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"

Monday, September 19, 2005

Wow! What a venue! Susie lives in this gated community on the edge of Sacramento. It is like parkland with houses - great spreading trees crowding together over manicured lawns and shaded streets. The community has a communal clubhouse, with swimming pool and tennis courts. It is available, free, to residents. This is where we had the launch party.

Susie's nieces and nephews manned the gates and the streets to make sure everyone found their way. Kathy, Susie's sister, dressed the clubhouse, made spectacular flower arrangements, and laid out a magnificent buffet. Nearly seventy people showed up, and I spent an hour and a half meeting and talking to all kinds of folk - a girl who lived for four years at The Friendship Hotel in Beijing, where my character Margaret Campbell first stays when she arrives in the city; the Pattys and the Paynes - old friends of my French neighbours, the Jensens; Kosta Arger and his wife Julie, who are wine producers from Reno; old friends Cheri and Craig, Hibbard and Sharon, Bobbe and Michael, and many, many others.

John and Bettie Jensen's daughter, Susan, showed up with her husband Henry. They had driven all the way from Oakland, near San Francisco, only to arrive after the nieces and nephews had abandoned their posts to join the party, and were unable to get through the gate. After waving like lunatics at various residents on the other side of the gate, one of them finally took pity and let them in, offering vague directions towards the clubhouse.

The good news is that they finally made it, and it was a joy to see them again.

I did my usual stand-up comic act, and told all my China stories, and read a bit from the book. They were a lovely, receptive audience. It makes it so much easier when people are sympathetic from the outset.

Alzada from the Avid Reader mystery bookstore in Davis did more than a thousand dollar's worth of business. Upwards of forty books were sold and signed. And afterwards we drove, exhausted, through the dark streets of this State Capital with Susie and her friend Steve to the Esquire Grille restaurant downtown, where we met up with Kosta and Julie and (Dr) Hibbard (Williams) and Sharon.

Kosta was disappointed that the restaurant didn't stock any wine from his Arger-Martucci vineyards, so he went out to the car and brought in a couple of bottles of his cabernet and syrah - 2003 vintages not due to be released until next year. So we had a privileged pre-tasting, and I have to say, this was very good wine - velvety, vanilla oak.

We ate fried calamari, and spicy blackened red snapper and sipped on Kosta's nectar and wound down in delightful company after a long, weary day. At the end of the meal Kosta and Julie were heading back down to Reno - a two-hour drive. And when the check arrived, the other three couples insisted that they were paying for La Patronne et moi - a pre-arranged deal that they refused to let us in on. And so we felt warm and happy to be among such good and generous people.

As we left the restaurant, a stiffening breeze tugged at my kilt, and a little knot of women standing outside the door couldn't take their eyes off my legs. Maybe they were hoping to catch a glimpse what I was wearing underneath the skirt.

But after such fine wine and excellent company, who the hell cared!

The Clubhouse

The Pool

Alzada from the Avid Reader

With the Kahns

Hibbard and Kosta

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Phew! That rare and precious commodity - a day off. Slept till after eight and rose to realise that this was day nineteen. The halfway mark. Another nineteen to go, and then home.

It was odd. I listened to some Francis Cabrel and felt the odd, bittersweet pain of homesickness. I've been too busy so far on this trip to even think about it. That's the trouble with taking a pause - too much time to think.

So I just let the day wash over me. La Patronne and I went with Susie to pick up wine from a fabulous winestore where the owner, David Berkley, a lovely man with a ready smile and a prickly white beard, discussed each and every bottle. And there were nearly thirty of them. Boy, does he know his stuff!

I picked out a bottle of whisky from the smallest distillery in Scotland, which is sited in the beautiful Perthshire village of Pitlochry. I'd never heard of this whisky - Edradour - but it is aged ten years and finished in sauternes casks. Very sweet. But also very strong - 56.8 percent. Wow!!

