Sunday, November 23, 2014

Welcome John Lawton: an Englishman in New York (among other places …)

John Lawton is a very difficult writer to categorise. His Inspector Troy series (seven novels so far and counting) was selected by Time magazine as one of the six ‘Detective Series to Savor’, as well as being bought by Columbia Pictures.

The man himself has been compared favourably to Le Carré and was named as one of only half a dozen living English writers in The Daily Telegraph’s ‘50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die’. Last year saw the start of a new series featuring reluctant post-war spy Joe Wilderness, and this month came the US publication of his Vietnam-era standalone, SWEET SUNDAY, called by the Literary Review ‘a sprawling heartbreaker of a novel.’

In short, he’s such a fine writer he makes you spit, if he wasn’t also one of those charming eccentrics who always keeps you guessing.  ZS

Most of my early novels were written in the USA. I saw two ways to get England off my back … to write about it and not to live there. For ten or twelve years I shuttled back and forth between England and New York, with occasional forays out West … Oregon (lying in a salt pool in the Cascade Mountains in the middle of a thunderstorm, bollock-naked), Arizona (climbing mountains in the Chiricahuas trying to remember whether you squared up to bears or ran for it … maybe that was mountain lions?) and Lubbock … butt of so many of Molly Ivins’ jokes and the only one-storey town I have ever visited. Lubbock, after all, has no need of skyscrapers, although there is sky aplenty to be scraped, it just spreads out across the Texas panhandle.

Sometime in the early Nineties, lunch with Quentin Crisp in the Cooper Square Diner on 2nd Ave … he is explaining to me why we are there and not in London … or Manchester … or Scunthorpe: “In my heart I have always been an American.”

I could have narrowed that down for him, in his heart he had always been a New Yorker, and I think he was telling me I had too. (Sorry Sting, a great song but I never heard that Englishman in New York ask for tea, he drank Coors and Bud.) Our New Yorks were very different. He lived in the East Village, on 2nd Street opposite the Hells Angels HQ – claimed they kept a paternal eye on him. I lived up on Central Park West … Lauren Bacall on the floor above, Shelley Winters in the block next door, Yoko Ono on the other side of the square … no Hells Angels that I knew of. But it was the same city in the mind’s eye … a construction erected in the spring-bust, flea-pit cinemas of the Olde Englande we’d readily abandoned at the first beat of Please Please Me thirty years earlier. We were not Citizens of the USA (although Mr Crisp eventually won that one too), we were its ‘American’ acculturants.

Maybe it was in that conversation that I decided to write a novel set in New York. If so I didn’t set one word of the damn thing down for at least five years and then spent another six writing it: SWEET SUNDAY. And it grew beyond the city, stayed rooted in it but spread across the continent, through the 1960s, across my lifetime and beyond … but … but I could not pretend to be a New Yorker, sheerfukkinfolly … nor could my first person narrator be English. Then it hit me. Lubbock. A child of the plains, from the one-storey town whose take on NYC might be as oblique as my own inevitably was … that heady mixture of awe, delight and bafflement that New York always induces in me. Hence John Turner Raines was born, an educated innocent in a pair of expensive Tony Lama boots, adrift in the New York of the 1960s.

It is not a happy tale … I find it hard to recall the 1960s without a sense of tragedy … but I hope the reader will ‘endeavour to persevere’, (as Dan George once said in a Clint Eastwood Western) … because the ideas of the Sixties matter still (yes, I know fekkinwell that I’m writing this the day after the Republikan landslide, so don’t tell me!), and in this America led.  It was Abbie Hoffman who said, “We (the Yippies) staged our revolution as such it was: ideas from the Civil Rights Movement ... music by the British Bands.” Hoffmann (never met the guy) and Rubin (knew him somewhat in the late 80s) were not my generation, and while I would not argue with Tom Brokaw over 'The Finest Generation” … theirs has a lot to be said for and about it.

Soundtrack for SWEET SUNDAY:

‘America’ – Simon & Garfunkel
‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ – Robbie Robertson
‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ – Sly & the Family Stone
‘For What it’s Worth’ – Buffalo Springfield
‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – Billy Joel

This week’s Word of the Week was also chosen by John Lawton who happens to be something of a whiz when it comes to making his own bread. The word, therefore, is poolish, meaning a fairly wet sponge usually made with equal parts flour to water, whereas a biga is typically a drier mix. Both are types of preferment, which is any technique that combines a modest amount of flour in the total recipe—usually twenty to thirty percent—with a very small amount of leavening agent (yeast or sourdough starter) and some of the total water and lets it develop for a period of time—usually overnight, but it can be anything from an hour to several days or more than a week.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Love Iceland Noir.

I just love it here. So much so that I’m foregoing my hiatus day to post a new blog featuring photos of Reykjavik and MIE in action on the first day of Iceland Noir, a festival of crime fiction organized by our own Yrsa, Quentin Bates, and Ragnar Jonasson.

