Sunday, November 20, 2005

Returning this morning from three days of tasting wines in Gaillac, I found an e-mail awaiting me from my incomparable translator, Ariane. She and Gilbert (who designed the French book cover), were in one of the biggest bookstores in Paris yesterday - chez Gibert in the Boulevard Saint-Michel. On the table, on the first floor, prominently displayed amongst the bestselling books, they discovered a pile of copies of "Meurtres à Pékin" snuggling up to some anonymous book called "The Da Vinci Code" by someone called Dan Brown. Who he?

Chez Gibert, Paris

Sunday, November 06, 2005

All over. A hundred books sold - or thereabouts. Endless hours of standing smiling at people, engaging them in (French) conversation, hand-selling my books. This is the sharp end of writing that most authors never get to experience. This is hard-selling direct to the public.

This is seeing their noses wrinkle when they read the blurb on the back of the book, or even when they catch a glimpse of the title. There are, clearly, some people for whom "Meurtres à Pékin" is inestimably distasteful.

With graphic descriptions of carbonised corpses on the back cover, I wonder what on earth could have put them off? Ah, well, chaque à son gout.

One simply has to expect that what one writes is not everyone's cup of tea.

To balance that, my publisher, Danielle Dastugue, was delighted with our sales. For an "inconnue" - unknown - in France, it would have been perfectly possible to sell two books or less, she said. We had done well.

The day started off with a change of stands. We were moved to another stand in the foire, judged to be in a better position. The two young girls, and rugby playing student, who had taken the money and popped the books in bags for us all day Saturday, were almost tearful to see us go. Not unhappy, however, to see the back of us, were the man-hater and Mr. Cèpes, who had deigned to turn up for the Sunday session. Our departure meant they got a bigger and better display.

We, however, found ourselves crammed into a breathless space between a purveyor of philosophy and a writer of such titles as "Le Pinkie-Pinkie", whose cover was adorned with the screaming face of a tortured man. Opposite was an emergency exit which, while providing an outlet for people in trouble, also provided an inlet for frequent blasts of icy autumn air. I was glad I had brought my jacket.

What was nice was that both the young girls at our new stand bought and asked me to sign copies of the book, and that the girls from the previous day's stand paid us several visits to check that we were okay. One of them said she had started to read the book the night before and couldn't wait to get back to it. She reads "polars" (crime books) all the time, she said, but somehow this one was different, and she was really intrigued.

We made a point of going and saying goodbye to them all when we left.

Ariane and Gilbert appeared late morning, and we tried to make an arrangement for lunch, but the restaurant where we were scheduled to lunch, courtesy of the municipality was only scheduled to take six from Editions du Rouergues. Our poor friends wandered off disconsolately to try to find somewhere to eat, and we went in search of Michèle to see if we could find a solution to the problem. No problem, she said, call Ariane and tell her there are places for them at the restaurant - Chez Francis, in Avenue de Paris, reckoned to be the best in town.

By coincidence, the hapless pair had just tried to get into that very restaurant, which had been recommended by a friend, and had been turned away. Complet! At which point my call came through on Ariane's mobile.

So we all met up for lunch, only to discover that Danielle and Michèle had been unable to get two extra places, and so had sacrificed theirs to partake of salads in an inferior joint across the street. No amount of argument would dissuade them from this.

Publishers are different in this country!

Another nice moment came that afternoon when a gentleman we had spoken to earlier in the day about cultural and linguistic exchanges, returned to reveal that he worked for Les Trois Epis, the bookseller, and that his boss had told him that he could chose any book at the foire, have it signed, and he would pay for it. He chose "Meurtres à Pékin", which I took as a real compliment - considering the hundreds of thousands of books available at the fair.

At the end of the day, we said fond farewells to Danielle and Michèle, and Daniel and Roger and Adeline Yzac (another Rouergue writer whom we had met that morning), and disappeared off into the cold, dark night, to make our way back to a cold, dark house and try to get it warm before collapsing into our own bed for the first time in what seemed like weeks.

And it was only three days.
An eleven hour day! There should be a union to protect writers from this. Trouble is, if we don't do it no-one else will.

This was Saturday at the Foire du Livre in Brive la Gaillarde, all day at a stand hosted by Les Trois Epis bookstore. I had a display of books and a chair and was required to be on duty all day to greet potential customers and sign the books that they bought.

We weren't in a good spot, though. Near the entrance. Everyone arriving hurried by to see the fair, not wanting to stop and look at the first display. On the way out, they'd done their buying and weren't interested in looking at anything else.

Besides which, I was sandwiched between "The Book of Cèpes", whose author never dared once to show his face (after all, how could you write a whole book about cèpes?), and "My Life with a Brute" (or words to that effect) - a comical description by a divorced women of her life of hell with men, and what changes she would like to make to them.

I saw her eyeing up my kilt a few times and felt a touch uneasy, and then got ticked off when a gaggle of teenage girls (most of whom appeared to be her children), and their spotty boyfriends, stood in front of my book display and chatted to her for hours on end.

The greatest indignity, though, was that more people seemed intersted in the cèpes than "Meurtres à Pékin". They were drawn to it like flies to the dung, although I think there were only two copies sold all day. The man hater didn't sell much either. So I suppose I had the last laugh (although laughing was the last thing I felt like doing), when I managed to sell twenty-five books. It doesn't seem like much over a long day. Five hundred euros worth of business, all the same. And when added to the sales of launch night, probably totalled around 75 books, or fifteen hundred euros.

Which doesn't make much of a dent in the six thousand copies that Editions du Rouergue have printed - about four times as many as Hodder and Stoughton produced in hardback. They clearly have faith in the book. I hope they're right.

The only bright spot in the day was lunch at the chic new restaurant Les Arums, again paid for by the municipality. This was a bright, airy, modern restaurant, with a huge salle through the back, and tall windows opening on to a luxuriantly green garden, and a young patronne who had poured herself into leather trousers that seemed somehow to have moulded themselves to her every curve. It was quite hynpnotic when she walked by our table.

We were joined - Danielle, Michèle, Daniel, La Patronne and I - by a famous French writer and broadcaster called Philippe Meyer. He was a big man with a shock of salt and pepper hair, a lovely manner and a nice sense of humour. Lunch passed in a haze of good food and wine, laughter and tight leather trousers.

All of our food and wine, it seems, over the whole weekend, is to be provided by the town. I'm not complaining.

Sales were slow in the afternoon. The place was jam packed, and La Patronne, who had sat faithfully by my side through most of the morning, was overcome by a post prandial torpor, and slipped off to take forty winks in the car, in the dark anonymity of the underground carpark beneath us. A flurry of sales in her absence, rescued me from a slow start. I heard that the queue to get in stretched all the way up the Rue de Paris, and that people were having to stand in line for more than an hour and a half.

What amazes me is that they did! What an appetite people here seem to have for books and writers.

At the end of the day - it was almost 8pm - we all traipsed off to the Boulevard Restaurant again for more good food and wine, before driving back to our hotel through dipping temperatures and thick fog.

Winter, it seems, has finally stamped on the tail end of summer.

And tomorrow we do it all over again.

Between a Cèpe and a Hard Place

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Guy Fawkes night. Bonfire night. The day when everything goes up in flames and fireworks light up the sky.

Well, it wasn't quite like that last night in Brive, but it was "pas mal" all the same. There was a fabulous turnout for the booklaunch at Les Trois Epis. Sixty or more people turned up, including some old friends I hadn't seen for years.

The neighbours from my village turned out in force to support me, for which I am eternally grateful. They are good people. Even those who couldn't come asked neighbours to get them copies of the book. We sold fifty or sixty books, and the owners of the bookstore were more than delighted - a thousand euros-worth of business in an hour and a half. The publisher, too, was pleased, because it established a good relationship between themselves and a store with which they had never had a relationship. Ground was broken - in a good way.

I suppose I could have got away with not making a speech at all, or even a very truncated version of it. But having put in all the work on it this week I was damned well going to make it anyway. And boy was I nervous!

I am so used now to making book presentations in English that I am accompanied only by the odd butterfly. Last night they just about suffocated me. It is a long time since I felt that scared. My mouth got so dry towards the end that I could hardly get the words out. I dried halfway through, when my mind just went blank, and I had to call on my souffleur - Ariane - for a prompt. What seemed like an eternity to me thankfully only lasted a few seconds. Ariane gave me a line to get back into the speech, and off I went again like a demented automaton, stumbling to the end and managing, hopefully, to tell my story in the process.

All in all, it could have been worse.

The great surprise of the night was the appearance of my former neighbour from Carennac, Georges Monteiro, and his "bidey in", Brigitte, along with their young son, Antoinin, who was no more than a baby when last we saw him. It was a joy to seem them again. Georges really is the salt of the earth. We had never before done anything other than shake hands. But last night we embraced, and he made us promise to come and eat at their new home near Puybrun. I look forward to it.

