Wednesday, March 22, 2023

When Writers Grow Like Cacti

 Sujata Massey

I’ve just unpacked from a five-day trip to the Oro Valley near Tucson, Arizona. At a resort in the foothills, about 475 intrepid souls gathered for the Left Coast Crime convention to celebrate the art of the mystery … and also the art of the burrito, the quesadilla, the tamal. 


The chimichanga’s invention is credited to a longago chef at El Charro, the oldest family owned-and-operated Mexican restaurant in the United States. I dined at El Charro one of the nights during this conference, as well as two other terrific local restaurants, Guadalajara Grill and Family Hacienda. All of them were unpretentious, priced reasonably, and exceptionally tasty.


I spoke on several panels and had an interview with my editor at the convention, which was a special plus of being named an author guest of honor along with the writers Glen Eric Hamilton and JA Jance. Judith Ann, as she was named at birth, has written at least 70 books—according to her website—and is 78 years old. 

Some of my blogmates who write along with me at Murder is Everywhere came to the convention. it was a treat to spend time with Jeff Sigler, Wendall Thomas, Annamaria Alfieri, and Kwei Quartey--who was unfortunately still in transit when we took the photo below. 


It was humbling to notice the massive number of people in the so-called “golden years” who spoke on panels, bought books, and schmoozed. Many of the conference's core committee of volunteers were in their 70s and 80s. The hotel's halls were filled with writers who began work many decades ago, or very quickly after retirement. 


Arizona is known for attracting people who want to retire in warm weather with a dramatic mountainous environment. And while the ground is largely sand and rocks, hardy flowers and shrubs form a desert bloom at this time of year. Every bit of water that falls seems to be captured and turned into something of beauty.


The most ubiquitous cactus is the saguaro, native to the Sonora desert and capable of growing up to forty feet tall. I learned that these mega plants take a long time to get started: up to twenty years to grow the first twelve inches. However, they may live more than 150 years, and sometimes have upwards of 50 arm-like branches. Mature saguaros can weigh three to four thousand pounds, weight that comes from being filled with water that slowly feeds their own growth and the host of animals and insects that come to them for sustenance. 


The saguaro cactus, a column of strength with an undetermined, individual journey, reminds me of the slow process, and many offshoots, in becoming a writer.

Monday, March 20, 2023

After Left Coast Crime

Annamaria on Monday

It's Sunday afternoon and though most of my dear ones are gone, I am still here in Tucson. Because I wanted to stay here for the Sunday morning events, I had only one choice if I wanted to fly home today: fly to LAX and take the redeye to arrive early on Monday morning. I declined. I have taken the redeye many times in the past, but I think it is now against my religion to suffer that ever again.

So, after heartfelt goodbye hugs to friends I see all too infrequently, I am in my room working on my blog in between a lovely lunch and up coming dinner with writer friends who live nearby.  My plan was to prepare for writing this post by walking around the grounds of the hotel and photographing the wildlife alleged to be nearby and easy to find.  I walked and looked and walked and looked.  Nada.

Here are a few photos of the area that are , more or less, worth looking at:

This is as close as I got to seeing a cowboy

I know.  I owe the readers of MIE something better than this.  But the past few days have been so warm, so full of affection and friendship and have included one of my loveliest birthdays ever.  i am still basking in the glow of it all and cannot summon my usual determination.

I wanted, at the very least to show you all a photo of one of the legendary creatures that live nearby - a roadrunner.  I went to all the places where other attendees of the conference said they saw them.  No dice.

Here is the best I can do:

I am pretty sure that you laughed as hard as I did.  As far as I can tell, cartoons like this one are one of greatest artefacts of American culture.

Meeet meeet.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Authors Assemble!

Buxton Assembly Rooms, March 17 2023 

Zoë Sharp


On Friday of last week, I was one of eighteen exhibitors at the first Authors Assemble event in Buxton. There were authors in various genres, both fiction and non-fiction, from sci-fi and horror, through crime to historical and wartime sagas, a memoir, local history, and children’s literature. Also present were displays by a writing school, several small publishers, and a marketing and communications guru.


