Sunday, January 21, 2018

An (Unusual) True-Crime Story From Japan

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Crime exists in every place on earth - a fact we at MIE know well. While crime rates in Japan are lower than those in many (if not most) other places, the island nation is not without its problems.

A fact I learned quite personally while traveling in Japan last autumn.

The event in question took place in November, in Kamakura--a beautiful city about 30 miles south of Tokyo that served as the seat of the shogunate during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries (an era now known as the Kamakura Period).

I spent two days in the city, doing research for my upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery, Trial on Mount Kōya. Although the city itself doesn't feature in the novel, Kamakura is home to a number of  Buddhist temples that held art and artifacts useful to my research.

The entrance to Ennoji, a Shingon temple

Since Kamakura is also home to one of the world's largest bronze Buddhas, I also took a morning hike along the 6km daibutsu trail--a beautiful journey that ended with a visit to Kotoku-in and the famous Buddha.

A snippet of the lovely trail.

The Great Buddha of Kamakura

After my hike, I returned to the station along the streets, stopping in temples along the way. A short distance from the station, I passed a tiny bakery selling the most adorable doughnuts I have ever seen.

The cutest donut in the world.

Since it's impolite to photograph items in Japanese shops, I did what any reasonable person would do . . . I stopped and bought the doughnut. I could tell you I did it for the selfless reason that I wanted to share it with the world, but the truth is, I barely restrained myself long enough to take that photo.

It was delicious.

I continued up the road, reveling in the taste of this light, not-overly sweetened cake doughnut topped with a sugar glaze. I ate slowly, enjoying the afternoon sunlight and anticipating stops at two more temples before I called it a day.

Suddenly, something struck my face--not once, but several times. I felt a weight in my hands, and a tugging--and my beloved doughnut (the half that was left) was gone.

I stood on the sidewalk, shocked. I had been mugged.

A man approached, pointed up and said "Karasu!" (Crow!)

My unrepentant avian mugger.

I followed his gaze to see an enormous Japanese crow staring at me from atop the lamp post as it finished the last of my kitten doughnut.

Corvus macrorhynchos, the large-billed crow, is one of the world's largest corvids, often twice the size of its American brethren. It's also highly intelligent, fond of snacks, and far less afraid of humans than other wild birds I've known.

After twenty-three days of solo traveling through literally dozens of towns and cities, my first (and only--before or since) experience with crime in Japan came at the wings of a crow. The attack happened so fast, and with such precision, that I suspected this was not the offender's first doughnut-related mugging.

Frustrated by the loss of my treat, I returned to the doughnut shop for a replacement. I'd bought the last kitten, so I opted for a bear, which tasted just as good.

Beary tasty, I assure you.

The doughnut shop owner looked surprised to see me back until I said "karasu" - at which point he began to apologize. My guess was correct - that particular crow apparently has a habit of stalking pedestrians and mugging the ones with pastries (not just doughnuts) that strike his fancy.

Holding my doughnut more carefully, with my hands providing a protective cage, I returned to the lamp post, stood beneath it, and ate the doughnut in full view of my avian mugger. The crow watched the entire time, but didn't attempt a second assault--most likely because he knew I was ready for it.

I'd like to tell you I felt childish for doing it, but that too would be a lie. The second doughnut avenged the first, and--in true Japanese fashion--afterward, I'd like to think the crow and I both put the incident behind us. I know I did, and my love (and respect) for Japanese crows (and doughnuts) remains as strong as ever.

Not my mugger, but a better view of another crow in Kamakura.

Confess: would you have avenged your doughnut or just gone on your way?

Saturday, January 20, 2018

From the Lips of Joseph Stalin via Jungle Red Writers


Last Sunday, at the invitation of the terrifically talented Ingrid Thoft, I was honored to contribute an essay to JUNGLE RED WRITERS on a subject once again front and center in the news (e.g., The Washington Post—posted the day after my essay).  Jungle Red is a sister blog Ingrid shares with another seven of the most talented authors out there, and it is with their gracious permission that I offer this essay.