I’ve never been to Iceland before, but I will be back. And back to Iceland Noir if they’ll have me.  The town, the people, the ambiance, the nightlife, all create a sense of what legendary Berlin or Paris must have been like in their heydays.  Or maybe it’s just as simple as what I overheard a young American telling his girlfriend in a coffee shop, “It’s a cross between Bar Harbor, Maine and old Amsterdam.”  Whatever it is, this place has all the right vibes.

So, here are some photos I took, though I never did get around to taking any of its vibrant, sophisticated (as compared to Mykonos) nightlife for I was too busy partaking to photograph.  

The festival itself is a delight, filled with interesting speakers putting on their “A game” just for the joy of being here, and a knowledgeable, appreciative audience.   What more could a writer ask for?  Don’t answer, just look at the photos.

The first thing I saw after passing through immigration.

The first thing I saw upon leaving the terminal at 7AM. 

The strong, windswept, colorful, enchanting town of Reykjavik.

Off in the distance in that last photo is a church steeple, one that offers spectacular views of Reykjavik from the town's highest ground.  I found a balance in the place...and decided to leave my mark alongside the awe-inspiring site. Most though thought I should have left the beret instead.

But what of all the MIE'rs over there?  Here they come, Annamaria, Yrsa, Zoe, Michael, Stan, and moi.

And now it's off to Day Two!


Friday, November 21, 2014


Long Beach

As the others enjoyed themselves on the way to Iceland, I alone soldiered on and suffered the sunshine in San Diego (to see the Tasmanian Devil) and then continued my weary trek onto Vegas where a man wearing only angel wings and white (Scottish ) pants accosted me. I refrained from accepting whatever it was he was offering. If not unlawful in the state of Nevada, it would probably have led to something infectious.

But back to Long Beach and Bouchercon. I’d like to dedicate this blog to ‘Thelma  Straw in Manhattan’, a regular commenter, who wanted one of us to dish the dirt/ report on Boichercon.

My job!

Seriously though, it was genuinely lovely to meet up with the other MIE bloggers.  And especially nice to meet some of those who leave comments. As writers we can sometimes feel our words are thrown into the ether so it’s very touching when folk go out their way to touch base with us – Barbara. Both Barbaras!!

Wee story before the pic parade. I have a ‘look’ at work - scrubs, hair up, specs, tired.  I have an 'author look' – hair down, make up on, dark clothes (never pastel in case folk think I’m nice).  When actually writing, I look like a bag lady - one of my favourite quotes is ‘I look like I’ve crawled up an embankment after a derailment.’
I am encased in dishevilment.  And yes I can make that word up. I am coming to terms with ‘deplane’ (?)  We call it ‘get off’. And beautification (?).  And I was just getting used to ...’alphabetised.’
I’m fair skunnered. :)     

So I was truly heartened when very early one morning (very early, only just past dawn) I stumbled across a fellow crime writer in the street. Or rather they stumbled into me – looking like they too had as 'the derailment' described above.  They were carrying a tray from a take-out (to go) coffee house. The tray had two espressos - one already consumed, the second just started. The coffee was held at nose height, in a donkey/ carrot manner, as an incentive to propel the tired little writer back to the hotel room for a well earned kip before another panel.

They too were transformed  by panel time- smart, cool, calm, professional, entertaining and witty. not a hair out of place.   And they are now poorer as I extracted money in return for my silence as to who it was…….I can keep this to myself as I am now a ‘mystery writer’, and that can be your mystery of the day.

The good news is that book 6 has been received by my publisher with great enthusiasm!  So I’m Boucherconning again next year with my emphasis on the 'conning' - and then to Iceland Noir.
here's the picture gallery...

a small bit of both venues
Alex Sokoloff tries to slap the tartan panel into shape

I think I spy a Barbara

Spying on everybody

don't trust the short one !

our book bundle- it raised a lot of money!

Michael being intelligent

over 65 crime writing men.
that's the number of men
not men who are over 65 who write crime fiction..
(as somebody actually thought)

Stan's turn to be Michael Stanley

just when you need a AK 47!!!

Stan  just out of  shot.
Jeff totally out of shot

A rose between two thorns.
Although it does look like the two ladies are stabbing
the gentleman in the knees with a fork. 

pure vodka

response of local wildlife at one of Jeff's jokes

that was a difficult question

jeff comes up with the answer
apologies to Cara and Stan but the photographer was sitting behind a lady with big hair and only had a good view to the right side of the panel


Caro Ramsay Globe trotting 21 11 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Last time I wrote about the Botswana elections and Unity Dow's election to the National Assembly. The piece below, which appeared four years ago, explains why we think that's a really good thing!