The event was organised by Kerry Fox and her team from the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust, and took place in the magnificent Assembly Rooms at one end of the Crescent itself. The aim of bringing together such a varied selection of authors was to highlight the former use of the Assembly Rooms as the town’s library from 1972 to 1992.

pic courtesy of Shirley Mann

As well as table displays, there was a series of talks by eleven of the authors on topics such as ‘The Amazing Women of World War II’ (Shirley Mann), ‘The Grotesques of Buxton’ (Terry Newholm), ‘Writing the Dance’ (Tricia Durdey), ‘Women and Business in Georgian England’ (Dr Peter Collinge), ‘Crime Fiction in the 1920s’ (Celia Harwood), and Writing a Long-Running Series and Keeping it Fresh’ (That would be me).



All in all, a very interesting day.


Different Approaches

What particularly interested me was the format. Apart from the original Bodies in the Bookshop at Heffers in Cambridge, I have not taken part in many events where you are given a table, along with a crowd of other authors, and left to display your wares. It was fascinating, therefore, to see the different approaches taken by the other exhibitors.

Some, like myself, just had their books on their table, with maybe a sign-up sheet for their newsletter list. SR (Ste) Dunham had gone further by having QR codes to the eBook versions of his titles.


Former BBC radio and television journalist, Shirley Mann, had background information and photographs, as well as one of the awards won for her romantic saga novels, set during WWII.

Children’s author, Sue Wilkins has not only written stories for children, illustrated by Liz Furness, but she has produced soft toys of the characters, which were also available to buy.

Dr Peter Collinge was awarded his PhD on businesswomen in Georgian Derbyshire from Keele University, and – as you might expect – had very professional banners illustrating his subject.

Communications and marketing expert Lucy Rennie – author of Clarity, Communication and Connection – had brought a mind-bending game to lure people to her table, although I failed to take a clear picture of it, unfortunately! But it certainly worked to break the ice.


The Derbyshire Writing School had made an amazing display with their table, signing people up for upcoming courses, being interviewed on their podcast, or offering writing prompts and tips.

So, not only an interesting day, but one that was educational as well.


Buxton Crescent

It isn’t often you get to do a writing event in such glorious surroundings as the Assembly Rooms at the Crescent in Buxton.


The Crescent is very reminiscent of the Royal Crescent in Bath, but has been described as being more complex and more richly decorated. The ceiling of the Assembly Rooms was certainly elaborate.


But everywhere you looked was fine detailing.



And more gold leaf than you could shake a stick at.


Outside, the Grade I listed building is magnificent. It was built for the Fifth Duke of Devonshire over nine years from 1780 to 1789. At the time, a Post Office and variety of shops were located along the arcade, while the Crescent itself housed a hotel and lodging houses, as well as the Assembly Rooms, and it was considered the centre of local high society. At one point, there was stabling for up to a hundred and twenty horses for guests.


The Crescent became entirely comprised of two hotels – the Great Hotel at the eastern end, and St Ann’s at the western end. By the twentieth century, the eastern end, including the Assembly Rooms, had become council offices, as well as housing a clinic and the library.

The pump room, with the western end of the Cresent behind.

After structural problems were discovered in 1992, the entire building stood empty, until it was purchased by the council and enough grant money secured to prevent further deterioration. There were many delays while partnerships were formed, grants and loans obtained, and a lot of legal hoops were jumped through, before restoration could begin in 2003. The revamped five-star hotel, natural baths, visitor centre and specialist shops, finally reopened in 2020.

The Assembly Rooms at the eastern end of the Crescent.

The Architect

The Crescent was designed by architect John Carr, and was said to be his favourite work. Carr was born in 1723 in Horbury, near Wakefield, the eldest son of a master mason and quarry owner, Robert Carr. He trained under his father, learning practical construction skills as well as draughtsmanship, which stood him in good stead when he struck out on his own in 1748.


Carr chose to remain in the north of England rather than move to London, but his work was well-known and well-respected. He was the only provincial member of the London Architects’ Club. A prolific architect, mostly in the Palladian style, he was responsible for Ripley Castle, Harewood House, and Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Holker Hall in Cumbria, and also worked on Chatsworth in Derbyshire.

John Carr, painted by Sir William Beechey.

(Plans are for the Buxton Crescent) 

In York, where Carr was a magistrate and served as Lord Mayor in 1770 and 1785, he twice surveyed and repaired York Minster. He also designed bridges, racecourse grandstands, prisons, and other public buildings, including the Assize Courts, the Bishop’s Palace, and the Bootham Park Hospital, all in York.


