Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Name of the Lion

Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Every year Murder Is Everywhere has a hiatus for Bouchercon, and we repost a favorite blog. I've chosen this one before. I hope some of you will still find it of interest. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Wilhelm Bleek
Dorothea Bleek
Between 1870 and 1880, two linguists – Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd recorded the stories and beliefs of five /Xam Bushmen or San.  By that time, the Bushmen of the southern region – south of the Orange River – were in decline, and it was clear that the /Xam culture would soon be gone.  Bleek had several of the /Xam live with him at his house in Cape Town and learned their language.  This was a remarkable feat for two reasons – firstly at that time there was essentially no written version of the language and its dialects, and secondly its structure involved the frequent use of five clicks each changing the meaning of what followed in the context.  The linguists had to develop a character set to represent these (and other) features of the language.  Thus the five special clicks are written /, //, ≠, ! and Θ.  The names of the five /Xam teachers who shared their customs and beliefs with Bleek and Lloyd in their own language (with the Western names they were given) are /A!kuηta (Klaas Stoffel), //Kabbo (Oud Jantje Tooren), Diä!kwain (David Hoesar), /Haη≠kass’o (Klein Jantje Tooren) and ≠Kasiη (Klaas Katkop).  The material was compiled in extensive notebooks.  Some forty years later one of Wilhelm Bleeks daughters – Dorothea Bleek – first published them.

One of the /Xam teachers
The interest in what is recorded for the ordinary reader is in the picture that it gives of a vanished culture and its beliefs.  The /Xam lived in semi-arid savannah conditions and shared the environment with all the big game for which Africa remains famous.  Of these none was more awesome and terrifying than the lion. Even today sitting in the (relative) safety of an open Land Rover in a game reserve, few things are more awe-inspiring than a lion roaring a few yards away.  And the casual glances they give you with big yellow eyes as they walk past seem to say, “You have the upper hand now, but things may be different later.”

Perhaps it's hardly surprising that the Bushmen attributed powers to lions that went way beyond their daunting physical prowess and co-operative hunting skills.  Lions understood human speech.  Owls and crows spied for them.  Worse still, they had swarms of flies which they could send out to listen to what people said and report back.  Thus, children in particular where warned to be careful not to insult a lion; it was best to euphemistically refer to “hair” (“Hair" was here, see there are "Hair’s" footprints) or to indicate the same with one spread open hand.  Then the flies wouldn’t know.  (Presumably flies don’t have enough intelligence to bring to learning such matters.)  Not only would owls report to the lions on where people where, they could also make the sun set quickly – taking away the light people needed to fight or escape.

It's hard to imagine living not only in nightly danger from these large predators, but also endowing them with demon-like powers.  Yet, with great courage, the /Xam would sometimes steal part of a lion’s kill, maybe even driving off an animal or two to do so.  But there is a do-as-you-would-be-done-by moral to that tale.  It was understood that part must always be left for the lions, otherwise they would track the thieves to their homes and demand a human in compensation.
Diä!kwain told it like this:
            “Our parents used to say that if the lion did not find food at the place of the kill, he would be angry and say to himself, ‘Just you wait a bit; because you seem to have carried off all my food, I will do as you have done to me, I will follow your footprints, I will go and seize one of your men in his sleep and eat him.  For you seem to have forgotten that I, too, am hungry.”
(Customs and Beliefs of the /Xam Bushmen, edited by Jeremy C Hollman, Wits University Press.)

These stories and the many others that Bleek and Lloyd labored to understand and record, give us an insight into a time and a way of life that is now gone, in South Africa at least.  

I think we owe them a debt.


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A tale of four rivers

I always enjoy Michael’s nature blogs! Hard to tell I’m a nature fan judging from my often hard political posts, but, yes, I am!--Kwei, Bouchercon week.

 Michael - alternate Thursdays

There's an old joke about a film director in southern Africa who asked his guide to take him to a “typical African river,” expecting something along the lines of the kilometer-wide Congo River. The guide took him to something like this: 

The Auob - typical African river - with lions

Most African rivers are dry beds most of the time. This month we did a tour of the north of the Northern Cape and into southern Namibia. It's an arid part of southern Africa where the dry Kalahari is fighting for territory, some of which has already been lost to the Namib desert—an expanse of seemingly endless sand dunes. Along the way we met four rivers, the longest river in South Africa and one of the few perennial ones, the two dry rivers of the south-west Kgalagadi - the Auob and  the Nosob, and the Fish of Namibia that has carved out the world's second largest land canyon. 