A lazy afternoon was rounded off by a party in the evening. A bunch of Susie's friends, and her mom and sister Kathy, came around, and we drank lethal Margaritas and munched on pulled pork in tortilla wraps, with salsa and guacomole. And wine. And more wine. And whisky.

And then bed, and none too soon.

Sunday is the launch party. There are more than sixty people coming, and the bookstore from Davis is bringing the books to sell. Susie and Kathy have done a brilliant job of setting this up.

So now it's up to me to shine. Time to kick myself back out of pause mode, and gird my loins for the next nineteen days.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Great cheers resound around the shed, crowds pressing in around men in orange plastic aprons, as they throw giant fish across the crushed ice. This is the traditional throwing of the fish at the Pike Street Fish Market in Seattle.

We are back again today to buy some cajun smoked salmon to take to Sacramento. Our impression that this city on the extremities of the Pacific north-west is like our home town of Glasgow is increased by the rain which has been falling overnight. The sky is heavy and grey, and spitting its threat of further rain into the gloomy morning.

We walk back down the hill to the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Cherry Street, two minutes' walk from our hotel in Pioneer Square. The staff there are great - friendly and welcoming. This is not so much an event as a drop-by signing. Some people come in and buy books and I pose for some photographs, and sit at a table groaning with "Firemakers" to sign them.

Then off to the airport. A collector bus picks us up at the hotel and drops us off on a street corner to wait for the shuttle. There is an older couple waiting there. She is agitated because she has to make a bus connection at the airport at 3pm and it is already after two, and the bus is late.

We get talking - about where we've been and where we're going. The couple are amazed when we tell them. Why are we ping-ponging around the country like this? I explain about the book tour and the man becomes interested. He is a great reader, he says. He loves mysteries. I tell him that "The Firemaker" is a mystery, and La Patronne gives him one of our trifold leaflets. "I'm going to buy this book," says the man. "I really love mysteries." The woman with him - his girlfriend, it turns out - sees my picture on the leaflet and her eyes open wide. "That's you!" she says to me stabbing the photograph with an excited finger.

I agree that it does look like me.

The man introduces himself. "Howard Noah," he says. 'I'm heading for San Diego." But his accent sounds east coast. I tell him we'll be in San Diego in just over a week. Maybe he'd like to come to the book event at "The Mysterious Galaxy" bookstore there. But he says he is leaving on the 24th to go home, and asks if we've ever been to Boston. I tell him our last event of the tour is there. He gets excited. "I come from Boston," he says. "Whereabouts are you going?' Cambridge, I tell him. His eyes open wide. "I live in Cambridge!" He is really excited now. He knows Kate's Mystery Books, which is where I will be speaking. "I'm gonna be there," he says and shakes my hand.

It's a small world. Even in a country as vast as the US.

We get, finally, to the airport, to be greeted by even greater chaos than usual. We are flying Air Alaska, who are just turning over their entire operation to e-tickets. Unfortunately we have paper tickets and have to queue up for over an hour to get boarding passes (they are training staff and are unbelievably slow) - and even then we have to drag our cases off to another queue to check them in. Everyone in line is getting severely agitated.

Worst of all is a girl with a huge pet carrier on a trolley, a dog lying sedated inside it. She has arrived in good time for her flight, but having to wait so long to check in they now tell her that she is too late to board the plane. She is in tears. Everyone in line wants to smack these Air Alaska people in the face. They are rude and unsympathetic. I don't know if the girl ever got her flight. She was still at the desk when we left.

But I do know we will never fly Air Alaska again.

We take off into the dying day. A line of deep red traces the western horizon. A full moon rises in the east, casting its silver light over an ocean of cloud above which rises the peak of a snow-covered mountain - an island in the clouds. It is magical.

Even more magical, is Susie's smile as she greets us at baggage claim in Sacramento. We fall into her arms and feel like we have come home.

I am eighteen days into this thirty-eight day trip. But really only the first third of it is over. Now comes California, with multiple stops down the coast, And then the final third - the drive up the eastern seaboard from Washington DC.