Afterwards we poured out into the cool of a damp Brive evening, Danielle Dastugue, my publisher, her commercial organiser, Michèle, another Rouergue author, Daniel Crozes, and Ariane and Gilbert. We all headed off to a restaurant called "Le Boulevard", just off the Place Winston Churchill. Lights shone out through large windows on to a leaf-strewn garden which we had to cross to reach it.

The Mayor of Brive extends an invitation to publishers and writers to dine at the town's expense at one of twenty nominated restaurants. A full menu, coffee and wine included - for the Friday night, midi on Saturday, Saturday night and midi on Sunday. It's an extraordinary gesture by the municipality. No wonder the publishers and writers descend en masse from Paris.

(An interesting aside is that the underground parking beneath the market square is free for the duration of the Foire. If this were happening in the UK or the US, somehow I think the parking charges would have increased for the weekend!)

During the meal we discovered that Daniel is the longest serving writer on the books of Editions du Rouergue. He was the first writer to be published by them when they were a fledgling company run single-handedly by Danielle Dastugue, and he has written twenty-six books in the last twenty years. What a prolific output! I have to take my hat off to him. And what a nice man, too. He and I are sharing the signing sessions at the publisher's stand throughout the weekend - their oldest and their newest writers.

We also discovered that the second book in the China thrillers series, "The Fourth Sacrifice", has had its publication date brought forward so that it will be launched at the bookfair in Paris in March. This is a major honour. It was also news to Ariane, who has only just begun the translation of it.

Gawn yersel' wee yin!

The night ended with a hairy drive through the wet and the dark to our hotel in the tiny village of St. Viance, ten kilometres north of Brive. Everyone from Rouergue is staying here, but La Patronne and I were the only ones who knew the way - since we had checked in earlier in the afternoon. So everyone else followed us. Which would have been fine if La Patronne hadn't suddenly said to me as we sat at traffic lights in the town: "The lights have turned green!" I looked up and saw green. But it was the green of the next set of lights, and we promptly drove right through a set of red, leaving my publisher et al trailing in our distant wake.

However, they finally caught up, and we found our way safely to the Auberge sur Vézère, where La Patronne and I fell back in our room to work our way into a fine bottle of Glenmorangie that we had planked earlier.

Today it all begins again. I wonder if I'll still be able to speak English by the end of the weekend. Vraiment a case of death by French!

With Ariane

Friday, November 04, 2005

Well, today's the day. The French launch of "The Firemaker" under the title of "Meurtres à Pékin".

It is being held tonight at Les Trois Epis - the biggest bookstore in Brive - on the eve of the biggest bookfair in France outside of Paris, La Foire du Livre. Last year it was visited by 120,000 people over the course of the weekend, which really begins tonight when the "Book Train" arrives from Paris carrying the publishers and journalists, and more than 500 writers, from the Capital.

Many of them are attracted not only by the bookfair, but by the fact that at this time of year the traditional fare of southwest France is readily available in all the markets and shops at better prices than in Paris. I'm talking, of course, about foie fras and the confit de canard - those high fat foodstuffs which, miraculously, don't even seem to dent the French reputation for having the lowest rate of heart disease in Europe.

Hmmmmm. Eat on.

La Patronne, of course, has done her usual excellent job of preparing the publicity for the book and the launch. She has produced a press pack, in French, which is downloadable on PDF from the new French website which she has just launched. It is viewable at:

It also contains a link to a downloadable podcast which I have just recorded in French. Actually, it's pretty much the speech I will be giving at the launch tonight - the speech which has obsessed me for most of my waking hours for the last week.

There were two important criteria to follow. It had to be written in a French I could speak. And it had to be something I could deliver without notes. Oh, and it had to be intelligible and interesting. Now you're beginning to understand why it has obsessed me for the last seven days.

I adapted it from one of the stories I normally tell in English when doing a book tour. I created a structure that I would remember in English, and then wrote it from within my limited pool of French vocabulary. So far, so good. But the delivery is another matter altogether - especially in front of a large crowd of native French speakers.

Ariane, my translator, and her husband, Gilbert (who designed the book cover), cast an eye over it and declared it more or less intelligible. I suggested, hopefully, that maybe I should have the speech in my hand to refer to when I deliver it. But they didn't think that would look very good, so I embarked on a course of trying to commit it to memory. Arggggh. The butterflies in my stomach were whipping up a storm already.

I spent all afternoon on Tuesday with my neighbour, Laurène, going over the speech sentence by sentence. She made some minor corrections to facilitate my delivery, and I headed off home to practise some more.

That night Ariane and Gilbert and Laurène and Roger came to dinner and insisted I stand up and deliver the speech to them. It was amazing just how stressful it was to stand up in front of a group of friends to deliver a speech in French. Somehow I managed to stumble through it, and of course, they were very encouraging.

But the proof of the foie will be in the stuffing of the duck! In other words, it'll all be down to how I do on the night. I spent Wednesday and Thursday on more practice, and recorded the adaptation of it for the podcast.

Now, on Friday morning, those butterflies have multiplied and got even more frenzied. I am just about to head off and get into my kilt - US tour revisited (one of these days I must get the damned thing dry-cleaned!). Well, if nothing else, it gets me attention - and that's what I need to sell books.

And I thought all I had to do was write them!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Monday morning, and La Patronne and I had a power meeting.

A week back home from the World Tour of America, fighting off the ravages of cold germs determined to take advantage of our exhaustion, shedding pounds gained by water retention and eating too much fast food, it was time to get down to serious work again.

We discussed updating our accounts, the design of the new French website, thank-you cards for everyone in the States who had been so generous with their help. We talked about the French book launch in Brive - less than three weeks away now - my promotional schedule in France, a possible strategy for the French press.

It was barely possible for me to imagine that in three hours' time I would be on a hilltop miles from anywhere pulling off the boot of a man who had nearly cut off his foot with a chainsaw.

The sequence of events which led me there began with the crunch-crunch of footsteps on the gravel in the front garden, and then the chime of the doorbell.

Standing there in a multi-coloured work jacket, and jeans and big boots, was Roger, grinning like an idiot. We shook hands. I told him to come in, but he shook his head and began speaking Quebecois French faster than a TGV. He forgets sometimes that my French splutters along about the speed of Stevenson's Rocket.

Roger comes from the Madeleine Islands off the east coast of Canada. He used to be a singer with a Quebecois band, but is now an osteopath. He and his wife, Laurène, a pshychotherapist from Paris, have bought a house in Puymule, and Roger has opened up a surgery in St. Céré.

As I fought to catch every fifth word, I gleaned that Roger had hired a lorry and was heading up to a farm in the hills near Teyssieu, where I go to get winter fuel for my wood-burning stove. Usually I go in the company of an elderly neighbour, Robert (I call him "Bob"), who has a trailer which will take two cubic metres. Bob has a heart condition, so I load and unload his wood for him, in return for which he lets me use his trailer for my wood.

So we set off in convoy. Roger and computer wizard, "Lucky", who lives in what used to be a building for drying walnuts adjacent to Roger's house, and me and Bob and his wife, Jacqui. It was too good an opportunity to miss. My stock of wood was running low from last year, and here was a chance - I thought, after hesitating briefly - to bring down a big load in a single outing. It's pretty hard work, and so my (other) work plans for the day were put on hold.

We stopped in St. Céré to pick up cash, only for Roger to discover he had left the key to his surgery at the house, and all his money and plastic were locked inside. I offered to lend him what he needed and he could repay me later, and we set off again.

Up into the hills, a winding road that climbed through autumn trees gently shedding yellow and red, until we emerged into rolling high country dotted with clusters of stone farm buildings and huddled stands of oak and chesnut.

I love it up here. The air is pure and fresh, and the land so rich and green, dipping and diving into gorgeous hollows between hills that rise out of crystal clear tumbling streams.

The farm is reached by a road that climbs steeply up one of the highest hills around. The farmhouse nestles in a cleft near the summit, and the wood is piled high to dry along a narrow track that rises almost sheer to the very top where an old stone farmhouse lies derelict.

To my eternal shame, I have to confess that I don't know the farmer's name. I have been often to fetch wood over the last three or four years, and have never once been able to decipher a word he says. Bob always phones to order the wood. He takes his meter lengths cut in half, and I take mine in thirds. Roger, who has a large, open cheminée, was happy to take uncut meter lengths. We began loading the lorry and the farmer got out his tronçonneuse (chainsaw) to begin cutting the wood for Bob and me.

He is a small man, round and jolly. He always greets us with a smile. His wife, petite and muscular, with short dark hair and a friendly grin, sometimes helps us load the rémorque. Recently she has been more pre-occupied with their young son, who has a problem with his eyes. She wasn't there today, and the old grandpa was out on the stoop with the kid. We could hear their voices rising to us on the wind, before the roar of the chainsaw drowned them out.