Given the dryness of the area, it’s surprising that one of southern Africa’s largest rivers, the Orange, flows along the border between the Northern Cape and Namibia as it heads into the Atlantic at Oranjemund (German for Mouth of Orange). Of course, the Orange starts far away in the Drakensberg Mountains where it gets a kickoff that keeps it going for a long way.

 Before it gets to Oranjemund, the river negotiates the Augrabies Falls, dropping sixty meters into the gorge. The name comes from the original Khoikhoi residents who named the waterfall "Ankoerebis" — "place of great noise". The falls were beautiful when we were there, but relatively tame. However, when the Orange is in flood, it’s scary. The last time that happened it damaged the observation platforms from which these pictures were taken… 

Augrabies Falls

Exit gorge

If one heads north-east from there, one reaches the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) that I blogged about last time. Although the Kalahari is very dry and the life there is adapted to water scarcity, there is life and there is water. As I mentioned in my last piece, the South African section is bounded by two rivers that are normally dry at the surface, but flow sluggishly below the sand at depths of around 100 meters. That ground water supports a rich ecosystem of animals, birds, insects and plants. Springbuck, with their drought resistant physiology, take the niche the Impala hold in the Kruger Park. Oryx are also fans of the dryness, as are Ostriches. But it’s very noticeable that animal concentrations are much higher in general along the rivers with their trees and less sparse vegetation than up in the rolling, scrub-covered dunes. Also, the boreholes originally drilled when the Union of South Africa thought it might need to supply troops defending its north-west borders from the Germans in the First World War, are hugely popular with animals. Even if you can go without water, that doesn’t mean that you choose to do so.

Everyone's a critic...

Cape Oryx at waterhole

Ostriches heading into the dunes

Yellow Mongoose taking its ease

Wonderful Kieliekrankie dune lodges in KTF

Dunes from Kieliekrankie with small waterhole

Wildebeest seeking shade

These two rivers join up at the southern tip of the KTP before wending their way to the Molopo River, which is a tributary of the Orange.

Next we crossed into Namibia. The iconic Quiver trees of the area are suddenly all around one. Actually a type of aloe, they grow tall and in winter are resplendent with yellow candelabras of flowers.  

Quiver tree in flower

Quiver tree forest near Keetmanshoop

Quiver tree being taken over for a sociable weaver nest

The Bushmen people of the area hollowed out the softer inside of the the branches making quivers for their arrows, leading to the name.

Then came the visit the Fish River Canyon, the second largest land canyon in the world. We spoiled ourselves and stayed at the Fish River Lodge, which has twenty separate bungalows spread along the edge of the canyon, each with a magnificent view. 

View from the main lodge

The canyon has a two-phase history. Originally at the bottom of the sea, the first level was created when tectonic plate movement lifted the hills and mountains of the area millions of years ago. Then the Fish River was responsible for scouring a second layer of the canyon from the softish limestone rocks.

View along the canyon


Track into canyon

...and back

Rock pool at the bottom of the canyon

 It was a day’s trip by rough track down into the canyon to reach the rock pools that are currently the only evidence of the river itself. Nevertheless, the Fish does flow most years, and supplies an important dam. Water that makes its way beyond the Hardap Dam eventually ends up in the Orange.

Near the Orange River mouth

We said farewell to the Orange and its tributaries when we left Namibia at Vioolsdrif and headed back through the Karoo to the relatively wet parts of the Western Cape. It was a wonderful trip, and also a lesson in the importance and power of rivers in this arid part of the world.

Giant's Playground near Keetmanshoop

Pictures: Pat Cretchley

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Archeology of Words

 Annamaria on Monday

I am posting something new this week and saving my Bouchercon hiatus for next Monday, when I will really need it.  I will be starting that Sunday, the day I would ordinarily be writing a blog, by appearing on a panel first thing in the AM, then the book signing and the sad good-byes.  By mid-afternoon I will be on the train from San Diego to Los Angels, where I will spend the ensuing week visiting friends and having one of the more consequential meetings of my life.

