Thursday, June 30, 2016

A plea from a friend

Stanley - Thursday

Annamaria contacted me about posting a Facebook piece from a friend of mine and of so many crime writers everywhere. 

 Ali Karim is legendary in our circles as someone who has an immense knowledge of mysteries, an immense stamina for enjoying himself, and an amazing ability, it seems, to go for weeks on end without sleep, while at the same time holding down a high-powered job as a businessman and scientist.

Ali Karim: reader and reviewer
Ali and his mathematician daughter Sophia
Ali with Lee Child
Ali in party mode
Ever since the Brexit vote was announced, Ali lobbied against it, arguing not only what he believed to be its disastrous economic consequences, but also what he thought would happen to civil society. 
 After the vote was in, and the UK was out, just what he predicted started to happen.  The louts came out in droves, threatening and abusing people who weren't white or English.  Here are three examples, the first from the Financial Times, the second from The Guardian, and the third from the Express & Star.

What has happened has reminded Ali of his own youth, so he penned and posted what appears below - a plea to us all._________________________________________

Warning to all my Family, Friends and Colleagues:

We are witnessing an alarming rise in hate in the UK, including violence, against people who don't fit in with the Aryan Dream from White Racist Thugs - directed at people like me.The Black Shirts are Back, so can I please ask my Friends who are Aryan, and not Racist, to please speak up, and help anyone being verbally or physically abused, because they are not Aryan.

This nostalgia of my youth, I thought had been defeated, but it is back, and this time it is very dangerous, for we have unlocked the door that kept The Kraken imprisoned, for it feeds on Economic Turmoil, which is about to get very serious, and is part of the dark side of human nature.

I recall being a seven year old, holding my head and crouched in a ball as a gang of youths, cornered me in the school playground, kicking me, calling me many names "Wog, Nigger, Coon, get out of our Country", but as I was so badly winded, I thought I was dying, as I couldn't breath, trying desperately to reason with them, to say 'sorry I'm from Epsom' as I didn't understand why they wanted to hurt me.

This was not an isolated incident from my youth, far from it.

Please help us, as we have helped rebuild your country after the last War, please intervene if you see hate, and violence as it will spread as we haven't seen anything yet, I fear, as the economy destroyed will fuel the chaos that the Nazis and their Kraken need to emerge from the slime where they hide.

Thank you,

Ali Karim


And we must do the same everywhere, particularly in the USA for the next four months.

Thank you, Ali, for reminding us of our duty as believers in a civil society.

Ali and friends

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

An Unsolved Death in Baltimore

The Vidocq Society is a small but legendary group of experts who gather to solve mysteries of the ages. I wish they could find the answer to an unexplained death that took place a few miles from me, last spring. This is the death of 25-year-old named Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr.

On April 12, 2015, Freddie made eye contact with a police officer in his Baltimore neighborhood. He ran, and a group of cops that included some bicycle officers caught him. He was searched, found to have a small switchblade (legal for the state of Maryland but not for Baltimore City) and was taken into custody. Some spectators observed police sitting on his neck and bending his legs backward. A civilian-shot video shows him being dragged and loaded into the back of a police van. In the van, the police put him in wrist and ankle restraints—but the seatbelt that was also in this section of the van wasn’t used.

The van made five stops before reaching the Western District police station. Freddie asked for medical help several times. When the van reached the police station more than 45 minutes after loading up Freddie, he was unresponsive. Freddie was taken to hospital, where doctors discovered he was in a coma and had severe spinal cord injuries. He died April 19, 2015.

This death, coming on the heels of so many other police-on-civilian killings nationwide, was not going to fade into oblivion. For a few weeks, the city’s reaction was many protest marches, rallies and discussions. But the night following the funeral, a protest became aggressive, with bottles being thrown at police. Thirty-four arrests were made and fifteen police officers suffered injuries.

The next day, the Metro Transit Administration made the fateful decision to stop bus and light rail service in an area where several high schools converged. Some frustrated students grew into a bloc that began vandalizing cars. Earlier that day, some students had spread word through social media that there would be a “purge” with violent behavior. 

The students’ riot was quickly augmented by other, older people, who joined in burning buildings and cars, looting stores, and attacking some drivers of cars. Throughout this, the police stood back, and the violence spread like wildfire throughout city neighborhoods. What was happening was about much more than the death of Freddie Gray. It had become an uprising of disenfranchised people frustrated by city government and a lack of opportunity.

