Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dead Black Birds

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway

This weekend I have been to Göteborg Book Fair, the largest cultural event in Scandinavia. The Swedish fair was established in 1985, and receives around 100,000 visitors every year.

I was there to present ”Vinterstengt” (”Closed for Winter”, UK 2013), that have just been translated into Swedish. In most of the countries where this book is published, it is a dead bird on the book cover. One of the exceptions is the English version. I had no thoughts of dead birds when I started writing the book. The book is about a philosophical question that has always concerned me: What is the reason why some people become criminals?

Some dead, black birds
That night I started writing, I saw a news story on TV about how it in the course of a day had dropped thousands of dead black birds from the sky in Arkansas in the USA. 

No one had any explanation as to why. A few days later the same thing happened in the small town Fallköping in Sweden. I wove these mysterious events into my story. It creates an eerie atmosphere when a bird falls down and hit the hood of a car or land on a terrace floor, a bit like in Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds".

Dead birds continues to fall from the sky. I have seen several newspaper articles about it since the first time. But unlike real life, in the book "Closed for Winter" you get an explanation of the phenomenon. A logical and reasonable explanation that is closely linked to murder mystery and the big question: The reason for crime.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense 

Jorn Lier Horst

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why I Love the Opera

Maybe you are asking why I am talking about music again when this blog’s first name is “Murder?” Well, murders happen in opera quite often.  Off the top of my head, for instance, you might categorize Tosca as Noir.  In that story, a powerful man offers to spare the life of a painter if Rome’s most popular stage performer will trade her lover’s life for sex.  She agrees, but she demands that the villain stop her lover’s execution in advance.  When she thinks her lover is safe, instead of submitting to Scarpia, she stabs the SOB.  Even after his death, his henchman kill her lover.  She commits suicide.  NOIR, in capital letters.  But in the middle of it all, there is powerfully gorgeous music.  Like this:

 Tosca’s internal monologue says, “I lived for art…. I gave my jewels to charity...I never harmed a living soul… Why, God, did you repay me like this.”   Great story telling.  That’s a big reason to love the opera.

And at the same time, nothing beats it for spectacle.  Here is the opening of Act II of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Aida.  I have seen this live at least eight times.  I would run, if you told me I could see it again right now.  Multiply what you see on your computer screen by a thousand, and imagine enjoying it with 4000 other breathless people.  The very definition of spectacular.

Some of you know what a dyed-in-the-wool romantic I am.  And what a sucker for the long ago and far away.  How could I not treasure a story that begins with a couple falling in love at first sight in a garret in Paris at the end of the 19th Century.  What living, breathing woman would not be a goner if a guy introduced himself like this:

There are Youtube versions “Che Gelida Manina” that show this aria in staged performance.  But they have subtitles with stilted translations.  Let me tell you what is happening and what Rudolfo is saying—

Not really accidently, her candle went out and she dropped her key.   As they groped for it in the dark, not really by chance, his hand touched hers.  “What a cold little hand,” he said.  “Let me warm it up.  We’re never going to find that key in the dark.  But luckily, it’s a moonlit night, and we’re up here near the moon.”  She started to move away.  He wanted her to stay.  “Wait,” he said, “let me say a couple of words about who I am and what I do, how I live.”  With a gesture, he invited her to sit down.  “Would you?” he said softly.   She did.  “Who am I?” he began.  “I’m a poet.  What do I do?  I write.  How do I live?  I am alive!  I’m rich in rhymes and love songs.  When it comes to visions and castles in the air, I’m a millionaire.  But your beautiful, thieving eyes just dissolved my dreams.  I’m not angry that you robbed me.  You’ve given me something better to hope for.  Now, tell me about you.  Whatever you’d like to say.”

That thud you just heard was my heart hitting the floor for the 2749th time.