But today, I want to talk about words.

Words, we know, change their meaning over time.  Sometimes fundamentally. If you read Jane Austen, for instance, you probably have noticed that when she uses the word "stupid," she is describing a person who cannot think of what to say or cannot reveal how she feels. We, in the 20th Century, on the other hand, use "stupid" to describe a person sorely lacking in mental acuity.

These days also require us to learn new words, invented to name functions of ever more complex technological advancements.  Hashtags.  Streaming. Podcasts, words that did not exist a decade or so ago, that are everyday words to us now.  Or brand names that have become ordinary words like "to google" or "zoom meeting." 

What fascinates me as a historical novelist are the words that do not change, even though the technology has made their original meaning completely obsolete. 

Here are some vestiges of the past in words and phrases still in everyday use:


The word started out as a noun meaning a place of letters sequenced in a block that was used to print words on paper.  This word started with Gutenberg!  Now it is a verb "typing" for what I am doing to make these words on a screen, so you can read them tomorrow.  MOST likely they will never be printed on paper. 


It started out as a noun meaning a flat round object that provided some information--like a sundial or the the face of a clock.  With the invention of the rotary phone it became of verb....

A verb we still use, even though we are no loner placing calls on something that looks like this--

And speaking of telephones, why do we still say...

Hang up


As a noun it still means something long and flat, but as verb, it came to mean recording sounds (and eventually sounds and pictures) on something that looks like tape.  We still say tape when there is no such things involved.


We still call them films when there is no such process involved in making them.

Turn up, turn down

We say these words when talking about lights and sound, as if their the intensity or the loudness were still controlled by knobs.

Roll up or roll down

Is that what you do with the car window?  Sure we say it that way.  But...


The music the DJ (Disc Jockey) chooses no longer comes on discs, but we still call the ones who put together the playlist DJs.

I am sure I have missed number of such atavistic words.  Tell me what I have missed. 

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Peter Pan Days of Mykonos




In an homage of sorts to Murder is Everywhere coming into being at a Bouchercon World Mystery Convention some dozen years ago, during each subsequent Bouchercon week (this year held in San Diego between August 30–September 3) we get to put up our favorite posts from the past. It also allows us to spend more productive time immersed in the convention’s legendary bar scene.


So, next Saturday I’ll present what MIE readers consistently favor more than any other of my posts.  But today, I’ve decided to share a personal all-time favorite of my own. It features a larger-than-life character epitomizing the unique souls who brought Mykonos to life during the height of its grand old golden days.


I’ll call him “Micki”—possessing the persona of Peter Pan in the body of Mick Jagger without hair dye.  


I’ve known Micki for thirty-five-plus years, and he precedes my presence on the island by many more.  He’s Greek but London-based and truly brilliant.  To many he symbolizes Mykonos’ once legendary lifestyle.   In “Tales of Mykonos,” a book I’ve tinkered with writing but haven’t yet, stories surrounding Micki feature prominently.  Here are just a few snippets from one narrow slice of this guy’s life. All that follows takes place in a single hotel known for its loyal “artsy” clientele. You could call it an island institution for, as you’ll see, it most surely has inmates.

Micki on making an entrance.

When Micki would get up early enough to make it to breakfast, he’d arrive on his circus-style, monkey-size, bright red motorbike, using his feet to propel it around white linen-covered tables filled with guests.  He’d park next to his table of choice for that morning and, dressed in satin shorts, tennis shoes, tee-shirt, and sunglasses, approach the assembled with a deep formal bow.  Next he’d pronounce some elaborate incantation, mesmerizing the uninitiated in the process, and with a practiced flourish grasp the tablecloth and whip it off the table…followed by the dishes, silver, flowers and whatever else the experienced hadn’t been able to salvage in time.  An “Oops” and smile would follow and he’d sit down to join the table for breakfast as if nothing had happened.

 Micki on Music.

Just off the hotel lobby sat a small room containing the equipment controlling the music played in the lobby.  One afternoon, while everyone but the young female receptionist was at the beach, Micki woke from a night of who knows what and wandered into the control room. He locked himself inside and blasted Chinese opera throughout the lobby for five straight hours. By the time the owners returned from the beach and put a stop to the “concert,” the receptionist was in tears.  I understand she still fears fortune cookies.