I didn't see what happened exactly. It was the first log. The farmer was attempting to cut it on the ground. How many times must he have done this in his life? But somehow this time the blade jumped, or slipped, and it sliced through his wellington boot and into his foot. It only takes a second. I heard him scream, and turned to see him writhing on the ground, holding his leg in the air. 'Putain! Putain!" he was yelling. The first time I've ever understood him. "Get it off!" he screamed, pulling at his boot.

Bob and I got there first and knelt down to pull off the boot. His sock was split apart. And so was his foot. A long, jagged wound had cut deep into the fleshy instep behind his big toe. Oddly there was no blood. Not at that moment. The wound, and the flesh it revealed, were strangely white. He took one look at it and rolled away screaming in pain. No doubt it was also going through his mind that his whole livelihood depended on his physical ability to get around.

We all gathered, uncertain of what to do. La Patronne should have been there. She is a trained first aider. But pure common sense dictated that we should raise his leg to stop the blood which was now starting to flow freely.

Lucky got on his mobile phone to call the emergency services. But none of us even knew the name of the farm. The farmer called it out through his pain, and Lucky relayed it across the ether. And then, in an odd moment of lucidity, the farmer gritted his teeth and stretched over to switch off the motor on his chainsaw. Suddenly all that we heard was the wind moaning up through the valleys, and then the sound of a vehicle approaching. It was the farmer's wife driving into the farmyard below, returning from the delivery of beasts to a nearby pasture. There was another young farmer with her. She came running up the hill, screaming, hysterical. "I told you to be careful! I told you!" she yelled at her husband. And then she took one look at his wound and went screaming off back down to the house. It was distressing to see such hysteria. Jacqui went down the hill after her to try to calm her, and I noticed the dogs standing at the foot of the slope staring up at their master, perplexed, knowing something was wrong, but strangely rooted to the spot.

When Jacqui and the poor man's wife returned, it was with a towel to wrap around his foot, and a pillow to place beneath his head. He was still cursing. "Putain! Putain!" His wife was still hysterical.

I felt sick, and impotent to do anything about it, and wandered back down the hill to the car, on the basis that standing around gawping would be less than helpful. I sat sideways on the front seat, with the door open, and heard the wail of a siren carried distantly on the wind. I couldn't believe how quickly the ambulance had got here. We were, after all, in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. It had taken us half-an-hour to drive up from St. Céré.

Then the ambulance turned into the farm road and I saw that it was from Latronquière, which must be the nearest town. I jumped out and waved them up the hill to where the injured man still lay.

I walked slowly back up to where the medics had established that the damage was not as bad as we all feared. The tendon had not been severed. Perhaps bone had stopped the blade in time. They gave him a pain killer and cleaned and dressed the wound, and carried him, half upright on a stretcher, into the ambulance.

His cheery grin had returned as he looked back out at the shocked white faces gathered all around. "You could cut the wood yourselves," he said. "I'll not be cutting any for a while." We were all appalled by the thought, and his wife put our thoughts into words. "Merde le bois!" she said. Which I took to mean the equivalent of "Fuck the wood!"

As the ambulance disappeared into the valley, we continued to load our logs in silence. All of them uncut. Bob speculated that maybe Georges, back at Puymule, would cut his wood into halves. I filled his trailer, and Roger and Lucky stacked six metres in the back of the truck. None of it would do for my stove.

I loaned Roger enough to pay for his wood, and we began the long, and winding journey back down to the town.

It was well past lunchtime when I got home, and I realised just how hungry I was. La Patronne heated my soup while I told her my story. With so much work to do, I had spent the morning heaving wood, none of which would be burned by us, and fretting over a horribly injured man. Whatever waste of my time it might have been was nothing compared to the awful events which had overtaken that poor farmer. Every time I shut my eyes I could see the jagged white of the wound and hear his cries of pain.

And I remembered Roger, on the hilltop, shaking his head and saying to me, "And you hesitated about coming at all." And it's true, I did. And I wonder, if I hadn't, would things have panned out differently? Fate is such a strange thing. It takes everything to happen in a specific order, and at a specific time, to bring about a single moment, for a single event to occur in a split second.

Maybe I should have stayed at home and done my accounts, and maybe none of it would have happened.


Bob and Jacqui

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Well, here we are, home again. We got back Thursday night, and this is Sunday. It feels like we've never been away - except that the bodies seem to believe we are still in some kind of daylight savings time zone in the Rocky Mountains. Can't stay awake during the day. Can't sleep at night.

T'will pass, I hope.

The journey home was quite eventful. Twenty-five hours, non-stop, from Rochester NY to Puymule, France.

It began with a laugh at airport security in Rochester. As usual they stripped me down to shirt and kilt, and asked me to step into the taped off search area, where a gentleman of dubious sexuality fumbled nervously with his wand and told me he'd forgotten how to do this.

"They showed us in training," he said. "But we don't get to do a guy in a skirt - sorry, kilt - very often."

By now, an expert in the procedure, I gave him instructions on how to proceed. One step forward.... One step back.... Careful where you put that wand!

Meantime, La Patronne was having to deal with a severe looking black guy who was staring at our boarding passes with a deep frown. He was a big, tall, muscular fella - the kind you don't argue with. But, then, La Patronne was never one to take the path of least resistance.

"What's his first name?" he said, clutching my boarding pass and nodding towards where I was dodging the wand.

"Peter," La Patronne said.

The security man's frown deepened. "It says here, MRS. Peter May." We were right back to the confusion with which the whole trip had begun. An administrative cock-up.

La Patronne took a calculated risk. After all, most security workers don't have a sense of humour. She turned and looked at me and shrugged. "Maybe it's because he's wearing a skirt," she said.

There was a long moment, when our fate hung precariously in the balance. And then the guy roared and laughed. "Man, you're BAD," he said to her. "You're BAD!" And he called to his co-security workers. "Hey, do you know what she just said?" They all gathered round, and he told them, and they all roared and laughed, too.

Watching from a distance, I thought perhaps my knees might be the object of their ribald laughter - or the fumbling of the guy with the wand.

It was only later that I discovered the truth, as we sat with two hours to wait for our plane, and the first indications reached us that not all was well. The departure board announced that our flight was delayed for fifteen minutes. Nothing much to worry about in that, we thought. We had a two hour safety margin at Newark before catching our connecting flight to Paris.

But as time wore on, that margin began shrinking at an alarming rate, and our plane got later and later. Passengers with even tighter connections than ours were getting bumped. Fog at Newark, they told us. Even when the plane finally arrived at our gate, they said air traffic wouldn't allow us to take off - because there was no guarantee we could land.

Time passed, stress mounted. Then, at the last minute, they boarded us, and the pilot said he was pleading with air traffic control to let us fly. His pleas succeeded, and fifteen minutes later we were airborn. Our two hour margin was now about forty minutes. If there were no further delays we would still make our flight.

But, then, as we approached Newark, we became aware that we were simply making circles in the sky. The captain announced we were on a holding pattern and running out of fuel. "If they don't let us land in the next ten minutes," he said, "I'm going to have to take us to Allentown, Pennsylvania."

Our hearts sank. Where the hell was Allentown, Pensylvania, and what in the name of the wee man were we going to do there, having missed our flight to Paris?

Then, suddenly, at the eleventh hour, we began our descent. We were landing at Newark after all, and embarked on a high-speed taxi chase across the apron. The captain was doing his best. But we had lost another fifteen minutes. At least the Paris flight left from the same terminal - but, of course, it was at the other end of it.

We ran through the crowded terminal, dragging heavy carry-on bags. My kilt billowed and furled in our wake. We boarded our plane with minutes to spare, but the steward told us there was no guarantee that our luggage would make the flight. We wouldn't know if it had until we reached Paris.

Fortunately we'd had the foresight to use up our airmiles to upgrade to First Class, and fell into big comfortable recliners, to have glasses of Champagne thrust in our hands, and be happily pampered for the next six hours.

And the story has a happy ending. For our luggage, after a tense wait at the carousel, finally appeared, and we were home. Intact. Absolutely exhausted, but grateful to be back in one piece.

The four hours we had to kill at the Gare d'Austerlitz passed in a trice, for Ariane and Gilbert showed up to welcome us home, and we sat and drank coffee and chatted, forced to access rusty French from tired brains. It was wonderful to be back amongst friends. We lunched in the station buffet, and A and G waved goodbye as we clambered aboard the train for our four-hour journey south.

To be met by a big, smiling Gary, in his Citroen Ami, clutching a bottle of chilled Champagne - a welcome home gift from Gary, and Roger and Laurene who had left for Paris that morning. Gary drove us back to the home I had left nearly six weeks ago. The sun was shining. The air was warm and pure, and as we sipped on the thoughtful Champagne, we reflected that, in truth, there really was no place like home.