Opera is not just romantic, it’s sexy.  Many years ago, my friend Stan Molner described it perfectly.  He and I were in the kitchen of the country house making tortellini al carne from scratch.  It took all day.  We listened to music to keep ourselves going.  When he heard me sigh listening to Pavarotti sing the following aria, he laughed and said, “This music goes right up your skirt, doesn’t it?”  Yup.

This man is singing about heaven and earth, and golden dreams.  Those words at the end are “Come.  Come to the kiss of life, and of love.   I am waiting for you.  Come, woman.  Come to the kiss of love.  Yes, of love.”  I am ready for the ice bucket challenge now.

If you are not convinced, if you still think opera is foreign territory for you, that you have no connection to it, I dare you to listen to this and not start singing along.  Keep listening.  At minute 2:07, you WILL start singing.  Maybe not out loud, but you will.

I rest my case.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Organised or OCD? Travelling tips

I don’t think I’m paranoid. I simply like to be ready for any eventuality. Hence I carry duct tape in the boot of my car. Not for this reason:

But possibly for this one:

(Although only in a get-you-home-after-an-accident capacity, and not as a permanent solution.)

It can also be incredibly useful in case of medical emergency – either for wound sealing or as a splint – although, again, just until you make it to the local hospital:

So, it’s no great surprise that I like to be as prepared when I travel. By the time my next blog post is due in a fortnight, I’ll be in the midst of the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, this year in Raleigh, North Carolina. There are quite a few of the MiE crowd going, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to catching up with everyone.

This year I have the privilege to be one of the International Guests of Honor along with Scottish author/publisher/agent and all round Man of Mystery, Allan Guthrie. Our own Jeff Siger will be chairing our Spotlight Interview on Friday afternoon. Expect lots of talk about recent developments, and mention of Al’s Maine Coon cats.

Not one of Al's cats. Maine Coon/Ragdoll cross kitten in full-size bucket!

If you want to see the full schedule for Bouchercon, including all the fascinating panels where Murder Is Everywhere members are taking part, see here.

I’m also very excited because those lovely people at Felony & Mayhem Press are bringing out spanking new editions of the early Charlie Fox books, with some very snazzy new covers, as you can see here:

There will be lots of other things going on, including a trip to a local gun range, which I’ve put as a Lot in the Live Charity Auction on Friday evening, this year to benefit two local charities, the Triangle Literacy Council and the Read and Feed program. There are plenty of other goodies up for grabs, including a basket of signed books from Murder Is Everywhere members. Felony & Mayhem have asked me for some goodies for their raffle, as well, including a personal self-defence lesson. (Always supposing my back doesn’t have a relapse between now and then!)

You see, this time around it’s particularly important for me to travel light, as a few weeks ago I damaged a disc in my back. Possibly one of the most painful things I’ve ever done and Not to be Advised, if you can avoid it.

So, I shall be taking a wheelie bag instead of my usual large backpack, even though the wheelie bag weighs more empty, and every item I put into it is going to have to earn its keep.

For this reason I make out a Packing List, where I’ve worked out in advance what I’m going to wear each day, and leave a few days between if I want to wear the same thing twice, so I’ve time for it to dry after being washed. Usually, hotel towel rails are kept at the temperature of molten lava, so washing out shirts and underwear won’t be a problem while I’m at the convention.

After that I’m up to New York to do a couple of events – one with the ever-gracious Lee Child at Book Culture on Columbus, and a Master Class at the Center For Fiction on E. 47th St. Looking forward to them both!

Me and Lee during our last gig together at Partners & Crime in NYC
(The only time I'm taller than him is when he's sitting down.)
But, this does mean I’m going to have to take things in order to dress like a grown-up, as well as suitable for tramping round NYC, and a visit to the gun-range. By very careful planning, I can usually get everything I need into a relatively small bag.

Then there are the extras. The bits that I always take with me, that are invaluable items for travellers, and that don’t take up much room.