Micki on Studies.

One day Micki walked out into the lobby, sat down on a couch, opened a book, and placed it carefully on his lap. He did not read it, did not turn a page, just sat there with it open on his lap for hours.  The book was in Japanese and Micki did not read Japanese.  Finally, the hotel owner could take it no longer and asked him what in the world he was doing.  With a face as serious as those carved in stone on Mount Rushmore he said, “I believe if I sit here long enough calmly and quietly holding the book, sooner or later something will start to make sense.”

Micki on chores.

One afternoon the hotel owner heard a drone coming from the lobby and couldn’t figure out what it was.  He found Micki sitting on a couch listening to his Walkman.  The sound came from the Walkman and when the owner asked what he was listening to, Micki said, “It’s my Hoover”—the Greek word for vacuum cleaner—“I just sit listening to the sound and when I return to my apartment in London it’s miraculously clean.”

Micki on Christmas.

Yep, it's them...decked out for Christmas for sure.

Micki always believed in having a Christmas party with his friends on Mykonos some time during mid-summer, the logic being he’d never see them at Christmas. The hotel staff knew it was Christmas party time when Micki came into the kitchen looking for aluminum foil.  They’d stopped asking how much, just handed him the roll.  Later that afternoon he’d emerge from his room in nothing but aluminum foil. He’d covered his glasses, sneakers, and circus bike.  Made a hat, arm bracelets, wrist bracelets, and just enough of a bottom to cover his butt and barely the front.  The sight was best summed up by an old Greek man who, on witnessing Micki taking off in the bright afternoon sun for Christmas on some beach, crossed himself and said, “May God protect you.”

I’m all for that.  May God protect us all, especially those good souls whose real lives would not possibly be thought true in fiction.

Jeff's Upcoming Events

Saturday, September 2, 8:55-9:45 a.m. PDT
Bouchercon 2023
San Diego, CA
Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina—Grand Ballroom, Salon 3
Panelist, Travel by the Book, Mysteries Set in Other Countries, with David (D.V.) Bishop, Carlene O’Connor, Michael Sears (Michael Stanley), J Woollcott, Sharon Lynn (Moderator)

Friday, November 17, 11:00-11:50 a.m. GMT
Iceland Noir, Kjarval
Reykjavic, Iceland
Panelist, Temperature Rising with Philip Gwynne Jones, Lexie Elliot, Jacky Collins (Moderator)


Friday, August 25, 2023

The making of The Conjuror’s Apprentice

G.J. Williams is my guest blogger today.  A Welsh person!!  She was raised in England, Somerset actually. I think we got chatting at a Crime Writing festival somewhere. She plonked a book into my hand, a historical crime fiction, which is not my  'go to' thing but I did read the book and I was fascinated by it. There's a lot of real history here, but more interestingly for me, the London of 1550's really comes to life; the diseases, the smells, the role of women. There was a blog on here recently about the Thames - it places a very big part in the book. 

Part one is here and now, part two after the Bouchercon Hiatus!

Here she in in her own words-

Part One: Don’t ever let those darlings get you down!


We have a family motto (born of either stubbornness or stupidity).

‘If it doesn’t work, try harder; if it still doesn’t work, try harder still.’ 


It has been the mantra of my writing life.

I was not born into a writing family. It was a typical Welsh family where education is first, music second and never letting the neighbours know your troubles is third – except on Saturdays between September and March when we turned into screaming demons focused on an oval ball. As an only child, imagination was my primary playmate and so arrived a procession of imaginary friends, siblings and pirates. I started writing at 8 – school plays, sketches for the Brownie concert, stories. When my teacher asked what I wanted to be, I said, ‘A writer.’ ‘Go on then,’ he said. It was the belief of that man that held my dream. It was fifty years of trying harder before that man stood at my side at the launch party for my debut novel, The Conjuror’s Apprentice.