Many of John Carr’s works survive today, thanks to the soundness of their construction and design.


To mark the 300th anniversary of Carr’s birth, the Assembly Rooms at the Crescent will be the venue for a Birthday Ball in April, with an optional regency dance workshop that afternoon, for those who want to learn the steps. Georgian attire or black tie and ballgown. Carriages at 11pm.

This week’s Word of the Week is something you use every day but probably cannot name, unless you are a linguistics scholar: schwa, derived from the Hebrew shewameaning emptiness. It denotes an unstressed vowel, and you may be surprised to learn that the schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in English; some one-third of the vowels we use in conversation are unstressed. For example, the 'a' in machine, the first 'u' in pursue, the 'e' in camera, the 'o' in memory. My favourite instance is the second 'o' in photograph contrasted with the first 'o' and the 'a' in photography. Schwa vowels appear in many languages and their occurrence is obviously affected to some degree by local accents.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

A Few Thoughts From Saguaro Land.




I absolutely love Left Coast Crime and this year, after a three-year Covid-induced absence from the US mystery convention circuit, Barbara and I are in Tucson, spending an absolutely delightful time engaged in face-to-face reunions with long missed book friends and MIE blog mates Annamaria, Kwei, Wendall, and LCC Guest of Honor Sujata.


I thought of posting a host of photos documenting our experiences thus far, but instead promised Sister Annamaria that I’d leave it to her to do the photo honors in her Monday slot. Instead, I decided to launch off on something that stared me in the face when I looked in the hotel mirror this morning.


Here’s what I saw.


Not what you expected?


I’ve spent thousands of overnights in hotel rooms, and never do I recall seeing anything quite like that before. 


Yes, I’ve seen placards appealing for guests to save water by reusing towels or putting off bedding changes, but never one advising guests that making beds, cleaning bathrooms, and emptying trash will not be provided unless requested, albeit “For stays of 4 nights or longer, we will provide a full room cleaning every 5th day using Lysol protection.”


I suspect it’s a Covid-instituted position intended to protect housekeeping staff and guests from infecting one another.  But what’s the justification for keeping that in effect in today’s post-Covid restrictions times?


To me it’s simple.  Reduced housekeeping services means a direct reduction in labor costs and a concomitant increase in profits—unless of course there’s been a reduction in room rates to compensate guests asked to endure unmade, unclean, and trashy rooms?


Is anyone willing to take that bet?


I doubt my experience is isolated or unique, but rather a phenomenon playing out across a hospitality industry that’s come to accept as gospel a simple business principle: if the consumer is willing to endure, why change? 


My being asked to endure for the greater good of many appeals to me. Being asked to endure so that the many in need of work remain unhired in order to better profit the bottom line, does not.   


I think I’ll sic Barbara on them.




Friday, March 17, 2023

St Patrick's Day


Bejessus, Begorra, Top of the mornin to ya. Anymore of that and I’ll be at yer pigs with my shillelagh.

And lots of other things that Irish people never say. 

They do actually say feck a lot which is not rude at all. It just sounds as though it might be.

So happy St Patrick's Day to one and all, although  at the moment we’re more entrenched in the commercialisation of Mother's Day which is this Sunday. I am rounding that square by giving my mother a present of  Ballycastle Irish Cream Liquor which is a cheap ( but very tasty)  version of Baileys Irish Cream Liquor. So, the penny pinching Scot is in admiration of the Irish alcohol which could be a theme for  many things.

Like most Scots I have a high percentage of Irish. My paternal grandfather was from Belfast, he could never pronounce my name and called me Carl. If a word began with a Z he’d have to put an O in front of it. I still have to stop myself saying O’Zip and O’Zebra. O’Feck could very well be misunderstood.

St Patrick was probably British (some sources say that he was born to Roman parents and that he probably spent his early years in Southern Scotland or in Wales). He was kidnapped as a child and taken to Ireland in an early form of human trafficking. 

He probably never wore green. As we are talking the 4th century details are scant and open to interpretation but it is interesting that the colour was called St Patrick's Blue. The green only really became associated with him in the Irish Independence Movement of the late 18th century. Bearing in mind the relative significance of green and blue, catholic and protestant, Celtic and Rangers and the west of Scotland, this is particularly ironic. 