And one final Post Script. Since arriving back, I have received an offer from a publisher for "One for Sorrow", and the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, reported that "The Firemaker" was at No. 2 in their hardback bestseller list.

So maybe it was all worth it. I certainly hope so.

Thanks to everyone who was so kind and generous to us during the tour, and a special thank you to La Patronne without whose organisation and meticulous planning it would never happened!

Home Sweet Home

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ya gotta laugh! I've travelled thousands of miles - across the Atlantic, then coast to coast, right through the midwest, way down south, into the desert, up to the Pacific north-west. I've crossed swords with John Ashcroft in DC, addressed 150 guests at private launch parties, dodged hurricanes, tornadoes and thunderstorms, visited twenty cities, done Bouchercon in Chicago, and signed more than a thousand books.

And I turn up for my final gig only to be upstaged by, of all things, a baseball match!

I should have known last night, in the restaurant in Greenwich Village, when waiters were running out to the bar next door every few minutes to catch a glimpse of "the game".

Yesterday, today and tomorrow are the final three games of the season between mortal enemies, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Today's match was critical, and being a Saturday they were playing it in the afternoon.

I should have known as we drove through the deserted streets of Boston and Cambridge to Kate's Mystery Bookshop for my four o'clock appearance, that neither the day nor the hour were auspicious.

For the first time on my tour, at my last venue, not a single soul turned up. Everyone had stayed home to watch the game. And the biggest irony? The Red Sox lost!

But I'll let you into a secret. I was really quite relieved. We had dragged ourselves out of bed at Gary and Ellen's New York apartment at six o'clock this morning. I'd had, perhaps, five hours' sleep. We drove four hours to get to Boston at the end of this long and gruelling tour, and I was - and am - frankly, exhausted. Épuisé.

So it was a relief not to have to recount my Chinese tales this one last time. And I still got to sign the books, which will still be handsold by the bookstore.

And there was a bonus. A lady who was there when I arrived, heard that I was a visiting author, spotted the kilt, and immediately bought "The Firemaker". She asked me to sign it and said, "You know, I've been happily married for twenty-three years, but I always swore that if a big Scotsman with a kilt showed up, I'd run off with him. Whatdya say?"

I told her my wife might object, and introduced her to La Patronne.

"Never mind," said the lady. She waved my book in the air. "I didn't even know about this. I work in another bookstore downtown, and I'm going to order some copies in right now."

For a moment I contemplated running off with her after all. But then I caught La Patronne's eye and thought better of it.

And baseball? Well, we used to play a street game called "Rounders" when we were kids. It's the same game. Marginally more interesting than cricket, although not much. But people here seem to love it - and to me, well, that's the real mystery!

So we headed off into the centre of old Boston to celebrate the end of the tour, only to find it full of baseball fans of both colours. Parking cost 18 dollars for two hours. Queues stood outside restaurants to eat. We finally found a table in a noisy grill house where we had pork ribs and steak tips and shouted conversations.

Tomorrow we head to Syracuse, and an overnight at the home of Le Beau Frère's son, Iain, before completing the circle by returning to Rochester for a couple of days to unwind in preparation for the journey home next Wednesday.

So, no fanfares, no marching bands, no feu d'artifice to celebrate the end of the great adventure. Just an overwhelming desire to sleep.

This is my final blog. No more tales from the World Tour of America. No more red-eye writing sessions to keep the journal up to date.

Just a big thank you to everyone who has been with me, at least in spirit, on this long and winding road. Thanks for your company and your comments. I will do one more journal at the end of next week to recount the adventures we will surely have on our return journey, La Patronne et moi.

Gilbert and Ariane phoned the other day and caught us at Ellen's apartment in New York. They plan to meet us at the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris when we arrive there to catch our train home on the final leg of the journey. Time allowing, we will eat together at the station buffet.

We look forward to once more being with our friends, to share a simple bite to eat and a glass of wine. I just hope I still remember how to speak French.

Kate's Mystery Bookstore, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Final, Lone, Signing

Saturday, October 01, 2005

As Le Beau Frère says, "If you're a pessimist, you'll never be disappointed."

Not that I was pessimistic about tonight's book event, but two days in New York had kind of ground me down. Claustrophobia. Tall buildings creating sunless canyons, with cold winds blowing through them to chill the bones.

And all that aggression and anger. It's not good for the psyche.

But the second last presentation of the tour, at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, went like a dream. Kiz, one of the partners, told me that people had been calling all week. We had a great turnout. One lady had pursued me across America, having first heard about the book at the M is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo, California. Another, Lisa Richland, has been corresponding with me for several years. She is the librarian in Greenport, a small town at the far end of Long Island. A great fan of the China series, she bought all the books for her library, and made the trip into New York to meet me for the first time. Bobby had been chasing me all around New York, buying books as she went. At Partners & Crime, she bought another half dozen, and got me to sign them all.

Another lady, Linda Peng, was on our writing course in St. Céré at the beginning of September. Ethnic Chinese, she was raised in New York, and had a special interest in the books, as she is embarking on the writing of her Chinese family history. I wish her well.

Earlier I met with my New York literary agent, Emma Sweeney of Harold Ober Associates. I gave her a couple of manuscripts, and a pitch for "One for Sorrow". She was seriously enamoured of the idea, and is taking the manuscript home to read this weekend.

We discussed whether or not St. Martin's Press might buy the rest of the China Thrillers series. She said it was entirely down to numbers. If we sold more than two-and-a-half thousand of the hardbacks, she thought that the publisher would go for the others. She was quietly confident, since I have personally signed more than a thousand during the tour.

Afterwards, La Patronne and I had lunch with my editor at St. Martin's Press, Ruth Cavin. Ruth is the most delightful lady. She is eighty-seven years old, the doyenne of American crime editors, and still going strong. She has a sharp eye, and an unerring instinct. She, too, was optimistic about the prospects of the company buying into the rest of the series.

I told her, also, about "One for Sorrow", and she was anxious to read it. She felt that a book set in France which could be described as a "thinking man (or woman)'s thriller" would go down well in the US.

I can only hope so. I am anxious to breathe fresh life into my character, Enzo Macleod, in the second book of the series.

The one black spot of the day was Le Beau Frère's brush with the law. He turned right into Madison Avenue, when a barely visible sign forbade it. Unfortunately a police officer was there to witness it, and deduct two points from his licence. Bummer!

The bright spot was the book event itself, followed by another meal with Susie, Barbara and Mike, who insisted that since we were visitors to New York we should be their guests.

Since they are coming to spend Thanksgiving in France, at least I have the opportunity to repay their kindness.

And now to bed, for we rise early tomorrow - 6am - for the journey to Boston, and a book event in Cambridge at four o'clock. It will be my last event of the tour. I can scarcely believe it.

Like the long distance runner, I have simply put my head down and kept going. But now, daring to look up, I see the finish line ahead of me and feel my legs buckle. Must keep going. One more day.

And then it's all over.

PS: Gary and Ellen, a big thanks for the apartment. It was FANTASTIC!

Signing at Partners & Crime, New York City

Talking to Linda Peng

With Kiz of Partners & Crime

Friday, September 30, 2005

Enough! I've had enough. A day and a half in New York and I'm ready to quit. I hate cities at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. I'm tired and irritable and homesick, and I don't need all this aggression. And New York is full of it. On the streets, in the parking garages, even in Starbucks.

Rudeness and belligerence seem like badges of honour to be worn with pride. Someone told me that after 9/11 New Yorkers changed. They became gentler, more considerate. Drivers stopped cutting each other up on the streets and leaning on their horns at the least provocation. Now, they said, it's just back to how it was before, only worse.

Through a day of driving around the city, narrow arteries squeezed between tall buildings, choked and turbulent, I only seem able to recall angry faces on the street, glimpsed through my passenger window - a man, his face contorted by anger, screaming at us as we stopped to avoid him on a pedestrain crossing; the man in the car behind spitting rage at our backs because the car in front has decided, unaccountably, to stop; the car parking attendant who growled at us when we went to retrieve our car ten minutes before he was due to close.

And parking is just impossible. We went in search of the Hard Rock Café on Times Square for lunch and pulled into a space in a line of cars. When we couldn't find a pay station for parking, Le Beau Frère went into a police booth to ask a couple of police officers for advice. Neither could be bothered to remove his feet from the desk. They chewed on gum, and regarded us with something close to contempt. And their advice? No parking anywhere. Find a parking garage.

Well, we looked. Downtown parking lots - about the size of the average living room - were charging eleven and twelve dollars per half hour. It would have cost us more to park than to eat. So we crossed beneath the Hudson to Hoboken in New Jersey and found a nice quiet restaurant where the waiter managed to spill my wine all over Le Beau Frère, and then didn't even offer to replace the glass.