The first of these has to be my custom ear defenders. I had these moulded to fit my ears last year, and wish I’d had them done yonks ago. They work brilliantly to cut out extraneous noise – wailing babies in the row behind you on aeroplanes, for example – but mean you can still hold a conversation if you need to. Not only will I use these for my flights, but also in case of noisy hotel rooms and, of course, at the gun range. One of the best things I’ve ever bought.

Likewise, I always take Visine eye drops with me. Or, to be more accurate, I buy a new travel-sized bottle out there and bring it back, as Visine doesn’t seem to be available in the UK. My eyes tend to go like two fried tomatoes in air conditioning, so being able to return them to some semblance of normality is always welcome.

I always travel with a flashlight, too. One of those high-power LED ones, on a lanyard so I can just sling it round my neck. Incredibly useful if there’s a power-out in the hotel or, I remember on one occasion, none of the lights worked in the ladies’ restroom. There’s only so much you want to do by touch …

Another of my travel musts are breath mints, or just strong mints of any sort. Drinking coffee and talking a lot seems to have a fairly nasty effect on anybody’s breath, and I’d hate to think I’m breathing noxious fumes over the poor person I’m talking to.

That’s it for now, but does anyone else have any suggestions for things they never travel without?

This week’s Word of the Week is actually several made-up words suggested by Lonely Planet:

Afterglobe n. The warm fuzzy feeling one gets after a long immensely satisfying trip.

Comeuppants n. When an obnoxious person loses their luggage and has no change of clothes.

Fearenheit n. Panic felt by Americans when attempting to comprehend temperatures in other countries.

Tuk-Tuk-Tuck n. The maneouvre required to wedge a large tourist into a small motorised tricycle.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Let Us Pray

I was going to write about last Sunday’s Parliamentary elections in Greece, but decided few care. 
As I wrote while following the returns come in, the Greek people have spoken by returning the just resigned Prime Minister (Alexis Tsipras) and his party (SYRIZA) back to power with the same coalition partner (Independent Greeks) and virtually the same combined number of seats in Parliament as before.
(Numbers in parentheses are changes from January election)

What that election accomplished beyond foisting more trauma upon the country is problematic. Yes, PM Tsipras did purge his party of rebels who’d formed a new party (one that failed to garner enough votes to gain representation in Parliament), but now it will be SYRIZA instituting the harsh measures that Tsipras agreed to in signing the third bailout agreement with the European Union. And though he promised voters during his campaign that he would get all that changed, I doubt many believe him as his record falls woefully short in successes on confronting Greece’s Eurozone creditors.
There will be only SYRIZA to blame or praise for what happens next. And the nation will react accordingly once reality sets in.  Frankly, I'm pleased with this result for a very selfish reason--it's precisely the scenario I'd worked out for Kaldis #8 due for 2016! Now I don't have to change the overall story line. :)
Another topic I thought to write about is the current Republican crop of candidates, but that’s been ably covered here this week.  The only point I wish to make…and it ties into what I decided to write about…concerns Donald Trump.  Did any of you happen to see him standing on the balcony of Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue?  He stood waving to the crowds lined up below waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.  If you didn’t see it you missed quite a vision—and the sound of boos running up from the street below to meet him.

Can you imagine more diametrically opposed human values than those represented by the man on that balcony and the man passing by him?
I can’t.

But I’m not going there. Instead, I’m striving to find the place of Pope Francis.  One where every life matters, the values of the human spirit thrive, compassion rules, and we are judged by our acts not our words.  To hear him speak, to see him smile, to feel his presence should shame us all for what we have come to accept in those we allow to lead our secular world and drive our daily lives.
Whether or not you are Catholic, and I am not, if you believe in leading an ethical life it is hard not to revere this man. 
I only hope that some listen. He spoke to Congress, he addressed the UN, he broke bread with the poor and homeless, he prayed for our 9/11 martyrs, and preached to his faithful.  Politicians do those same sorts of things.  But this man is different. I just know that he is.

I hope (and pray) he makes a difference. Our world needs that desperately.