As is the blue face of Mel Gibson in Braveheart. William Wallace never wore a kilt or wode. That blue colour comes from the flag of St Andrew. And Hollywood.

 But, Patrick took the national flower of Ireland, the shamrock, and used that as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity when he was introducing Christianity to the pagans of Ireland. Having met some of my Irish relatives I think most of the paganism is still going strong.

Another thing St Patrick is famous for is snakes, there's always one  wrapped round his staff. He's accredited with driving all the snakes out of Ireland when, of course, there’s never been any there as its too cold and too wet – reptiles just wouldn’t have survived the ice age. And being an island … There’s only one native snake in Great Britain – the adder -which can give you a nasty nip if you are tracking through heather without your socks tucked into your trousers.

So in a nutshell, St Patrick could be the most celebrated Welshman in America. 

Did all that start in Boston?

Patrick was slave for 6 years in Ireland, probably tending to animals, before having a revelation in a dream, so he escaped, walked to County Mayo and just kept going travelling to France/Gaul where he  studied Christianity for almost 20 years. He then returned to Ireland and he was clever enough to combine his Christian teachings with Irish Pagan tradition and Druid folklore, although he sometimes crossed the line and was promptly imprisoned only to escape again and continue with his teachings.

A good example of this mergeing of faiths is the Christian cross which has obvious symbolism, and he superimposed on that an image of the sun which is a powerful Irish/Druid symbol to give what is called the Celtic Cross.


So go ahead enjoy your Guiness, your potato scones, sing great songs and dance until you can dance no more.

Happy St Patricks day. 


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Bargain of the year?


Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Here’s a deal. Something with a retail value of around $250 million dollars now on auction with starting bids at $10 million. But wait, there’s more. Every two years, you get another quarter billion! Unless you were born yesterday, you know there’s a big catch, and, of course, you’re right.

Platinum rhinos
Photo Daily Maverick

If I’d been asked where I would find the largest single owner of rhinos in the world, I would have plumbed for the iconic Kruger National Park that stretches over more than eight thousand square miles in the north east of South Africa. Although white rhinos became extinct in the area at the end of the nineteenth century, they were reintroduced in the seventies and have bred up very well indeed over fifty years. 

Still, I would have been dead wrong. The answer to the question about the largest population of rhinos in the world is a private farm owned by wealthy investor and self-styled rhino conservationist, John Hume. His land extends over 8,500 hectares and contains 2,000 rhinos. That’s probably around 10% of the world population of white rhinos (the least rare of the various species). It’s this farm that's going on auction. 

In fact, about 60% of white rhinos are privately owned. The cost and logistics of keeping them safe from poachers is beyond the efficiency and resources of government agencies such as the sprawling national parks.

The reason this is apparently such an amazing deal is because of the leverage. An adult white rhino costs around $30k in South Africa. Its horn weighs about 2kg. That’s worth around $250k - ten times the cost of the whole rhino - at the street value in Asia. The catch is that if you buy a rhino, the horn comes attached to it. You can cut it off if you like (if the rhino cooperates), you can even sell it in South Africa if you want to, but you can’t legally take it out of the country or sell it to someone who doesn't reside here. To prevent the extinction of all species of rhinos in the world, CITES has banned the trade in rhino horn. Thus essentially all the rhino horn traded in Asia is illegal and arises from poached rhinos whose horns were cut off the dead animals and exported illegally. South Africa is a signatory of the CITES agreement and enforces the export ban. However, there are loopholes. One is that you can get a licence to hunt a rhino on private land, and you'r allowed to take your trophy home. Of course, you may not then sell the horn, but once you are back in China or Vietnam…

John Hume
Owner of Platinum Rhinos

Hume has always argued strongly that the right way to handle the rhino horn trade for medicinal and recreational purposes in the East is to supply the demand in a legal controlled and humane manner. It’s not a ridiculous argument. Rhino horn is nothing more than compacted hair. It can be painlessly removed with the animal sedated, and it grows back in two to three years. That means that one rhino can supply on average 1kg of horn every year. Hume points out that this could be certified and supplied to the dealer in much the same fashion as the Kimberley Process ensures that diamonds supplied to consumers are not “blood diamonds.” He has a point. The counter argument is that the consumer market may just grow to absorb all the legal and illegal horn available thus putting more pressure on the rhino populations. After all, there are a lot of people in China and Vietnam…