Why does anyone want to live in a city? After all, cities are just a bunch of buildings squeezed into a small space, choked with people, noisy, dirty and polluted. It's after one in the morning as I write this, and all I can hear from the street outside are sirens. People tell me they like cities because of the theatre, and the concerts, and the museums. But who goes to plays and concerts and museums every day? You can visit the city for these things if they are so important, but still manage to live somewhere more civilised, where people smile and talk to you and say hello, where they meet your eye and nod when you enter a restaurant, where they'll stop to let you pull out from the kerb and into the traffic.

My mood today was not helped by the weather. It was windy, cold and wet - big, fat drops of rain thundering down on the roof of our SUV. Everything in America is bigger, they say. Even the raindrops, it seems.

I stopped at the Murder Ink bookstore on Broadway to see if they had any of my books to sign. They had not responded to a single e-mail from La Patronne when she was setting up the tour. They had one book. I signed it and left.

Next stop was the Mysterious Bookshop in West 56th Street. This was a scheduled drop-by signing, and they had eleven books for me to sign.

Tomorrow night I follow in the footsteps of Ruth Rendell at the Partners & Crime bookstore in Greenwich Village. We called in during the afternoon to say hello, and I was immediately recognised and warmly greeted. A friendly face and a ready smile were very welcome after a tense and trying day.

I carried that warmth with me gratefully back to the apartment, where we slept for an hour before heading out for drinks at the apartment of Susie's friends, Barbara and Mike, on York Avenue, overlooking the East River. We had a good evening, heading out to eat at Café Joul on First Avenue. Fine food and good company raised our spirits ahead of tomorrow's event. In spite of everything, I'm still looking forward to it.

My talk is part of a "British week" at the store, but because my books are set in China, they are laying on dumplings and Tsing Tao beer. I met Maggie, one of the partners, at Bouchercon - which seems like an eternity ago, now. She was an animated and flame-haired lady of great enthusiasm. I still carry that enthusiasm with me, and I think it is going to be a fine event.

The View Across to Manhattan from Hoboken

Barbara, Mike, Le Beau Frère, Shannon (Susie' daughter), Susie and La Patronne at Café Joul

Thursday, September 29, 2005

New York, New York. But that's not what we were singing as we sped up the turnpike towards the Big Apple. I plugged my iPod into the stereo system of the Mercedes and we played Beatle songs, singing along at the tops of our voices, Beau Frère et moi, while La Patronne slept in the back.

I was hoarse by the time the skyscrapers of Manhatten appeared on the skyline, the Empire State Building returned to its place of dominance after 9/11. Springfield lay somewhere behind us. A "Simpsons" sky of fluffy white clouds, scudding across a clear, sharp blue, filled the windscreen.

As we corskcrewed down to the Lincoln Tunnel, we glimpsed New York in all its glory, rising sheer from the waters of the Hudson to underpin the sky. Then we were plunged into the gloom of this long, tiled tunnel beneath the waters of the great river overhead, before rising again to emerge into the sunshine of the city itself, buildings soaring around us, like sentinels.

A cacophony of sound. Traffic, builders, angry hands jabbing honking horns, and we headed north along the west shore before turning east to find the apartment of American friends from France, Gary and Ellen, on the upper west side. Gary is still in France, where a CT scan finally managed to find his brain - a shrivelled organ around the size of a walnut - to happily confirm that the rushing sound in his ear was not being caused by a tumour. Good news, amigo.

Ellen has generously offered to move into her brother's apartment to let us sleep in her apartment for the three nights of our New York stay.

And so, here we are in New York. The weather is good. Not too hot, not too cold. A gentle, cooling breeze blows up Broadway as we make our way to an Indian restaurant for much needed sustenance. Ellen joins us, and is in good form, and it feels good to make contact again with friends from France. A breath of home, after a long absence. This is Day Thirty of my blog, and my eyes are stinging and sore.

We drink and laugh, and then retire to the apartment to sleep. Tomorrow, I have a drop-in signing at the Mysterious Bookshop on West 56th Street, and we will meet up again with Susie who has flown out from California to stay with friends for a few days and visit her daughter, Shannon, an aspiring actress here in the city.

On Friday I meet with my agent, and my publisher. I will want to know if St. Martin's will buy the rest of my China Thrillers - if my tour has been sufficiently successful. I will quiz my agent on the prospects for my new French series. So close to the end now, reality bites back. Time to face the future, to ask questions and be prepared for the answers.

Arriving in New York


Ellen and Beau Frère Share a Joke

Outside the Indian Restaurant

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wow! What a gig! This was one of the best events of the tour. A great turnout, a Chinese buffet, forty books sold. And such lovely people.

Before the food is served, La Patronne, Le Beau Frère and I move from table to table, talking to the ladies, and one gentleman, who have come along to hear me speak. They are all such enthusiasts. Most of them confess to reading as many as five books a week, and they are all anxious to know when the second of the Chinese series is to be published in the States.

I tell them it is dependent upon sales. If we sell enough copies, the publisher will buy the rest of the series. Perhaps, they say, it will be possible to import them from the UK. I explain that I would prefer that St. Martin's Press bring them out, and that buying the UK books on the internet, or wherever else, might discourage them from doing so.

Richard and Mary Alice, the proprietors of the Mystery Lovers' Bookshop here in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, run a fantastic store, and have built up a large and loyal clientele who read copious volumes of books. Their enthusiasm and know-how is impressive.

Mary Alice asks me about my French series, which begins with "One for Sorrow", and when I explain the scenario she is hugely excited by it. "You must show it to your editor," she says. "There is a huge demand now for mysteries set in exotic places. And France is one of them. I could sell these forever."

I am encouraged by just how well the idea has been received everywhere in America.

The group is receptive and responsive to my talk, and afterwards we drive off into a warm night, content with this, our third last event of the tour. If we do another tour, we will certainly come back here again.

It has been a day of clear skies and hot sun, an afternoon killed by a visit to the Waterworks cinema complex where we saw a Jodie Foster film called "Flightplan", which failed to deliver what it promised. Somehow it managed to segue seamlessly from thriller to farce, cheering us up with a hilarious ending - a denouement to die (laughing) from.

And tomorrow we have a four hundred mile drive to New York, where we are staying in the upper west side of Manhattan, in the apartment of our American friend from France, Ellen Shire, former dancer in the New York ballet, abstract painter, and complete loony. She is moving out to stay with her brother, Peter, to make room for us. We are fortunate to have such good friends.

Ah, well... Two more events.

Stagger to Saturday, and Boston, and it's all over.

Signing Books at the Mystery Lovers' Bookshop

With Proprietors Richard and Mary Alice

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bridges! Everywhere I look. Big, bad, beautiful, box girder bridges spanning this magnificent confluence of three great rivers, this extraordinary crossroads where the Allegheny and the Monongahela run into the Ohio, making Pittsburgh the biggest inland port in the United States.

We are racing against the light. We have driven through dense, blinding rain obscuring the tree-clad hills of Pennsylvania, arriving close to the small town of Oakmont, several miles north of Pittsburgh, where tomorrow I give a talk at the Mystery Lovers bookstore following a Chinese banquet.

We have eaten and siesta'd too long, and as the sky clears, night is not far away. I want to take a photograph of the city in the warm light of sunset, and John has told me there is a spectacular viewpoint, on the hilltop to the south of Pittsburgh. We fight the traffic, swinging past countless bridges before crossing the river, finally, to the triangle of land where the city is contained by the three rivers. Away to our right, on the North Shore, is PNC Park, the baseball stadium. Half a mile downriver is the football stadium, Heinz Field. Between them, a vast, shared carpark.

We cross water again. The light is gorgeous. The sky is torn black and blue, and pink-tinted by the sunset. But the sun has almost gone. We speed past the Monongahela Incline - a kind of funicular railway that climbs steeply to the viewpoint we are searching for. But we want to get there by car, and John speeds along the riverside road before cutting back and climbing sharply upwards.

The top of the hill is lined with restaurants, panoramic windows giving out on to the spectacular view. I jump out of the SUV and leap on to the viewing platform. There is just enough light to catch a picture. But an ugly, bruising cloud has swept in from the west, and that soft pink light has gone.

Nonetheless, I run off a series of shots, two of which can be seen below. And then I draw breath just to look. What a fabulous view. Pennsylvania sweeps away north and west over undulating country. Pittsburgh, once blighted by the steelworks that dominated its centre, has grown from the ashes of its foundries, to become a proud new city, known for its 720 bridges and its 29 colleges and universities.

It takes my breath away.

Three hundred and seventy thousand people live here, in this tiny corner of America once fought over by the French and the British. It was the British who won the fight, and the city grew up around the state-of-the-art Fort Pitt which they built to secure it, naming it after the then British Prime Minister, William Pitt. Originally known as Pittsborough, its name was later officially changed to Pittsburgh, and it became the centre of the coal mining industry which characterises this state, and which went on to fuel the industrial revolution and the subsequent steel industry on which the city's wealth was built.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to wonder what I am doing here - what has brought me to this place so far from home, so completely unrelated to my life. It seems strange that it should be because I am a Scotsman, living in France, who writes about China.