I am so tired, and after several glasses of wine, La Patronne and I sleep like we haven't done in days.

The next phase begins.

A fish thrower in Seattle

With staff at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Friday, September 16, 2005

Now I'm starting to get really pissed off! Not with the tour. Not with the lovely people we've met over the last couple of weeks. Not with this country of extraordinary contrasts. I'm talking about the TSA. That's the Transport Security Administration.

Now you might say that it's not their fault. That the person to blame is really Osama Bin Laden. And I wouldn't disagree with that. But it's the way we respond to him that I object to. Not only do we hand him victory on a plate by turning our society upside down, and denying ourselves the freedoms we have fought for centuries to secure, but we give free reign to thugs and morons to go through our personal belongings, with impunity and complete disregard for their well-being.

In Phoenix we were - yet again - subjected to humiliating body searches - stripped almost to our underwear, prodded with electronic wands, luggage searched in minute detail. Our tickets were marked for special attention, because they were one-way.

Now, I've got to ask - do we really fit the profile of the suicide bomber?

I don't think so (I hear Ellen's voice).

None of the 9/11 bombers were pink, fair-haired, blue-eyed Scots. So why are we so scared of racial and religious profiling? This is political correctness gone mad. I see little old ladies being stripped down almost to their underwear. Security staff are stretched to breaking point. They can't cope with the numbers.

But they're looking at the wrong people!

A little non-politically correct profiling would save them a lot of time and effort, and focus limited resources on those most likely to be a danger.

So now we're standing at the carousel at Seattle Airport. I retrieve my suitcase, but there is no sign of La Patronne's case. Eventually the carousel comes to a halt. Still no case. We go to the office of America West - the airline that brought us from Phoenix. "Is that not your case?" the lady says, pulling a taped and battered bag from the conveyor.

La Patronne gasps. It is. The lock - easily openable by someone with an IQ of less than 20 - has been ripped off, taking the zip with it. The case has been torn open, roughly searched, and then secured with bindings of sticky tape. It is completely ruined and unusable. Inside is a note from the Transportation Security Administration, notifying us that they have inspected the bag, and accept no responsibility for the vandalism they have committed in so doing. In other words, "Fuck you"! It's not our fault, it's the terrorists.

I don't think so. Again.

The only terrorists we've brushed up against are the TSA. They might claim that they are not liable, but I think the courts might decide otherwise - were it ever to go there. Of course, it never will. The poor airline has to face the wrath of the passengers who have been violated - and violation is what it is. Terrorists might behave like morons. That is no reason for us to ape them.

Fortunately the lady in the office at America West - an Australian - was hugely sympathetic. "You can't possibly travel with your bag in that state," she said. "Wait here."

She returned moments later with another suitcase. Bigger. Better. "Here," she said. "You'd better have this."

We nearly kissed her. May karma return to her in buckets. La Patronne transferred her stuff, and we still managed to catch the shuttle into the city.

Tired, stressed, and nearing the end of our shortening tether, we ride into Seattle, gazing out across the acres of docks, and the ferries plying their business back and forth across the water. We pass two stadia, side by side, and drift into downtown, tall buildings soaring around us.

This city is built on hills that drop steeply to the water's edge, and it reminds us of Glasgow. The sky is overcast, a hint of rain in the air, and we feel very much at home.

Luggage safely ensconced in our hotel, we head off to the fish market to feast our eyes on the shoals of fresh fish piled on ice, and our empty and aching stomachs on wonderful seafood chowder, before finding an Irish pub and pouring much needed alcohol into our faces.

And after a brief siesta (a hangover from the tropical south), we eat in Seattle's finest seafood restaurant - grilled wild Pacific salmon and cod and crab and shrimp cake - all washed down with a fine Rioja, before collapsing exhausted from travel and turmoil into big soft beds to await the adventures of tomorrow.

California - and a reunion with Susie.