Joseph Stalin (yes, that’s him in the photograph heading this post) is attributed to have ruthlessly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”  Whether or not he actually said that, or did so in quite that way, from his actions few would doubt he didn’t believe it.  And from the way our world continues to abide mass deaths and suffering, but is drawn to action by the image of a single lost life, we should not delude ourselves into thinking we have evolved far, if at all, from Stalin’s image of our world. 

Perhaps we’re not wired to consciously process so many deaths as anything more than a blur, yet in a single death we see the potential end of our own time on this earth. Or is it something else?

What prompts me to raise such an upbeat subject on this fine Saturday morning, is an ongoing catastrophe that many forward thinking minds on all sides of the issue consider the severest challenge confronting the West.  But for many it’s a hard one to get your head around because of the large numbers, and many strange names and distant places associated with it.

I began thinking seriously about it when Greece became its new ground zero, for I live on a Greek island half of each year, and write a mystery-thriller series exploring issues confronting contemporary Greece in a way that touches on its ancient roots.  The result is my new CI Andreas Kaldis thriller, An Aegean April, in which I seek to humanize the many aspects of that tragedy, one far too often summarily described and dismissed with the simple phrase, “the refugee crisis.”

The long simmering issue of refugee migration into Greece via Turkey came to a boil in 2015, when over a matter of months, more that 600,000 men, women, and children fleeing the terrors of their homelands (mainly Syria), flooded out of Turkey across the narrow Mytilini Strait onto the largely pastoral northeastern Aegean Greek island of Lesvos.  They came in the hope of making it from there to northern Europe.  Another 400,000 refugees found their way into Greece along other routes, bringing the total number of refugees descending upon Greece in less than a year to nearly ten percent of its eleven million population.

Are your eyes glazing over from the numbers yet?  Just wait, there’s more.

At 600,000 refugees, we’re talking about seven times the population of Lesvos.  That’s the equivalent of more than 60 million people landing by boat in New York City or 28 million in Los Angeles.

How could Greece, a country in the throes of its own Great Depression, deal with such massive numbers unaided, much less how could the inhabitants of Lesvos?  

Hello, EU.  If ever there were a crisis befalling one EU member that should be shared by all members, this would seem to be the one. But despite Germany’s promise to open its arms to a million refugees—a decision many argue triggered the flood into Greece—Greece found little more than platitudes coming from the EU.  Perhaps because the EU considered Greece, Italy, and Spain its refugee filter traps, and this was simply Greece’s turn for shielding the rest of the EU from unwanted immigration.

Whatever the reasoning, as often occurs when governments cannot get their acts together, there are those who will profit off government inaction. In this instance, it turned people-smuggling into a multi-billion-euro industry in Turkey.  The smugglers, their sex-and labor-trafficking colleagues, ancillary businesses, and, of course, those protecting them all became very rich.

But even as armadas of dangerously overloaded refugee boats made their way across treacherous seas toward a waiting frenzy of media, NGO and celebrity attention, for much of the world all remained business as usual.

That is, until the day when a single photograph of a lone child lying dead on an isolated stretch of beach galvanized world attention, and sent governments scurrying to act. 

(Not the photograph, because of copyright issues)
Cue the Stalin quote.

Years have past since then, but the refugee crisis continues in Greece with 50,000 still detained in relocation centers—as they’re officially called, though some refer to them as hotspots, and others as concentration camps.  Worldwide, more than 65 million refugees remain displaced and in dire need of protection and care.

It is a crisis that shall not go away, certainly not as long as there are leaders who regard Stalin’s words an action plan for dealing with their own populations. 

So, what is the civilized world to do?  How about looking at refugees as individual human beings, not statistics, and building an overall plan up from there.  That might just work.

At least that’s my take, and why I wrote An Aegean April.