And here I am, standing with the warm wind in my face, looking out over this magical sunset city, unfashionable though it is, and feeling an odd sense of connection.

On Wednesday I leave for New York City, and who knows if I'll ever be back.

But I am glad I have come.


The Ohio River

Monday, September 26, 2005

If it's Sunday it must be Washington DC. Woah. Really? Yeah. Sorry, my brain hurts. Eight hours' sleep is such a rarity. But I wake up on this grey Sunday morning to the early light slanting through the oaks.

La Patronne cannot raise her head from the pillow. The house is empty. Barbara has left for church at seven-thirty. I scramble into shorts and shirt and trainers and hobble off down the road towards the nearest Starbucks, which is about four blocks away. Turn left at the traffic lights, Barbara has told me last night.

And there it is. I order a grande caramel machiatto. It slips down so creamy and smooth, and the caffeine kicks in to startle me out of my torpor. Yeah. Sunday morning. Get a grip, man. Only four more events.

I stumble back through the trees that overhang this shady street, past empty porches and shuttered windows, to meet Ms Busch as she takes her daily constitutional. Like ships that pass in the night.

Back at the house, I don the kilt and all the gear and pack the bags yet again. I scan the papers to see that Rita has failed to match the destructive power of Katrina, and think of my friends in Texas who have had such a narrow escape.

Barbara drives us to Bethesda where we meet up with La Patronne's brother, John, who has come to meet us and drive us north along the eastern seaboard. Provider of transport, security, logistics and video throughout this final east coast leg of our tour, he is indeed my beau frère.

In a restaurant called the Moon Gate, we meet up with a host of Barbara's friends and neighbours to share a Chinese meal before the event at the nearby Writer's Center. These are fine people who have turned out to support me, to share a meal and chat. Several are of Scots descent, and one of them, Mary Buchanan, grew up in Anniesland, Glasgow, barely a stone's throw away from where my mother was raised.

In the restaurant I meet a lady and her father who, on seeing my kilt, announce that they are of the MacNeils of Barra. A bizarre coincidence, since La Patronne and brother John are direct descendents of the MacNeils of Barra. I flew there once in an aeroplane which landed on a beach of compacted shell, the flight schedule determined by the tides. It is interesting that everywhere I go in this vast land, I meet people of Scots descent.

I remember a moment, when filling Susie's car at a gas station in the middle of the Californian hinterland, a truck driver called to me, "What's your clan?"

"Macdonald," I replied.

He jabbed a finger at his chest. "Campbell," he said.

Mortal enemies in Scottish history

He grinned, winked, and made a pistol with his finger and thumb, before jumping into his cab and heading off into the dust.

At the Writer's Center I am greeted by Sunil, the centre's deputy director, and am introduced to Vladimir Levchev, a Bulgarian poet with whom I am to share the stage. He is a gentle man, timid and intimidated by the thought of reading his poetry to an audience of Americans. We shake hands and I sense his warmth.

A friend and emissary of one of our former writing course students from France, Stephanie Siciarz, turns up to tell us that Stephanie is working, but still hopes to make it. Another former student, Sara Criscitelli, grins at us and gives us big warm hugs. Dick and Barbara Muller, the parents of a friend from California, appear with smiles and kisses and handshakes to welcome us to Washington. With so many friends around us it feels like coming home.

Vladimir reads from his latest book of poetry, "The Rainbow Mason", nervous and hesitant. As a mark of respect to me, he reads a poem written while visiting a fellow poet in Dundee, Scotland, seventeen years before. I feel for him, as he faces his own personal demons and gives defiant voice to his poetry.

It is easy for me. English is my native language. I am well practised in this. I talk for half-an-hour and read from "The Firemaker", and then we all partake of cheese and wine and biscuits, and I sign books and talk to those people who have come to hear me.

An attractive lady with dark hair approaches and introduces herself as Alba, a friend of my French-American friend, Gary Osius. She was an early girlfriend. He has asked her to come along and meet me. "Do you know what Alba means?' she asks.

"Sure," I say. "It's Gaelic for Scotland."

She is surprised. It was only during a visit to Scotland itself that she discovered the origin of her name. Echoing my speech, where I talk about the bizarre frequency with which things I have written about come to pass, she says she is going on a trip to China in just three weeks' time. Her name means "Scotland", and she is only here because Gary has written to her telling her about my visit. A conspiracy of fate. She buys two books, which I am delighted to sign.

And then Stephanie appears, sorry to have missed my talk, but delighted to have caught us before we go. She is coming to France next month, when I am mentoring the writing of her second novel, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.

This has been a good event. Books sold, friends made, friends reunited. Validimir buys my book, and I buy his. And afterwards, La Patronne et moi pile our luggage in beau frère John's Mercedes, and we head north towards Hagerstown, Maryland, where we will spend the night, eating at a Bavarian restaurant, and drinking ginger brandy, before falling into final slumber and preparing ourselves for the last onslaught. Pittsburgh to come. Then New York and Boston.

The finish tape in sight and my legs are starting to buckle.

With Vladimir Levchev

With Sunil and co-worker Santa at the Writer's Center

Sunday, September 25, 2005

We're hopping the continent again. This time all the way from west to east in one giant leap, and losing three hours of our life in the process.

Two alarms set for 5.30am sound in our heads like pneumatic drills. And there, outside our bedroom door, little Danielle awaits with a smile on her face that would put the Cheshire cat to shame.

She is waving a ten dollar bill. "Look what the tooth fairy brought," she says, eyes wide with wonder and excitement. "And it's real!"

I check to see that the ink is, indeed, dry and declare that it is no forgery. Steve double-checks by holding it up to the light. "There," he stabs at it with his finger. "You see? A thin strip of thicker bill woven through it from top to bottom that reads TenTenTenTenTen.... That makes it genuine."

And he tells us the story of an autopsy he performed once on a well-decayed body. When he was going through the remains of the clothes he found lots of little TwentyTwentyTwenty strips in one of the pockets. The rest of the twenty dollar bills had disintegrated. But the identifying strips had remained intact. Steve has an autopsy story for every occasion. And they are always fascinating.

Danielle snatches the ten dollar bill back, in case it disintegrates in her father's hands, and she still can't keep the smile from her face. "The tooth fairy must have thought it was two teeth," she says, "and left me five dollars for each."

I tell her not to spend it all in the one shop, and she and her dad, and La Patronne et moi pile into Trenda's Honda with all our bags, and head off through the dawn to the airport.

The sky is a dimpled copper as we drop down from the hills to the sea, and the airport which is right adjacent to the downtown area of San Diego. Thousands of private yachts bob on a gentle swell, and somewhere beyond the masts of taller boats, we see the conning tower of a Soviet submarine purchased for exhibit by some wealthy local.

Hugs and kisses and thanks and fond farewells, and La Patronne leads me off to the quick and easy e-ticket check-in which is neither quick nor easy. But when, eventually, we pass United Airlines' intelligence test - which even Miss 167 has trouble with (that's La Patronne, for those who are interested in her IQ) - we head off for my usual strip search at security.

I'm beginning to worry that I might start enjoying being patted down by strange men. If only they would let the women do me. I am wearing a skirt, after all! But I hesitate to suggest it in case they decide I am being flippant, and subject me to a rectal examination by way of revenge.

At least I can console myself with the thought that there is only one more flight after this one - and that's the one that will take me home.

A bumpy flight arrives half-an-hour early in a dull, cool Washington DC. We have just missed a hot and sticky spell of weather. We are met by Barbara Busch (note the spelling, which separates her from the dynasty which currently occupies the White House, but puts her firmly with the family which makes the famous beer). Barbara is a lovely lady whom we met in France when she was visiting her friends Charles and Marilyn, with whom I stayed in Denver.

At the luggage carousel I somehow manage to insinuate myself in front of a man waiting at the point where the conveyer belt spews out the bags. He humphs and grumphs and pushes past me to grab his cases. He is not pleased. Barbara nudges me. "Do you know who that was?" she asks.

I have no idea.

She nods her head towards the retreating figure. "It's John Ashcroft," she says. "The former Attorney General." I glance over my shoulder and realise she is right. "You pushed in right in front of him," she says.

It is a thought that pleases me. Had I known it was him, I might have endeavoured to stand on his foot as well. All that fills my head is a recollection of a dreadful video I saw once of Ashcroft singing the most appalling song, which he had written himself, during a speech somewhere.

The man next to me at the carousel says, "First time I ever stood so close to someone so evil." I hope he's not talking about me.

We leave Ashcroft remonstrating with an airline official as he attempts to find someone to carry his bags, and we head off to the car park and then the freeway into DC.