The National Guard arrived and the city went under a 10 pm curfew for almost two weeks. The Baltimore State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, announced that her department had launched an independent investigation and would be prosecuting the six police involved on numerous charges. The most serious charge, depraved heart murder, was leveled at the driver. What was unusual about the prosecution was that Mosby announced the charges without waiting for results of the police department’s investigation or sharing the results of the autopsy, wherein an assistant medical examiner declared the death a homicide, due to injuries sustained through omission of safety procedures. The autopsy also revealed the presence of cannabis and opiods in Freddie’s system, which could be argued might have led to Freddie being restless and physically panicking in the back of the van. The autopsy was the only factor presented to convince a grand jury to bring the officers to trial.

The State’s Attorney’s thesis was the officers had conspired to give Gray a “rough ride” to prison, and that was equivalent to homicide. Yet as three officers of the six officers have come to trial over the last eight months—none of them testifying against each other—no evidence of violence has appeared. The result is one officer had a mistrial; and two were acquitted. The three officers remaining to be tried are asking for charges against them to be dropped.

With a supposed absence of violence, how did Freddie Gray die? Was it just a crazy accident in the van the man caused to himself by moving around?

Another possibility might be that his neck was broken by one or two of the officers before being loaded into the van, and the long delay in medical help proved the final death blow. Apparently, the prosecution had a piece of extra evidence they wanted to present in the recent trials. This information was ruled inadmissible, because prosecution apparently hadn’t gone through the standard process of sharing the information with the defense. 

The mystery boils down to how a man who was fit enough to run away from the police without any trouble would lie unconscious with a broken spinal column, less than an hour later.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

la pest blonde and the Orient Express REDUX

Cara is incommunicado today, so we're posting a chestnut of hers from two years back discussing the "Election Shake up in France." It's particularly poignant in light of this past week's Brexit-EU conflagration.

I don't know Marine le Pen, have never seen her in person but this is what's written about her - she's 45, with three children and twice divorced. She took over the Front National a party her father founded in 2011 which made a BIG showing in European elections Sunday. Fears are this will turn the party into the most powerful anti-EU and immigration force on the continent.

Her father, often described as an old Fascist, once predicted a bright future for Marine, the youngest of his three daughters, by describing her as “a big, healthy, blonde girl, an ideal physical specimen”.
Her detractors later nicknamed her “the clone” or “la peste blonde” – the blonde plague – a play on words with the Black Death and “la peste brune” – a reference to the occupying Nazi troops and their brown shirts.

But today, she claims to have detoxified the Front National, taken the “extreme” out of extreme-Right and succeeded in forcing her anti-European, anti-euro and anti-immigration agenda onto the French and EU political mainstream.

When asked what was the most formative moment of her childhood, she once said, “20 kilos of dynamite”. In 1976, when she was eight years old, a bomb tore off the front of the family’s apartment bloc in Paris while they were asleep. “I realized politics could cost you your life,” she said.

My friends had mixed feelings or none at all about voting in the EU election held yesterday. Only two people I know voted or at least said they did. Turns out there was only a 43% turnout in France. But most Parisians think whatever happens in the EU doesn't affect them. Well Marine wants to make sure it does.

Meanwhile on the Orient Express

 After fortifying with caffeine it was time to head along the quai under the Paulonia (sp?) trees to L'Institut de Monde Arabe

And board the Simplon Orient Express. There's a wonderful exhibit with the actual train cars of the fabled Orient Express. Inside the original cars it's like a stage set. Below is Graham Greene's typewriter.

The pages starts with the story 'Stamboul Express' he wrote onboard.

Cigarettes of the time, wine glasses, down to the original Bacarrat glass windows and fixtures.

Pearls and Champagne on ice from Josephine Baker's rail car.

The bloody body from Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

Even Agatha Christie's coat and cloche hat.

Not to mention a 'chien bizarre'

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, June 27, 2016


Annamaria on Monday


The setting for my upcoming book—The Idol of Mombasa—has a fabulous exotic history: connected to the Sultanates of Oman and of Zanzibar, trade with ancient China, Portuguese global exploration, the Raj, and the search for the source of the Nile.  The romance of this list gives me gooseflesh.  What a place!  My series character—Vera Tolliver—describes it as a locale where you “expect to see Aladdin walking along, carrying his lamp.”

There has been a trading post on this island at least since the early Middle Ages.  Local oral tradition says it was founded, sometime around 900 AD by a woman—Mwana Mkisi and became the birthplace of the Swahili culture.  The first people to settle there permanently were traders and skilled craftsman.  Links were established with the Indian sub-continent and east as far as China.  Trade was in gold, spices, and ivory.  Once plantations, which relied on slave labor, were in place, trade expanded to include millet, sesame, and cocoanuts.