Jeff’s Upcoming Events

My ninth Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, AN AEGEAN APRIL, published on January 2, 2018 and here is the first stage of my book tour:

Sunday, January 21 @ 7 PM
Book Passage
Corte Madera, CA

Thursday, January 25 @ 6:30 PM
Mysterious Bookshop
New York, NY

Friday, February 2 @ 7PM
Centuries & Sleuths (Forest Park)
Chicago, IL

Saturday, February 3 @ 12 PM
Once Upon A Crime

Minneapolis, MN

Friday, January 19, 2018

The storm of '68.

On the Fourteenth of January 1968, the central belt of Scotland was hit by a storm. A big one.
Now, it will be nothing to those who live in climates of extreme weather but this was Scotland, a country that grinds to a halt with two millimetres of snow. 

That day was a Sunday. Towards the end of the day it got a little blowy. Around midnight there were reports of dogs being blown over, and being strung out on the end of their leads. Folk were unable to walk without holding on to railings. Patients in the Western Hospital thought that the windows were going to blow in. They were right.
By one am, the lights started to go out all over the city.
In one of the Sunday newspapers there was a wee cartoon called 'Iris'. 'Iris' told you what the weather was going to do that day in your part of the country. On that Sunday she said 'be prepared', but didn’t say for what.
During that Sunday a depression was growing in the North Atlantic. It was supposed to float to the north, but at the last movement it came straight forward, right into the two million people who lived in the central belt, lying in bed and thinking that it was getting a little gusty out there.
The dredger Cessnock, and its barge was tied up at  Greenock that night,  by four inch lines onto shore. It got a little noisy and a little rough. So the crew attached extra ropes. They then attached the four inch ropes. When they snapped the crew realised they were in a little trouble.  By then the two vessels were floating in the Firth of Clyde devoid of power. By Monday morning, the dredger was on its own. The barge had turned turtle during the night, unheard in the screaming noise of the wind. All those aboard had drowned.

I recall it vaguely. I remember being woken up by my dad. My sister and I  spent the night on the settee, in the front room, with the settee pulled away from the window. Our bedroom window was on the ground floor, very close to an old Anderson shelter.  That shelter had survived all the Clydeside bombings of WWII, it didn't survive the storm.  I was very, very young but I know I wasn’t allowed to play outside for ages as the slates on the roof were hanging by a thread.  I was also cross as my imaginary pony lived in that Anderson shelter.

On the night of the storm, a couple living in a flat at the top of Hill Street in the west end suffered severe damage as  they famously witnessed the windows of their flat bending. The man closed the shutters over with their double brass hook and eyelet catch. They watched in horror as the shutter began to jump back and forth, the power of the wind straightening the brass hook and the shutters flew open again.  They said it was like a monster trying to get in. If he had been  of a Stephen King mind, his career may have turned out differently.  He became a fashion designer.

During the night, the wind was gusting to 120mph.  Chimneys came down, people in their beds were crushed , families like ours had taken their chances. Some guessed it right, some guessed it tragically wrong.
The next morning, roads were blocked by trees, the emergency services couldn't get through. People were trapped, neighbours clawing at bricks with their bare hands. Overnight, 1000’s were made homeless. 

Glasgow was one of the biggest slums in Europe at that time. It was overcrowded, disease ridden,  dirty, insanitary.   The city was black with smog and pollution and the solutions to those problems had been on the city planners minds since the turn of the century.
The city planners were determined to flatten the tenements and rebuild modern flats with toilets and heating.  The population of Glasgow had increased tenfold in the 1700's with the potato famine and the Highland clearances. Two hundred years later, the city was crammed tight with the influx of workers for the war effort.
Seven or eight people lived in a room and kitchen with no hot water. No inside toilets. Some people were still living like that in the early 70’s. My aunt and uncle had two loos at the bottom of their garden, shared by nine families. I remember the big warm wooden toilet seat, the door had a gap top and bottom and, there was a newspaper on a nail on the inside of the door. I thought people read it. Maybe they did.
The plans to flatten the city and start again were taking far too long. Glaswegians were breeding faster than they could be rehoused. In the 50's and 60's the powers that be drew up 29 areas of the city to be flattened totally and the populations moved out to areas like Pollok and Easterhouse.  The flats were nice, roomy, warm, but that’s all there was. Flats- no shops, no  playparks, no doctors, no pubs….. just houses. And within two years, the typical problems developed when a community is torn apart and the kids have nothing to do.
That was the culture that grew the infamous ice cream wars.