Barbara lives in a charming little house on Chesapeake Street, not far from Connecticut Avenue, which leads right into downtown DC. This is a beautiful area of old houses set amongst tall, mature trees. Cane furniture sits out on covered verandas behind white picket fences. Red brick and clapboard siding. Houses that are a hundred years old. What a contrast with California, the home of the teardown, where a house is considered to be without value unless it has just been built.

This is like Europe, or perhaps it's more English than European. It feels more settled, at ease with itself, and rooted in the past. We feel right at home, and Barbara takes us out to a Greek restaurant on Connecticut Avenue where we gorge ourselves on the dishes of an ancient civilization, before returning for a whisky nightcap and a collapse into bed.

Tomorrow I speak at the Writer's Center, then head off on the long trip north along the eastern seaboard.

Just over a week to go!

Barbara with La Patronne

Barbara's House in DC
San Diego, Friday.

Fatigue is catching up on us. We were so tired last night, but still awoke just after seven - in time for me to ride up the valley with Steve to take his daughter, Danielle, to school. She is seven-and-a-half, and tells me earnestly that she has lost six teeth since I last saw her. She shows me the gaps, and the latest tooth to come out. It has split in two, and is going under the pillow tonight for the tooth fairy.

Usually it is a dollar for a tooth, but somehow I get the feeling that the tooth fairy might just be fooled into leaving a little more, believing that there are two gnashers in the little tooth-shaped wooden box that will rest beneath the pillow.

Steve doesn't have high speed internet, so I have to go to a Starbucks to connect and upload yesterday's blog. But for some reason, I can't get the pics to upload, so I'll have to wait till I get to Washington.

The sky is a pale, burned out blue, and temperatures soar to a dry twenty-eight degrees, as we drive down into the valley and find a table at Casa de Pico. Competition for tables is fierce here at this upscale Mexican restaurant, and we are lucky to get a table within a few minutes.

La Patronne and I order medium Margaritas over ice, with salt rims, and our eyes stand out on stalks when these veritable soup bowls of vivid yellow alcohol arrive, crusted with salt, ice glistening in the sun.

Everything is so colourful and vibrant here. A man is beating out a tattoo on a marimba. The food is fine, and baby Jacob stays good tempered in a high chair while we fill our faces with chimichanga and taco loco and slurp down copious quanitities of our Margaritas. The combination of food and alcohol is making our eyeslids grow heavy, and we head back to the Campman home up in the hills to take a long and much-needed siesta which lasts for nearly three hours.

On TV we watch the approach of Hurricane Rita towards the Gulf coast of Texas, before leaving for the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard where we are met by proprietor Elizabeth, and a small group of interested readers.

Steve and I do a double-act discussion of "The Firemaker" and forensic pathology, and autopsies of burned bodies, and I sign more than forty books, some of which are pre-sold. The others, from stock, will be hand-sold by the store.

It is our last night in California. Steve makes us dinner and puts good red wine on the table, and we have an early night.

Early tomorrow we head for the airport and our flight to Washington DC.

And we will embark on the final leg of the tour.

Slurping a Margarita

Steve and Trenda

At the Mysterious Galaxy

Friday, September 23, 2005

I can't believe it!

One of my favourite places on earth is this house in Dolphin Terrace, looking out over Balboa Island, and the long, narrow peninsula of Newport Beach beyond it. It is a view usually characterised by the blue, blue Pacific coruscating away towards the smudged outline of Catalina Island on the distant horizon.

We are here for one day only, and a thick, cold mist has rolled in off the ocean and obscured the tall palms that sway gently in the sea breezes. I can see only the nearest beachfront houses, and the hazy masts of yachts tipping one way then the other on the gentle swell.

In spite of the weather, I walk across the bridge to the island, and the sun is still warm through the mist. I seek out Martha's Bookstore, which is supplying the books for tonight's private launch party at the home of Susie's neighbours, Linda and Rob Bailey. They have a huge living area, with floor to ceiling windows giving out on to the view. More than sixty guests are expected.

Kathy, at the bookstore, greets me warmly. She has my book displayed prominently in the store, leaflets about "The Firemaker" littering the counter. And she tells me that the publisher has run out of books, and that the distributor has had to order more copies. It is great news, and could mean a reprint only three weeks after publication.

After today, I have another six bookstores to visit - one remaining on the West Coast, with the others spread out along the East Coast from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts. The momentum of the tour is carrying me along. If I can keep my energy levels high, then this will have been a huge success.

My only concern is that I seem to be leaving a trail of destruction in my wake. My beau frère, John, called today on the cell to point out that Minneapolis and St. Paul had just been ravaged by a freak tornado, and that Houston and Huntsville in Texas were bracing themselves for an assault by Hurricate Rita. Freak thunderstorms this week struck San Mateo and Los Angeles. All places we have been.

That doesn't mean that bookstores in the cities we have yet to visit should cancel just yet. All the same, La Patronne et moi might just buy an umbrella and a couple of pairs of wellies.

I lie down for a couple of hours in the afternoon and sleep before the launch party, emerging bleary-eyed and puffy faced - looking my best for the guests. It is a great success. I meet dozens of new people. Everyone is warm and welcoming, and I tell my stories to a captive audience (Rob and Linda locked the doors so they couldn't get out!).

Something new for me, though. My pathology adviser, Steve Campman, and his wife, Trenda, are at the party. They have come up from San Diego, where Steve is a medical examiner. I have a story I always tell, about how Steve saved the life of a lady in the square in St. Céré when he visited us in France - a bizarre story, because the incident almost exactly replicated a scene I had written in "The Firemaker". Steve had advised me what action Margaret, my pathologist character, should take following a street accident. It is the first time I have told the story in Steve's presence - and it brings the memory vividly back to him.

A great many books are sold and signed, and finally I get to drink some fine wine and some good whisky before hurriedly packing to depart in the dark for San Diego with Steve and Trenda. There are tears and kisses, and farewells to Linda and Rob and Susie and Newport Beach, and we drive off into the night, exhausted, for the hour-and-a-half ride south. In San Diego we stop for burritos - whatever they are. I was too tired to register, with only just enough energy left to eat, swallow a bottle of water and collapse, with La Patronne, into a deep slumber Chez Campman.

Tomorrow, Steve and I will do our double act at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego. I can't wait.

Balboa in the Mist

La Patronne braves the Fog

Susie Surveys the Food

Fabulous Hosts, Rob and Linda

Me Boring Everyone to Tears

Thursday, September 22, 2005


So now, serious disorientation is setting in. We're up at 6.30am, making coffee and doing last minute packing, before heading south to Los Angeles and Newport Beach.

With the sun squinting in through the driver's window, we get on to Interstate 5, and head out across what they call the Californian breadbasket. The Sierra Nevada mountains, away to our left, are obscured by haze and mist, and we pound the miles across the endless acres of dry agricultural valley, where crops have already been harvested and stubbled fields lie fallow, burned yellow and brown.

The sun rises and beats hot and relentless through the windshield, and still this endless parched, plain stretches away as far as the eye can see.

We stop at a Starbucks and take on board some caffeine to keep us awake. Susie is driving, determined and focused, and declines my offer to take over for a while at the wheel. And we press on, through shimmering orchards, where pickers gather in clusters, and chemical toilets lurk behind temporary white plastic. How fastidious.

The orchards give way to vast tracts of cotton, and a bright yellow crop duster swoops and dives across the interstate to release its toxins on unsuspecting parasites.

It is hot, and getting hotter.

We stop and feed our faces with disgusting Subway sandwiches. The hispanic server tells us that we cannot have avocado. Susie, incredulous, tells him it is grown here - right on his doorstep. "Too expensive," he says. "No-one will pay for it."

La Patronne heads for the toilets to be told, "Esta occupado" (or words to that effect), by a lady who hasn't figured out that pink-faced, blue-eyed blonde people might not speak Spanish.

We head up into the mountains, then, which rise sheer, and unexpected, out of the plains. And wind our way down through "The Grapevine", to the Los Angeles basis which spreads out below us. Buildings multiply before our eyes. Traffic, like cholesterol, thickens in the arterial freeways. I thank God I am not driving.

We follow instructions downloaded from the internet, and find ourselves in the heart of Hollywood. In the boulevard, past the sidewalk of the stars, and all the famous landmarks we have seen in movies and read about in magazines. Up the hill, then, to the offices of my LA movie agent, Jon Karas, where La Patronne and Susie leave me to engage in an hour-long discussion about the movie prospects of the China Thrillers, and Jon's huge enthusiasm for my latest manuscript, "One for Sorrow" - the first of a series of seven mysteries set in France. He is hugely excited by it and convinced it is a winner.

His enthusiasm is infectious and fills me with optimism. We have spoken only on the telephone before today, and communicated mostly by e-mail. It is our first face-to-face.

