Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Baltimore's Rap Sheet Grows

Sujata Massey

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It's the story of former Keough School students--now women in their sixties--trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I'd watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon's The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police's battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore's streets.

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun--the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the "crime desk." It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

 David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who's interviewed in The Keepers--were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months--or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore's image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren't so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

 Just thirty years ago, the city's image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn't mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Musing Around Paris, Redux


Cara is off incommunicado in Cuba so here's one of her (French) blasts from the past:
Bibliotheque Mazarine

21 quai de Conti, 6th

“Because it’s incredible, lined with books, old leather bound volumes, old winding narrow library stairs reaching to a walkway that rings the ceiling with murals, hidden spaces behind the bookshelves, the quiet and rustling of pages. It’s also open to the public, unlike some French libraries, and a day use card very easy to obtain. I often go for research on my books and stay for hours.”

Rue Meslay
Metro Temple or Republique, 10th

“Drop into any of the crammed designer markdown shoe shops lining this street at the edge of the Marais below Republique. What more needs to be said - go there ladies. In Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, Aimée casts a longing eye at the stairs, ‘the stairway to heaven’ as her friend Martine refers to it, from rue Notre Dame de Nazareth leading to rue Meslay.”

Musée des Moulage de l'Hôpital Saint-Louis
1 avenue Claude-Vellefaux 10th

Open by appointment, tel 01 42 49 99 15

“Founded in 1867 in the seventeenth century Hôpital Saint Louis originally built for plague victims, this dermatological museum houses the wax castings of skin diseases. It’s creepy, weird and out of the last century. To understand and illustrate for his medical students, a doctor commissioned a fruit seller in the Passage Jouffrey who sculpted wax fruits to show his wares, to sculpt human appendages. In my book Murder in the Bastille, Aimée’s partner René visits a doctor in the museum.”

Maison des Métallos
94 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 11th 

“Built in the 19th century for workers ‘ouvriers’ who filled the quartier and now a thriving hub of dance, theatre and literary discussion and conferences. This center radiates the spirit of the old worker’s roots and today’s modern community.”

Du Pain et des Idées
34 rue Yves Toudic, 10th

“A boulangerie close to Canal Saint Martin - the baker at last check in still used a wood burning over for his baking...and old artisanal style.”

Parc Montsouris

RER Cité Universitaire, 14th

“A English garden style near the reservoir with a lake, odd sculptures and where local Parisians go on Sundays with their families...just very local and Parisian.
The meridian line of Paris pierces it and its great green space. Walk up to Impasse Nansouty at the very tip near the tram on Boulevard Jourdan. You’ll think you’re in the French countryside...a street of houses built for soldiers wounded war victims and their families after the Great War. Henry Miller and Anais Nin, Braque, Lawrence Durrell all lived nearby.”

Didiers Crêpes
3bis rue Carpeaux, 18th

“Run by Didier from Brittany, the lace curtains, light blue storefront, a pet rabbit for years, grows a lot of his produce in his plot outside Paris...ambiance and locals.”

Cara - Tuesday

PS -At almost every book event on this tour someone asks 'Do you outline your books? How do you take an idea into a story? '
And I've yet to explain it well because, it's kind of a mystery to me. Forces take over and it's hard to explain and if I did understand the process I don't know that I'd want to explain. Everyone writes books in their own way.
All I know is I don't outline, wish I could and that it would save me tons of time. Call me a Seat of the Pantser...for me it's like finding a place in Paris then throwing it against the wall - like how some people cook pasta - and see if it sticks for a hundred pages. If so, then there's a story, there's a place to explore and reasons why my detective would get involved. The story, the characters work their way out from there. Any one an outliner or seat of the pantser?

Monday, May 22, 2017

John, 1st Baron Tweedmuir

Annamaria on Monday

John Buchan keeps showing up in my life.  I would say he was stalking me, but he has been dead since before I was born.

Here are the facts of our relationship, if you can call it that.

I knew one of John’s stories long before I knew his name.  That story is The Thirty-Nine Steps, made famous because Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a movie.  What I remembered was the name of Buchan's main character: Richard Hannay, who was also featured in a BBC miniseries based on The Thirty-Nine Steps and in a hilarious spoof of the story produced by my beloved and brilliant Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

I was minding my own business, researching the Protectorate of British East Africa, when I came across a word I did not know: “greenmantlish.”  It was used in a book published in 1929 to describe an event in the life of the author, a Brit who had been a policeman in Nairobi in 1908. 


When I looked up the word, I found that Google had never heard of it—a fact amazing in itself since most of the terms I google get hundreds of the thousands of hits in a few seconds.  “Greemantle,” without the “ish” yielded about 216,000 hits in .34 seconds.  The first was a Wikipedia entry that featured the name of my old pal Richard Hannay.  I recognized that moniker right away.  “Greenmantle” it turns out was the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps and second in a series of five novels with Hannay as the main character.  By then, I knew John Buchan's name too.