I went to University of Stirling to read business studies. Four weeks later a Glaswegian professor told me I was, ‘shite at numbers; shite at logic and had shite chance of getting a degree.’ Then he asked what I wanted to study. History was not an option, so I toddled along to psychology, begged on my knees for a chance, tried harder and eight years later emerged with a B. Sc., M.Sc., and a Ph.D in Psychology. The honesty of that man ensured I had a career which would give me the eternal gift of characters, behaviours, oddities, peculiarities and human stories which arrive on the pages of my novels. Today, people ask if I have put people I know in the story. I smile, say no, and cross my fingers behind my back as they walk away relieved. 


Writing simmered for two decades in late night musing, short stories, diaries, endless plot plans, then re-emerged when I faced the challenge of getting two lively step-daughters to go to bed giving me freedom to slug down a G&T.  My first full novel was a YA fantasy adventure. The first chapter did not achieve the G&T so I tried harder and within two weeks they were asking to go to bed. Result! (and if there is a friendly publisher looking for a Scotland-based, YA adventure based on Celtic myths – Caro has my number!)

And this is when try harder really began.  I went to courses, classes, read books, engaged editors. I have five completed novels on a lap-top. After I had tried my hand at many genres (except Romance, as the Glaswegian professor convinced me never to do something at which I am truly shite), someone said, ‘write what you love.’ I love history, Welsh culture, the Tudor period, psychology, the spirit world, intrigue and a good crime mystery with a bit of bad behaviour. I loved C.J. Sansom and his brilliance in telling a great story within real events. And so was born the Tudor Rose Murders Series.

The series takes real events and people in the Tudor period and throw bodies into the mix. The first book, The Conjuror’s Apprentice, is set in 1555. It is the regency of Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII who came to the throne with an obsession – to return England to Catholicism and the bosom of the Pope. She burned 280 Protestants in her short reign and earned the name, Bloody Mary. She was also obsessed with her non-committal Spanish husband and having a child, resulting in two phantom pregnancies, the first of which is the background to the novel. All my clinical psychology came to life in this lady.

So the story starts as London lives in paranoia, waiting for a phantom child and fearing that Mary will die, leaving her country in the hands of her Spanish husband. Their only hope is Elizabeth, her sister. But when a body is found in the Thames, bearing a letter which implicates Elizabeth in treason, the Tudor Dynasty faces its demise. The plot reaches well into court, but the race is on to uncover the mysterious killer of anyone with evidence.


                                                                                   John Dee

The detective is Doctor John Dee, a real character, who was once called the most learned man in Europe. A theologian, mathematician, astrologer, and later, an alchemist and seeker of angelic prophesy, he was the epitome of try harder as he fought to regain the standing his father had once held in court. History has twisted him into a magician but was really a man well before his time. The complexity and brilliance of this man was the perfect character for bringing in a sliver of mysticism.

Dee’s apprentice is Margaretta, an imaginary character, who has the ability to hear what others feel but do not say. As a woman in Tudor England, she can walk unnoticed as a mere servant picking up all the thoughts, fears and emotions to feed Dee’s analysis. Her character is influenced by the research I did into deep intuition as a student.

As well as being master and apprentice, they are bound by their culture and ability to converse in Welsh – something very likely in Tudor London but also something which would be seen as a threat to others in the paranoid England of Mary. More on that in part two of this blog.

So back to ‘try harder’. By the time I completed The Conjuror’s Apprentice, I was in my fifties. I approached agents, publishers, anyone. They all said I could write – but who wanted more Tudor? (Erm, maybe the thousands who read Sansom, Parris, Clements and the host of other great writers in this genre?) Others insisted publishers only wanted debut authors in their twenties. Some said being a woman without any significant life-traumas or issues made me a dull prospect.  I tried harder and decided to invest in myself.

I hybrid published and realised that learning social media put ‘try harder’ into a whole new realm. Then three months later, my novel was picked up by Legend Press and I was offered a three book deal. The series already has the second book in editing, the third in draft and another four plotted. Dee and Margaretta will be my imaginary companions for the next seven years. So anyone reading this who thinks it is too late, too hard, too competitive, too daft to think a dream comes true. Think again. Believe and go back up the page and read the family motto.


                                                              An inspirational lady!!!

Next blog – the history, people and society of John Dee’s Tudor London.

 The Conjuror’s Apprentice by G.J. Williams is relaunched on September 18th 2023.