Looking for investment...without success

We tried to investigate these issues in Dead of Night, our thriller featuring environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen as a US reporter investigating the rhino horn trade and the issues around it for National Geographic magazine. The questions are easy to ask, but harder to answer. Hume, who claims a life-long love of rhinos and a determination to prevent their extinction, came up with his answer in the form of his ranch and rhino breeding project financed by his own money. But the tide never turned in favour of commercial trade, and now at 81 he’s ready to throw in the towel as the bills mount. He wants to sell the ranch as an ongoing operation, complete with the state-of-the-art security system that has kept his rhinos alive. If he can’t get that $10 million starting bid at the auction, he says he will close the operation and sell off the pieces. Probably that will mean that many of the 2,000 rhino will end up as carcasses and powdered horn, legally or not.

Anyone out there want to own the world’s largest rhino population plus other wildlife on a large, pristine area of bush in South Africa? Be warned that the $10 million is only the down payment though. The ongoing running costs will be the issue. Maybe a crowd funding opportunity? Or maybe South Africa's president will throw in a few million. He’s into these sorts of things.

I’ll let you know in May after the auction closes.

Details of Platinum Rhinos and the auction

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

A Primer On African American Crime Fiction


(Disclaimer: this post isnt intended as an all-encompassing treatment of the topic. For more, consult in-depth publications or academic papers.)

African American crime fiction

African American crime fiction reflects the struggles and experiences of Black Americans in the United States. From the early pioneers of the genre to modern-day writers, African American crime fiction has evolved to keep pace with social, cultural, and political changes. I submit to you that crime fiction tackles these topics better than any other genre fiction.

The beginning

Pioneering Black authors wrote crime fiction early on in the twentieth century. Pauline E. Hopkins’s novel Hagars Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice was published in 1901 and is considered the first detective novel written by an African American. The Black Sleuth, by John Edward Bruce came out in 1907.


In 1957, Chester Himes began his nine-book series with two black NYPD detectives protagonists, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, whose names suggest the nature of their police methods and reputation. Cotton Comes To Harlem is his most well-known novel in the series. Himes’s detectives are unmistakably hard-boiled and the novels, set in Harlem, explore police corruption, racism, and poverty.

2019 memorial dedicated to Chester B. Himes, Moraira, Spain
(Image: Shutterstock)

The 1980s on

In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of African American crime writers emerged, including Walter Mosley, whose Easy Rawlins series is a classic of the genre. Mosleys novels, set in 1940s-50s Los Angeles, feature a Black private detective named Easy Rawlins who investigates crimes in the Black community. Mosley tersely depicts the Black American experience of race, class, and identity, with word economy I find impossible to master. On a personal level, the man is quite hilarious and an expert at spinning a yarn.

Walter and Quartey at GOG awards, 2014 

Of note is that Mosley isnt afraid of either expanding or venturing outside the crime fiction genre. His book Futureland contains nine interconnected short stories that capture the high-tech world of the United States in the near future while rendering social commentary. 

Another mystery writer of the era is the late Barbara Neely, whose protagonist is Blanche White, a Black housekeeper who solves crimes in the predominantly white world of the South. Blanche On The Lam was originally meant to be a social commentary, but Neely said in an NPR program, "While people were reading the book to find out who killed who and why, they were also getting a lot of information about race, class, gender, all of the issues that I cared about. 

Barbara Neely (Image: 

After 1990, a cascade of African American crime fiction writers came along, e.g. Gary Phillips, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Penny Mickelbury, Hugh Holton, Grace F. Edwards, and Valerie Wilson Wesley.

In the 21st century, African American crime fiction has continued to evolve and expand, with different writers using different styles. The much-heralded Attica Locke expertly weaves social justice and political corruption into her stories like Bluebird, Bluebird. Another Black woman to have recently gained stardom is Rachel Howzell Hall. Her novel And Now She's Gone is a gripping thriller exploring issues of trust and betrayal.

The legacy will continue

African American crime fiction has a rich history reflecting the experiences and struggles of Black Americans in the United States. From the early pioneers of the genre to contemporary writers, African American crime fiction has moved with the changing social, cultural, and political times while also captivating readers. It will continue to do so.