence for the gemsbok, and thruppence for the Bushman," one can hear the clerk behind the counter say.

There are many things that have attracted us to the Bushmen. Here are some of them.

Bushman poisons

There are a number of poisons that the Bushmen use for hunting. The most intriguing is the poison from the Diamphidia nigroornata beetles which lay their eggs on the stems of shrubs from one of the Commiphora trees in the frankincense and myrrh family. 

Diamphidia nigroornata beetle

They then cover the eggs with their own faeces, creating a hard shell when dry. Eventually the larvae shed their protection and burrow up to a metre into the sand next to the tree, where they make a cocoon from sand. It may take several years before they molt into pupae.

Larva in its sand cocoon

The Bushmen dig up the larvae and pupae and gently squeeze the liquids in them into a container. When they are ready to hunt, they apply the poison, not to the tip of the arrow in case they nick themselves, but rather to the base of the arrowhead. The poison is important because the bows and arrows Bushmen use are very flimsy and unable to kill an animal outright. 

The poison causes partial paralysis and labored breathing, followed by cyanosis and respiration ceasing. Since the poison takes time to bring an animal down, the Bushmen sometimes have to follow a large animal, such as an eland, for days. The the animal falls, the Bushmen kill it if not already dead, and cut up the meat.

They can then eat the meat without dying from the poison.

Several things about this astonish me. First, how did the Bushmen eons ago discover the larvae buried so far underground? Second, how did they figure out that the liquid inside the larvae were toxic? Finally, how many Bushmen died before they figured all this out?

There are a lot of other side issues that are interesting. Because the hunted animal often runs through scrub and bush, and because resources in the Kalahari are few and far between, the arrows that Bushmen use have two parts: the head with the poison; and the shaft. When an animal is hit and start running, the main shaft falls off and is reusable. The part with the poison remains fixed in the animal and is retrieved when the animal collapses. (Surprisingly, the arrow also doesn't have flights.)

Arrow shafts and detachable arrow heads

Poison container, pointed to stand in sand


In the northwest of Botswana is a range of hills that rise abruptly out of the desert, known as Tsodilo Hills. 

The Tsodilo Hills in the Kalahari

The Bushmen regard this as the birthplace of humankind. Today it is a World Heritage site boasting thousands of rock paintings, some of which go back thousands of years. I've had the good fortune to visit it several times.

Two paintings always astonish me: one of a whale and one of a penguin. 

I am astonished because Tsodilo is about 500 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean as the crow flies. (By the way, what is now called the African 
penguin is found on the Atlantic coast of what is now called Namibia.) So how did they navigate over such large distance with no GPS and very few landmarks in the (to us) featureless Namib desert?

I've no idea.

Lack of jealousy

The Bushman were very worried about jealousy. If someone made or found something that was beautiful, they would give it away rather than keep it. Jealousy, they believed, was the cause of friction. And friction in an environment like the desert would only lead to disaster.

There's a wonderful movie about jealousy among the Bushmen. I watched it when I was a kid. It is called The Gods Must Be Crazy. it is worth finding and watching, even though some of it is dated. It is all about a Coke bottle.

Surviving in the desert

Most of us would struggle to survive in the harsh climate of the Kalahari Desert. Yet the Bushmen have been doing it for tens of thousands of years.


First, the nomadic groups were usually very small, usually no more than a dozen or so. This meant that no group had to find a lot of food at any one time in order to survive. Second, they knew where to find food, sometimes buried, and water, even though there were no neon signs and signposts. 

Tsama melons growing wild in the Kalahari

And third - and perhaps the most important - was that they never finished any resource no matter how badly they wanted it. So, even if a group was very thirsty and they came across a small amount of water, they never finished it, always leaving something for the next group. 

This was because there was no such thing as ownership. Everything belonged to everyone, and therefore had to be shared. We could certainly learn from that (and from the lack of jealousy).

However, when ownership came to the territories in which they lived, that was when problems started. Farmers, Black and White, arrived owning cattle, for example, and land. The Bushmen would come across a cow. It was much easier to kill it, because it didn't run away, than to run for several days after an eland. The farmer thought differently and would either kill or enslave the Bushman if he caught him.

And that was the beginning of the end. Today there are probably no nomadic Bushmen left.


September events:


Thursday 8. 

Launch of A Deadly Covenant


Wednesday, 7. 4:30 – 5:30 pm 

Totally Criminal Cocktail Hour at Valley Bookstore

The Zephyr Theatre, 601 N Main St, StillwaterMN 55082

Find out more about the event HERE.


Thursday, 8, 4:15 – 5 pm 


Multi-Tasking is Murder – Juggling Multiple Series ( How these authors create and balance multiple series at the same time.)

Chris Aldrich (Moderator); Michael Sears (Michael Stanley); Sujata Massey; Julie Hennrikus; Laura Childs/Gerry Schmitt; Anna Lee Hube

Friday, 9, 1:45 – 2:30 pm 


The Mystery of Multiple Points of View and Multiple Timelines (Writers use dual perspectives/multiple narrators and alternating timelines to tell their stories.)

Marty Ambrose; William Boyle; Mary R. Davidsaver; B.A. Shapiro; Julie Carrick Dalton; Stanley Trollip (Moderator)

Saturday, 10, 11:30 -12:15 pm 


Under the Sun or Below Zero (You’ve heard of “setting as a character.” Well … what about the weather?  These authors’ works represent a dichotomy of climates where rising temps or bone-chilling cold are just as effective as any villain.)