However, the storm of 1968 made the city planners rethink. They had to move fast to house those left homeless and to do something with the damaged housing stock. Agencies had to work together as there was such damage to all the housing stock. They relooked at the tenements, the words conservation and refurbishment started to be heard. The tenements were internally remodelled,  into beautiful, and now incredibly valuable flats. Three flats were knocked into two, and hey ho- a bathroom!
The city planners began to recognise the old Victorian buildings as works of art, the lovely West End where I set my books was largely saved.  Some of those that had gone before were not so lucky.
So from the slum of early 1970’s, Glasgow was awarded European City of Culture in 1990- the year after Paris!
The storm, for all it was a terrible tragedy, really did save the city.

Caro Ramsay 19th Jan 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The red penis

Stanley - Thursday

Taylor Mali is a slam poet and a damn good one, and, although he doesn’t know it, he’s going to be my guest today.   On his website, he says it’s alright to use his material without permission.  So, it’s without contrition that I’ve lifted the work below, because it’s important for you to know a little about this man.

Taylor has spent many years teaching, reaching his audiences with words and wit, and more than a bit of honesty.  He knows how to teach and inspire, to encourage kids to reach higher than they’ve ever thought they could.  Or would.

He is best known for his poem “What teachers make”, and a video take of him reciting it has been seen six-hundred-and-eighty-eight thousand, eight-hundred-and-thirty-four times, exciting teachers everywhere.  And if you click here, it will be one time more. 

But teaching is not the core of this site; it’s more for those who write, who have the energy still to share their skill after they lay down their novel-to-be at night.  For them, their blog is just one more cog in their overall marketing plan; another way they can flaunt themselves in the daunting world of writing.  

On writing too, Taylor has something to say, I've heard, for you who live by the word.  Many writers cannot spell and find editing absolute hell.  So many have resorted to the spell checker for help and reported it's not as good as its purported to be. And Taylor may have the final say.

The the impotence of proofreading
by Taylor Mali
Has this ever happened to you?
You work very horde on a paper for English clash
And then get a very glow raid (like a D or even a D=)
and all because you are the word¹s liverwurst spoiler.
Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the utmost impotence.

This is a problem that affects manly, manly students.
I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term
that my English teacher in my sophomoric year,
Mrs. Myth, said I would never get into a good colleague.
And that¹s all I wanted, just to get into a good colleague.
Not just anal community colleague,
because I wouldn¹t be happy at anal community colleague.
I needed a place that would offer me intellectual simulation,
I really need to be challenged, challenged dentally.
I know this makes me sound like a stereo,
but I really wanted to go to an ivory legal collegue.
So I needed to improvement
or gone would be my dream of going to Harvard, Jail, or Prison
(in Prison, New Jersey).

So I got myself a spell checker
and figured I was on Sleazy Street.

But there are several missed aches
that a spell chukker can¹t can¹t catch catch.
For instant, if you accidentally leave a word
your spell exchequer won¹t put it in you.
And God for billing purposes only
you should have serial problems with Tori Spelling
your spell Chekhov might replace a word
with one you had absolutely no detention of using.
Because what do you want it to douch?
It only does what you tell it to douche.
You¹re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit.
It just goes to show you how embargo
one careless clit of the mouth can be.

Which reminds me of this one time during my Junior Mint.
The teacher read my entire paper on A Sale of Two Titties
out loud to all of my assmates.
I¹m not joking, I¹m totally cereal.
It was the most humidifying experience of my life,
being laughed at pubically.

So do yourself a flavor and follow these two Pisces of advice:
One: There is no prostitute for careful editing.
And three: When it comes to proofreading,
the red penis your friend.

Please visit Taylor at