Then La Patronne and Susie reappear to whisk me off to the Beverly Hills home of our French neighbours, John and Bettie Jensen, who have prepared a salmon salad to keep us going until after this evening's book event.

It is at the "The Mystery Bookstore" in Westwood, just a short drive away. But to reach it we have to brave the traffic and the crowds assembled there for the premiere of a movie I have never heard of, starring actors who haven't even registered in my peripheral vision. There is a chance that even I am more famous than they are.

Quand meme! Nobody turns up at the bookstore. Except for the Jensens, and Jonnie Neville, another old friend from France. But I am happy, for once, not to have to deliver the performance which has carried me through the tour thus far. The store is run by Bobby and Linda who tell me it is not uncommon for writers to land there in a vacuum. Parking and premieres cause frequent problems.

But they have selected me for their "Discovery" bookclub, and there are dozens of pre-ordered copies of "The Firemaker" to sign. And, again, then some. We, all of us, sit around a table and talk about my latest manuscript - "One for Sorrow" - and the interest is intense. I have a good feeling about this book.

And then, we discover, Linda's grandparents came from Dundee, in Scotland. I knew there was empathy there. And Bobby is of Irish extraction. All Celts together. And so a good night is had by all.

Until we pour out into the Hollywood night to be told by a heavy in a suit that we can't cross the road at the lights because they're loading up gear from the premiere. We want to get to Starbucks, which is on the other side of the street. But he is insistent. I want to ask him if he has the authority to stop me crossing the road, and if so to show me it. But La Patronne drags me away and we cross the road a block further down.

When we come back up the street another heavy blocks our way into Starbucks. He gives us the same explanation as his clone across the street. This time, I'm in no mood to argue. "I'm going into Starbucks" I tell him, and push past. He is about to argue, but Susie gives him one of her "Dontfuckwithme" looks and he says, "Oh, you're going into Starbucks. That's okay, then. Sorry folks." But of course, Susie was the one wearing the trousers. I only had my skirt on, as usual!

And, then, through the night, south again to Newport Beach, to pizza and wine, and bed. And thoughts of yet another launch party tomorrow. And from the harbour below, as I write my blog, I hear the calling of the seals, loud and insistent, and telling me it's way past my bedtime.

The "Register" signed by visiting authors at "The Mystery Bookstore"

Signing the "Register" with Bettie Jensen looking on

With Bobby and Linda
Okay, so where the hell am I? I'm really starting to get confused. Way behind here. No time to blog till now.

So, if it was Tuesday, it must have been San Mateo. Oh, yeh, it's all coming back to me now.

It's Susie's birthday. Sister Kathy comes round with a great present from her and husband, John. It's a sound station for the iPod. And it sounds great.

But I can't tell you what birthday it is, because Susie is three months older than me, and so you'd know my age, too. And that's almost as closely a guarded secret as Gilbert's.

Eric, Susie's business partner, appears. He has offered to drive us the hour-and-a-half to San Mateo, which is in the Bay Area, just south of San Francisco. I have a book event there that night. But first we go to lunch at a Chinese restaurant that seems to have changed hands since the last time anyone ate there. Not a Chinese person in sight. No rice bowls. These people have no idea how to eat Chinese. La Patronne gets yellow dye from the Lemon Chicken on her fingers, and they are still glowing in the dark. Woah! Nuclear MSG! Shakin' man!

So then we head over to Capital Public Radio, Sacramento, where I am doing a live interview with a guy called Jeffrey Callison. And it turns out he is Scottish - a former actor, now hosting a five-days-a-week afternoon show. He is devoting two-thirds of his hour to me.

He gets me to read from the book, and then we chat about China, and about Scotland, and about "Take The High Road" and Mrs. Mack, and weird Scottish cultural things that I'm sure probably mean nothing to a Sacramento audience. But we have a good time, and it's a great plug for the book. And afterwards everyone tells me I have a great radio voice. I'm sure it's just my sinusitis.

Then into the car and we head south across the great north California dustbowl, clouds gathering over the Coastal Range, Susie writing software in the passenger seat, me sleeping in the back while La Patronne listen's to Eric's guide to State history and topography - as well as his kids' schools. He is lovely man, but very demonstrative, and compelled to point out landmarks left and right. From time to time I wake up and wonder why he doesn't have his hands on the steering wheel.

The sky gets heavy as we climb through the hills, and the Bay Area spreads out before us, coastal fog rolling in from the Pacific and spitting rain at us. Flat, leaden water stretches away to our right, a great sprawl of connurbation clustered arounds its edges. Bridges span off into the haze.

We turn on to the San Mateo bridge and see a squall tracking across the bay towards us. Mist rolls down the hills on the perimeter like smoke. In the distance we see San Francisco crowded around the tip of the southern peninsula, the Golden Gate Bridge disappearing into the gloom.

San Mateo is all wet and shiny, like it's just been painted. A charming little community. We find the "M is for Mystery" bookstore, but we're early and so kill time in an Irish bar drinking Californian Chardonay. How cosmopolitan can you get?

The store's owner, Ed Kaufman, is the nicest man you could hope to meet. It is our second meeting. The first was at Bouchercon - and I can't even remember now how long ago that was. He greets me and introduces me to the small band of fans who turn up to hear me speak. They are a lively group and we have a good session. After it, Ed tells me he has pre-sold fifty books, which he gets me to sign. And then some. He expects to sell a lot more. He really knows his business.

Afterwards, we tip out into the night and eat Shabu-Shabu at Shabuway (very similar to Mongolian Hotpot), a Japanese restaurant, and are the only non-Japanese in the place, before beginning the long, weary trek back to Sacramento.

It is almost midnight when we get to bed, but not before making sure that Susie doesn't lock herself out in the courtyard. It is, after all, still her birthday. Just.

No pics, I'm afraid. Forgot to take my camera!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

This is seriously flat country. Fields of experimental genetically modified crops shimmer off into the distance. It is one of the ironies of coming to this small northern Californian university town of Davis. UC Davis owns most of the land around, and conducts experiments in Frankenstein foods. Which is yet another irony, since with a student population of 28,000 - more than a third of the total number of residents - the town of Davis has a reputation for being seriously "liberal", as the Americans like to describe what we in Europe would call the "left".

The People's Republic of Davis, I have heard this town called. And, oddly enough, I feel right at home - except for the experimental crops.

Sharon Williams, who raised her family here, takes us on a tour of the town. We pass the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Performing Arts Center, and she proudly tells us that the Green Room in the centre is named after her husband, Hibbard, who right now is home preparing dinner for us. "It's not that he's remotely musical," she says. "But he does know about wine."

Why wine? Well, because Robert Mondavi is like the godfather of Californian wine producers, and Hibbard has something of a reputation around here for his knowledge of wine. He even makes his own - bringing grapes back from the "crush" (in France we would call in the "vendange"), and making a few gallons of it each year in his garage.

As we head back to the house after a successful book event at the Avid Reader, owned and run by the curiously named Alzada Knickerbocker, the sun is setting across the agricultural plains, turning the Coastal Range of hills in the west a deep purple. Somewhere beyond them lies the Pacific Ocean.

And Hibbard awaits with his home-made crusty pizza, and baked prawns in herb butter. And I remember just how much I owe this man. Former Dean of the UC Davis Medical School, it was he who connected me with Dr. Steve Campman, who has advised me on the forensics and pathology for all six books in the China series.

We toast his health and generosity with Ambullneo wines from Susie's Californian vineyard, and feast marvellously under star-spangled skies, before heading back to Sacramento, tired and gently tipsy.

La Patronne and I stagger off to bed and leave Susie and Steve sharing a nightcap downstairs. It is then that Susie somehow manages to segue into a Doris Day farce.

It is midnight and Steve must leave on the long drive home to Reno. Susie sees him to his car. When she returns to the inner courtyard of her house, she forgets that the high gate is faulty and once shut cannot be re-opened from the inside. She has forgotten, too, that all the doors into the house from the courtyard are locked. She is trapped there in the dark, stumbling about, and narrowly missing a tumble into the pool.

She hammers desperately on the door, screaming into the night for La Patronne et moi to waken from our slumbers and let her in. But fatigue has dragged us under, too deeply to hear her calls of distress, and we slumber on, impervious to her predicament.

Finally, in desperation, she throws plastic seats from the garden over the high brick wall which bounds the courtyard, scrambles up it and drops down on them to break her fall. Success! No broken limbs. Now she can punch in the code which opens the garage door, and get back into the house that way.

As she pads, exhausted, upstairs to bed, she hears us snoring behind our firmly closed bedroom door and curses us roundly.

Quelle aventure!

With Betty Wilson at the Avid Reader

With Daniel from China at the Launch Party

Susie and her sister, Kathy (left)

La Patronne et moi wiith Hibbard and Sharon

Susie at the "Scene of the Crime"