Alexander McCall Smith; Stan Trollip (Michael Stanley); Catriona McPherson; Jo Nesbø ; Matthew Goldman (Moderator); Caro Ramsay

Thursday, 15, 12:30 – 1:00 pm (UK time) 

Virtual event at the International Agatha Christie Festival

Agatha in Africa

Michael, Stanley and Zimbabwe author Bryony Rheam discuss Agatha Christie’s trip to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia and its connection with her mystery thriller The Man in the Brown Suit.


Monday 19, 6:00 pm 

Nokomis Library event

5100 S 34th Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55417 Phone: 612-543-6800


Wednesday 21, 6:00 pm 

Thomas St. Angelo Public Library of Cumberland event

1305 2nd Ave, Cumberland, WI 54829. Phone: 715-822-2767


Thursday 22, 6:30 pm 

Spooner Library event

421 High St, Spooner, WI 54801 Phone. 715-635-2792


Saturday 24, 1200

The Bookstore at Fitger’s

600 East Superior Street, Duluth MN 55802


Tuesday, 27, 6:00 pm 

Launch of A Deadly Covenant at Once Upon A Crime

604 W. 26th Street, MinneapolisMN 5540 Phone: 612.870.3785 Email:

With Mary Ann Grossman

October events:


Saturday 1, 9:00 am – 3:00 pm

Meet us at the Deep Valley Book Festival

Mankato, MN

Free book festival. We’ll be there from 9am to 3pm. The event takes place at the WOW! Zone, conveniently located at 2030 Adams Street in Mankato, just off Highway 14.


Thursday 6, 7:00 pm

Barnes and Noble HarMar

2100 Snelling Ave N, Roseville, MN 55113


Saturday 8. 

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore

4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101, Scottsdale, AZ 85251 Phone:(480) 947-2974 Toll Free: (888) 560-9919 Email:

Michael and Stanley join Barbara Peters on Saturday afternoon to chat about A Deadly Covenant.


Friday, 14, 10 am 

Lake Country Booksellers event

4766 Washington Ave, White Bear Lake, MN 55110 Phone: 651-426-0918


Saturday, 15, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm 

Twin Cities Book Festival

Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Saint Paul, Minnesota


Monday, July 25, 2022

From John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman . Redux

Annamaria on Monday


It is always my aim to create something new and interesting for every single Monday here on MIE.  Today, however, as I look out at the garden of the holiday rental where I am staying, I see an urgent piece of personal business that requires my attention.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a writer friend who is working on a first novel. We talked about his hope to bring his main character to do something that would reveal a number of things about himself.  I made reference to my favorite words about authors and their characters, which reminded me that I had once copied them out.  Here is my post from eight years ago quoted from Fowles’s masterpiece. I ALWAYS find rereading the beginning of his Chapter 13 useful and inspiring.  It works for me as a writer and also as a reader.

So, I leave you with the brilliant words of John Fowles, while I go out and deal with that urgent activity in the garden.



FROM The French Lieutenant's Woman:
“I do not know.  This story I am telling is all imagination.  These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.  If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God.  He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.  But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Gillet and Roland Barthes; if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the word.

            So perhaps I am writing a transposed autobiography; perhaps I now live in one of the houses I have brought into the fiction; perhaps Charles is myself disguised.  Perhaps is it only a game.  Modern women like Sarah exist, and I have never understood them.  Or perhaps I am trying to pass off a concealed book of essays on you.  Instead of chapter headings, perhaps I should have written “On the Horizontality of Existence,” “The Illusion of Progress,” “The History of the Novel Form,”  “The Aetiology of Freedom,” “Some Forgotten Aspects of the Victorian Age” . . .  what you will.
            Perhaps you suppose that a novelist has only to pull the right strings and his puppets will behave in a lifelike manner; and produce on request a thorough analysis of their motives and intentions.  Certainly I intended at this stage (Chap. Thirteen—unfolding of Sarah’s true state of mind) to tell all—or all that matters.  But I find myself suddenly like man in the sharp spring night, watching from the lawn beneath that dim upper window in Marlborough House; I know in the context of my book’s reality that Sarah would never have brushed away her tears and leaned down and delivered a chapter of revelation.  She would instantly have turned, had she seen me there just as the old moon rose, and disappeared into the interior shadows.
            But I am a novelist, not a man in a garden—I can follow her where I like? But possibility is not permissibility.  Husbands could often murder their wives—and the reverse—and get away with it.  But they don’t.
            You may think that novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen.  But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furniture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy’s back.  I could fill a book with the reasons, and they would all be true.  Only one true reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is.  Or was.  This is why we cannot plan.  We know a world is an organism, not a machine.  We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world.  It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.  When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis.  But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.

            Oh, but you say, come on—what I really mean is that the idea crossed my mind as I wrote that it might have been more clever to have him stop and drink milk. . .and meet Sarah again.  That is certainly one explanation of what happened; but I can only report—and I am the most reliable witness—that the idea seemed to me to come clearly from Charles, not myself.  It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real.

            In other words, to be free myself, I must give him, and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedoms as well.    There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows all other freedoms to exist.  And I must conform to that definition.”

*I have copied this out carefully, word by word.  I consider this a fair use of John Fowles’s sentences.  I type them here out of a sense of admiration and wonder, because having just yesterday read them for the fourth or fifth time, I cannot think of anything better I can say about what it means to write fiction.