Modern picture of the historic souk

Mombasa’s harbor and its position on the Indian Ocean made it a natural as an international city, the most important port on the East African coast.  Persian and Arab traders were there early on.  One Arab geographer mentioned it in his documentation of 1151.  The first written account comes from a Moroccan traveler, writing in 1331.  He stopped in overnight and wrote in his journal, “a religious people, trustworthy and righteous.  Their mosques are made of wood and expertly built.”

 As with many other faraway places, Vasco Da Gama was the first European to show up in Mombasa—in 1498.  He must have lusted after what he saw, because he returned two years later and sacked the place.  At the time that Vasco—that villain—arrived, the city was ruled by the Sultan of Mombasa.  At which point there began a series of turnarounds for the citizenry.  Over the next four hundred, years hegemony over Mombasa went like this:

1528—Portuguese attack again and take over
1587—Zimba cannibals (!) put in a brief appearance
1589—Portuguese return and this time build Fort Jesus, which still stands
1698—Sultan of Oman tosses out the Portuguese
1728—Portuguese make another cameo appearance
1729—Sultanate of Oman is back and endures for a century
1824—Britain makes its first sally

Fort Jesus, as it looks today

Tunnel within the fort

Ancient Portuguese grafitti

Then, through a series of deaths, deals, and inheritances within the Sultanate of Oman, by 1886, a ten-mile wide swath of the coast had become the property of the Sultan of Zanzibar.   The Brits had been active in that part of the world for a number of years, trying to get a permanent foothold.  It was from Mombasa that they launched many of their forays in search of the source of the Nile.  British missionaries had moved into the hinterlands with dual and interlinked purposes—to convert the pagans to Christianity and as an important part of their effort to wipe out slavery worldwide.   In 1886, the King’s empire builders made a deal with the Sultan of Zanzibar, who gave them a concession in his territory along the coast.

At that point Mombasa became the capital of the Protectorate of British East Africa, into which they also included all the land going west to Lake Victoria and north to the southern border of Uganda. 

Just then, the Brits started to build a railroad from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, a bold, fascinating project that I have described in two posts before—here and here.  Once the railroad was completed, laborers imported from India for its construction often stayed on and settled in Mombasa, giving the city yet another facet of its fascination.

In 1906, since most of the European settlers were ensconced up country, the Brits moved their administration to Nairobi, where the capital of Kenya remains to this day.

Modern-day Mombasa stands as a pinnacle of historical exoticism. 

My characters walk around in the place as it was a hundred years ago.  Fortunately for me, photographic evidence of what it looked like still exists.  Here are just a handful of the photos I have collected:


Lucky, lucky me, I also have eleven volumes of eye-witness accounts—on my shelf in the New York Public Library.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Horsing Around at Shinto Shrines

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan (and the official state religion until 1945).

An animistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of many (read: thousands) of divinities, known as kami, who represent and watch over everything and everyone.

Traditionally, horses were considered intermediaries between the human world and the realm of the kami (though, unfortunately for the horses, they had to be sacrificed in order to get there). White horses are considered particularly sacred, and were sacrificed to the kami on important occasions.

The sacrificial horses were often stabled at the shrine, fed well and given special care to ensure both the animal's health and the kaki's favor. On the festival day, the horse was adorned with ornate tack and blankets, amulets, and sometimes even a headdress, walked to the altar ... and sent on its mystical journey. (We'll leave it there.)

These special sacrifices continue even to this day, but in modern times, wooden amulets and statues of horses take the place of real, living animals. Many of the larger shrines still "stable" a life-sized statue of a horse (usually white) on the grounds - sometimes in the converted stable where the real horses were once kept:

Awaiting his fate at Itsukushima Shrine

At Itsukushima Taisha, on Miyajima Island, the ritual horse (pictured above) has a stable directly across the path from the shrine's main entrance, with a view of the shrine's Great Torii and the bay:

Great view . . . if you don't mind being a sacrifice.

It's a world-class view, though I'm sure the real horses didn't appreciate it quite as much.

The Great Torii (same view) at high tide.

At other shrines, like Fushimi Inari Taisha (just south of Kyoto) the ritual horse is kept in a ritual "stable" built especially for that purpose. Fushimi Inari's ritual horse "lives" halfway up the first flight of steps at the very base of Mount Inari, between the shrine's main altar and the first of the uphill paths where thousands of torii line the mountain's slopes.

The horse lives in the little house, bottom center frame.

The "stable" measures about the size of a one-car garage, and has windows so visitors can see the horse (and vice versa) as they pass on their way up the mountain.