Michael - Thursday

Unity Dow is an extraordinary woman by any standards, but even more so by the standards of male-oriented Botswana. Born in 1959, she became a lawyer and immediately took up the cause of women’s rights in Botswana. In a landmark case, she challenged the constitutionality of a law which excluded her children from citizenship because her husband is a citizen of the United states. She won this, solidifying the equal gender rights promised by the constitution. Later she became a High Court judge – the first woman member – and served for 11 years. During that time she was one of the justices involved in the High Court challenge that gave the San (Bushman) peoples the right to return to their traditional lifestyle in the Kalahari. She later served on a commission redrawing the Kenyan constitution. And now she has been appointed to the legislature.

She is also a talented writer. She has written four novels reflecting deep issues in contemporary Botswana: the struggle between traditional and Western values, the AIDS pandemic (Botswana and South Africa compete for the world’s highest infection rates), and ritual murder.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a powerful and disturbing book. A young girl vanishes; the police guess that she has been eaten by a lion, but the reader knows that she has been ritually murdered for body parts reputed to bestow great power. Years later a female student doing national service in the community comes across a box of clothing which seems to belong to the missing girl. But after she draws attention to it, the box vanishes. She seeks out a friend – now a lawyer – and the two young women pursue the matter together.

The book is good not only because of the intriguing characters and plot, but because the reader finds the premise completely believable because the perspective is purely African. To westerners, witchcraft has become almost flippant superstition – like avoiding a black cat. But in many African cultures it is not only respected and feared, but deeply believed. It is this that Dow manages to capture so well in her novel. She makes no bones about the influence of male dominance being connected with these issues. When her evil characters are plotting the murder, they look for “a man with a hard heart, a heart of stone, a heart of a real man”. And, of course, they find such a man. The heroine follows the twists and turns and seems to be taking us to a successful resolution. But Africa is often not like that.

The book was first published in 2002 by Spinifex Press – a boutique publisher in Australia specialising in books focussing on women’s issues – and subsequently published in South Africa. Fortunately, it is widely available. It is a harrowing book, but one well worth reading.

It is tempting to see the premise of the story as an ingenious (if ghoulish) invention, but it is probably based on a real case which would have been well known to Dow. In 1994 a 14-year-old girl named Segametsi and her friend Monnye decided to sell oranges in Mochudi (a small town where they lived) to raise money for a church trip to Francistown. The girls separated near the house of a man called Mokgalo. Segametsi was never seen alive again. Her body was found with fatal chest wounds and with a variety of body parts removed, possibly while she was still alive. Clearly she had been murdered to harvest these organs for Dipheko, “medicine” made from human flesh.

Nothing about the case was obvious. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Mokgalo and he was held briefly, perhaps for his own safety. Soon he was released. Monnye then came up with a story that Mokgalo previously had made advances to Segametsi. Mokgalo wa held again. And in an almost unbelievable turn of events the murdered girl’s father made a confession that he had accepted a promise of 1,200 pula (about $200) to help with the girl’s abduction. Mokgalo was held for two months. During that time the police became suspicious of the stories they had been told. The father was sent for mental examination. Both the father and the Monnye eventually withdrew their stories, and the suspects were released. This led to rioting in Mochudi and nearby Gaborone and the focus moved from the murder to public order. The police and soldiers reacted violently and many people were injured. One was deliberately killed by a policeman.

The government was under continuing pressure and eventually was obliged to ask Scotland Yard to send a team to independently investigate the murder and the police conduct of the case. This lack of trust in the police and people in authority is all reflected in Dow’s novel.

The policeman who killed the suspected rioter was sentenced for manslaughter and the government paid his family about $100,000 in compensation. Mokgalo won a case for wrongful arrest, but describes himself as a broken man who is still treated with suspicion. The Scotland Yard report has never been made public. No one has been arrested for the murder of Segametsi.

When we met the then director of the CID and he heard we were mystery writers, he said there was much to write about in Botswana, and mentioned the Segametsi case. I have always wondered why the director of the investigating department would want this brought up. Also, he must have known about Unity Dow’s novel. What was there to add? It took us eight years to discover our answer in DEADLY HARVEST.

The belief in the power of evil medicines and witches has another somewhat unexpected and damaging consequence. Since witchcraft is used to ensure success in financial and other ventures, it can be dangerous to appear too successful. If you have risen faster and farther than others, is it not possible that you too may have dabbled with Dipheko? This perception may be very dangerous for you indeed. It is safer to be mediocre…

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Iceland Noir

Soon Murder is Everywhere will ascend on Iceland - sadly not all contributers, but enough to make a healthy presence.

Here is some of what they can expect to see:

Tjörnin - the lake downtown Reykjavík
 Iðnó - by the above lake, an old theater where the gala dinner will be held
Norrænahúsið - the Nordic House, the Iceland Noir venue 

Arnarstapi - for those that take the tour on Sunday
Pretty, pretty Harpa
Fish - if you don't see/eat fish while here you took the wrong plane
Hopefully, hopefully the northern lights will make a showing - note the light beam on the leftish side, this is the John Lennon peace tower.
So as not to forget a whole lot of great authors appearing on the many panels. See you there!
Yrsa - Wednesday