Then John Buchan took another step into my life.  In the midst of further research into British East Africa, I came upon the old chap again, this time in relation to books he had written about World War I in Africa.  (My Africa series will take me into the World War One years once I get to 1915.)

Having encountered  John Buchan for the third time, I figured I’d better find out more about him.  Here’s a précis of what I have learned:

John Buchan, 1st Baron of Tweedsmuir PC GCMG GCVO CH was born in 1875, the son of Scots clergyman.  He studied at Brasenose College Oxford, took a degree in law, but never practiced at the bar.  He became instead a novelist, historian, Member of Parliament, and eventually became Governor General of Canada.  He began his diplomatic service in Southern Africa.  During his long political career he supported free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the powers of the House of Lords.  Between 1896 and 1940 (the year he died), he wrote thirty-five novels (mostly adventure stories, mysteries, and thrillers) and fifty-two works of non-fiction, averaging two books a year while keeping his day job!

I have already lived longer than he and having just finished only my eleventh book, his output makes me feel like a piker. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fight For Phoenix – a story for everyone

Zoë Sharp

I am a subscriber to the email list of author Mark Dawson, who is something of a phenomenon in the world of indie publishing. A few weeks ago I received an email from him that stopped me in my tracks.

It’s the story of Phoenix.

The godfather to Mark’s young son is married to a lady called Emma Johns. Four and a half years ago, Emma was diagnosed with an form of breast cancer that is apparently incurable. This is her story:

I am 38 years old. I've been having cancer treatment for the last 4 and a half years. My cancer is incurable. Quite honestly, it's been rubbish and my life (and that of my family) has been torn apart by cancer.

The past 4.5 years have slowly stolen the person that I was before. Before my cancer, I was a confident, outgoing, independent, active person with a thirst for adventure. Since the gruelling endless rounds of chemo and radiotherapy treatment, I feel like a shadow. I've lost both my breasts, I've lost my beautiful long hair, I'm covered in scars from all my surgeries, I've gained 4 stone in weight, I can no longer work, I was told I could not have children and, worst of all, I have lost my youth and my confidence. I wake up every day exhausted and in pain. Yet each day I get up and put a smile on my face for the ones I love.


3 years ago I was given only 2 years to live! Despite all this, and against all the odds, in July 2016 I was told that despite being on daily chemo I was 18 WEEKS' PREGNANT. I'd been told the chemo had made me infertile and I had stopped periods a year before. Obviously, this news was a complete shock. It turns out my "pizza belly" was actually a "baby belly"! My poor baby had been exposed to chemo on a daily basis his whole life and had been irradiated twice with cancer scans. I spent a month going back and forth to hospital to discuss the implications. I was told repeatedly that I should terminate as the risks of serious defects were too high. Despite all I've been through, those 4 weeks were the worst of my life. My personal beliefs made it very difficult to put my life above that of my baby. I told the doctors that if he had any chance and I could be treated safely, then I wanted to try. In the end, after thousands of checks, my amazing doctors told me the baby seemed fine; I could change chemo; continue treatment; and have my baby.

So, on 09 December 2016 at 10:14pm my husband and I welcomed Phoenix Joseph Johns to the world. A little premature and by c section. I was awake and my gorgeous husband Matt was with me. And it was the most beautiful "emergency" I've ever experienced. This baby is a miracle. He has been through more terrible things than most people will experience their whole lives. Yet he is the calmest, happiest little creature you could ever meet.

In order to give birth safely I had to stop my treatment and, as a result, my cancer progressed to my hip and lower spine. In the last few months whilst I've been getting to know my "little beastie" better I've been rushing back and forward to hospital for radiotherapy and chemotherapy. My type of cancer (triple negative breast cancer) is very aggressive; grows very quickly; has a poor prognosis; and doesn't have any targeted treatments, so these are my only options. I have tried 5 previous chemo drugs and I'm fast running out of options.


However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, (apart from my little pudgling's smiling face). A trial immunotherapy drug called Pembrolizumab. It's showing amazing results for women with incurable triple negative breast cancer, with some women having a complete durable response and effectively having no evidence of disease. I'm not saying it's a cure but it's close!

Due to my pregnancy I missed out on being eligible for the only trial ongoing for this drug. However, I can pay for it privately....for the eye watering sum of £40,000!!!

Like any woman in my place I am desperate to see my 4 month old baby grow up, become a good person, find love with whoever he chooses and generally make the world a better place. My husband works extremely hard to keep our little family afloat all by himself and, as I am unable to work, we have spent all of our savings over the last 4 years. I'm therefore asking you to help me with another miracle; to donate whatever you can to help me fight for Phoenix and be with him through his childhood and beyond.


Thank you for reading this. I know life can seem rubbish sometimes but please remember the important things....the people you love. There is always something good waiting around the corner, no matter your circumstances, you just have to recognise it. 