A closer view of the "stable"

The horse is removed from his "stable" and decorated for festivals and rituals where a real horse would once have been sacrificed.

Fushimi Inari's ritual horse.

Symbolic sacrifice as a form of worship is fairly common in Shinto ritual - many of the shrines sell amulets imprinted with various objects, and worshippers purchase the ones that correspond to their current prayers and needs.

Shinto remains one of Japan's primary religions, and a significant portion of the population will acknowledge Shinto as their faith, if asked. Among the world's religions, Shinto ranks among the more peaceful--although (some of) the kami don't necessarily object to war or hostility, most of them don't request it or expect anyone to conduct it in their name. Also, Shinto accommodates other religions well--when Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century, many adherents of the Shinto faith became Christians "also" -- seeing the Christian god as simply one more to add to the pantheon. (Ironically, most of them didn't worry much about the Bible's claim that the Christian God was the only god - they simply thought he was foreign, and thus mistaken--and like most gods, they figured it was easier to simply go along with him in church than to try and disabuse him of the notion.)

I find both Shinto and its various kami fascinating, and its shrines offer some of the loveliest and most compelling architecture in all of Japan. If you find yourself near one, definitely take the time to visit. They're beautiful, relaxing, and peaceful places  and perfectly safe. . . unless you happen to be a horse.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

It's All Up to the Mykonians


Perhaps there’s just something in the air…or the water, but the raging populist drive reflected in Thursday’s Brexit vote and the US Presidential campaign seems to be taking root on Mykonos.

A half-dozen times this week different Mykonians lamented to me on their island’s future. That’s not unusual.  I’ve been hearing similar complaints every year for over thirty years. Some say it’s only natural. :)  This time, though, the complaint was specific, with each one expressly saying, “We’re turning into Las Vegas.”

That gave me a chill.  No, not because of my own memories of times in Las Vegas, but because those were practically the very words I’d used to describe the potential fate of the island more than three years ago in Mykonos After Midnight (no cover shot this time). 

Here is dialog from that Kaldis book #5 among Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, his colleague Yianni Kouros, and Lefteris, a local Mykonos businessman.  I’ve edited the conversation slightly so as to avoid a plot spoiler.

[It starts off with the local, Lefteris, saying,] “Can you imagine [turning] … Mykonos… into the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean?”

“And that’s a good thing?” said Kouros.

Andreas rubbed his forehead.  “Don't you think the island has gone about as far off in the ‘nightlife direction’ as the Mykonians can take?”

“Maybe, but it has only profited the handful of locals who control it.  Look, I love this place as much as any Mykonian.  I grew up here and raised my family here.  But I'm a realist.  There is no going back to the old days.  None.  All we can do is try to protect the future, make things fairer so that no longer will one man get rich and another go to jail for doing exactly the same thing just because one has connections and the other does not. 

“If we'd commit as a community to turning our island into a worldwide entertainment destination, a Las Vegas on the sea, it would become a year-round tourist attraction, and not just a place for partying kids in the summer.”

Lefteris turned his hands palms up and shrugged.  “But none of that is ever going to happen...The big boys here have all the juice and the big boys elsewhere don’t want Mykonos to [succeed].  And you don't have to look very hard to see how nasty some of them are willing to play.”
[When alone with Andreas, Kouros said,] “Las Vegas may not be a bad comparison for the way Mykonos could end up.  I hear it's surrounded by desert filled with never to be discovered bodies.  Mykonos has the Aegean.”

“Let's hope it doesn't go that way.” 

“What's to stop it?  If all it takes is money to do whatever you want, those with the most get to call the shots,” said Kouros.

Andreas put his arm around Kouros’ shoulder.  “If you’re right, there's nothing you or I can do to affect the end of that story; it's all up to the Mykonians.” 

So, to those Mykonians now concerned and complaining, I suggest that perhaps some constructive guidance can be found in the words of U.S. Representative and veteran civil rights leader, John Lewis, offered in his speech Wednesday announcing his and his colleagues’ determination to occupy the floor of the United States Congress until that government body addresses common sense gun-control measures.

Here are relevant excerpts from Representative Lewis’ speech, modified as indicated for local consumption.

“[You] were elected to lead, [fill in position]. [You] must be headlights, and not taillights.  [You] cannot continue to stick [y]our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of [what is happening to our island]… [T]his is a fact. It is not an opinion. [You] must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone.

We are calling on the leadership of the [island] to bring common-sense … legislation [and enforcement] to the [fore]… [You] came here to do [y]our jobs.  [You] came here to work. The [Mykonian] people are demanding action.”

As Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis once said, “It’s all up to the Mykonians.”