Here is a link to Emma’s Go Fund Me crowdfunding page, which has already raised over £50,000 towards Emma's treatment.

In addition, Mark has written a short novella, entitled PHOENIX, the proceeds of which will also go to helping Emma in her continuing fight to survive and watch her miracle baby grow. It’s only £1.99, and available at the following links. If you want an enjoyable read, you could do worse than spending your money for a very worthwhile cause.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Mykonos of Old


Tomorrow, I return to Greece where I shall remain until returning in October for Bouchercon in Toronto.

I've been away from Mykonos for far too long, and can't wait to get back. I understand much has changed over the winter on the island.  It's said to have doubled down on solidifying its reputation as the Mediterranean playground for the rich and would like to be famous. But I've already written that book ("Mykonos After Midnight"), so addressing what the island has become will not be the subject of my new work. I'll spend the five months on something else.

And speaking of something else, six years ago I started off a blog on the eve of my departure to Mykonos with this sentence..."Mykonos wasn’t always like this."

That opening line is even more pertinent today, so I thought I'd reminisce a bit by rerunning that post on the eve of this departure. I can use the reminder of times past, in preparation for the present.  So here goes...

Mykonos wasn't always like this.  There were hard times, make that very hard times.  The island once was among Greece’s most impoverished places.  Mykonians literally starved to death during World War II.  Then came the Greek Civil War.

Monday I’ll be back on Mykonos and promise to share with you as much as good taste will allow of present day life on that international jet set summer destination.  But how did it came to pass that a community still guided by centuries-old church traditions and deeply held family values so effortlessly coexists amid the unstructured, freewheeling lifestyle of visiting summer hedonists?

I think the simplest way of telling the story of that transition is out of the archives of Dimitris Koutsoukos.  As I described an earlier piece, Dimitri is a native Mykonian who has amassed a fascinating collection of photographs capturing the essence of the island, many of which are posted to music on YouTube videos available through this link.
Dimitris Koutsoukos amid the old and the new.

Dimitri, the photographs please…

These were the days that set the island’s modern day roots, when all Mykonians had was each other.  It was the turn of the 20th Century.

Naturally, many lived off the sea and learned their skills from childhood.

Others survived as farmers.

Some depended on both.

Then came regular boat service linking the island to the mainland.

And with that tourists looking to experience traditional island life.

But one day a very famous visitor stepped ashore and forever changed the image of Mykonos.

International celebrity Petros the Pelican arrives with friend.

And glitz began to flock there.

Turning fishermen into guides.

Bringing energy to quiet beaches.

And, of course, making nice with the locals.

In the process each learned much from other.

Tourists how to dance...

...locals how to dress.

And they became friends.

It is a life to which I long to return.
Mykonians tolerating tourists
And for a musical understanding of the draw of Greece, check out this YouTube Video.


Friday, May 19, 2017

A foot in Fussen

On day two we had travelled from just within the Czech border, through Dachau, down and across a bit to Fussen which is very close to the Austrian border.

It was our most expensive campsite - 23 Euros a night.

The campsite has a beautiful lake in front, then a plateau of rich green grazing for highland ( yes they get everywhere ) cattle and Barvarian ponies. The green baize is dotted by white churches and picket fences. It looked a lot like the set of The Little House On The Prairie.
We arrived late, in the dark. We parked up and fell asleep.
The next day we turned the camper round 90 degrees as the view was better.

Fussen was established as a town in pre Roman times, situated at the start of the mountains and at the head of the lake, it had a lot going for it. It was ideal as a trading route, goods came over the mountains, then onto the lake and loaded onto a raft to be floated down the river Lech.
It was also the centre for lute manufacture - and that is a sentence you don't hear often.

It is known now for tourism. It  is the corner of the kings; the Konigswinkel.
I thought Scotland had a lot of castles but we are mere beginners when compared with the Barvarians.
And we have nothong like the Neuschwanstein Castle and the Hohenschwangau Castle.

And, of course, there is the Romantic Road. Which I think is responsible for many couples splitting up. It's not romantic. It's not a road.

Here's the photies  ( as we say in Glasgow) 

The view to the front of the camper
The view out the back.

Not exactly overcrowded.

I had some writing to do so we turned the camper round another 90 degrees so I had the view through the side window as I battered away to meet/miss a deadline.

And I scribbled into the evening.

Then I noticed, through the fence, with my super long lens camera, something on the mountain...

A walk round the camp showed that some folk live there. In here, is a caravan with an awning on the awning.

This is an official  hundedusche. A dog shower.  And NOT a chemical toilet.
Hundedusche is a great word, I plan to use it in books more often.

The reception of the camp, typically Barvarian.

And I scribbled onto sunset as the next day we would go to..... ( roll of drums ) , the Neus, the Neuwa, the Neusc.... the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Castle.

And, without doubt, that film has the greatest villain in cinematic history. The Child Catcher.

Caro Ramsay 19th May 2017