Fish Market, Seattle

Thursday, September 15, 2005

It's almost eerie. There's not another soul in sight. Cars breeze past us on six lane highways, a slight breeze ruffles the fronds of tall palms in the baking desert heat, cacti bristle and prick the fibrillating air with their needle points. Beyond the urban spread of single-storey buildings, rust red mountains rise into the clearest of blue skies, nearly painful in their crystal clarity. This is Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the US. And I still can't see anyone walking.

Nobody walks here. It is too hot. You ride around in your air-conditioned car, and hurry from parking shade to air-conditioned buildings.

We have just arrived from the humid heat of Houston, where mist hung in haloes in the lamplight of our early morning ride to the airport. We take a taxi to our hotel and ask the receptionist for directions to the nearest restaurant. It's not far, but we're on foot. "Y'all take care," she said, "and find a safe place to cross the road."

We wondered what she was talking about until we tried to find just such a place. This is not a city made for pedestrians. We dodged the traffic and scurried across to a restaurant called "US Egg". No beer, no wine, just egg with everything. And everyone, we noticed, was pasty white. No golden tans or deep burnished skin. Just pale, pasty people. For a moment we thought we were back in Scotland. And then we realised - it's the same reason nobody walks. It's too hot. You just don't step out in the sun.

I love the heat, the clear air, the fact that hardly any buildings rise above the first floor. I love the backdrop of the mountains. I could take any amount of this. But then we meet Evelyn Jenkins. She comes from out east but has lived here for years. And when I ask her how she likes it she tells me, "Some mornings I wake up and look out the window and my heart sinks. And I think, 'Not another sunny day!'"

Evelyn is an author escort. She picks up visiting writers at the airport, gets them to their hotel and their book event, and sets up media interviews. She is taking us to Metro Source Media, where I am doing a half-hour radio interview with Bill Richardson, which will be syndicated across America. Bill is a lovely guy who puts me totally at my ease, and we breeze through the radio interview like old friends chatting, and Evelyn drives us back to our hotel.

She is an interesting lady, whose business is booming - in August she was handling more than an author a week. We pose for photographs, and then La Patronne and I take a little siesta - we're in that kind of country after all... and we WERE up at 2.30am (Phoenix time) to get to the airport.

Then we brave the people-less streets again to walk to our book event at the Poisoned Pen bookstore - the biggest selling mystery bookstore in the world. It is run by a dynamic lady called Barbara Peters who once described me in one of her newsletters as "charming". But I am even more well-disposed to her because she has been the champion of my books in the States, promoting them and singing their praises from the start.

I meet up again with new friends from Bouchercon, Carl Brookins and William Kent Krueger of the Minnesota Crime Wave . We're doing the gig together, moderated by Barbara. I really like these guys, they are such good fun, and Barbara does a masterful job of steering the discussion in fruitful directions. She asks questions that make me think again about why I wrote "The Firemaker", what motivated it in the first place. It's easy to forget.

The cousin of an old friend from Scottish schooldays shows up with her husband. Sharon and Sandy Karpen. Sharon grew up in Battlefield, on the south side of Glasgow. I really appreciate their support. And then a couple from one of our French writing courses appear - Jim and Pat Loomis - a lovely couple who have lived out here for years, and they join us all afterwards for Margaritas and ribs under a bright clear moon on a balmy warm night. We are so busy talking I forget to take photos. Damn!

Barbara, who is also a successful publisher, expresses an interest in my French series, and I promise to let her see a manuscript. Kent and Carl are touring by car, and heading off next for Sedona, before crossing into California. They'll be at many of my venues a few days ahead of me. Pat and Jim drive us back to our hotel and we fall into bed, eager to be clutched in the arms of Morpheus. It's been a good day. More than fifty books sold and signed.

But tomorrow it is another early rise and a flight to Seattle, where we can expect cold weather and rain. Brrrrrrrrr.

I would NEVER get tired of the sun.

With Evelyn Jenkins

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

You don't get more American than a pancake breakfast at IHOP's - the International House of Pancakes. Only, we didn't have pancakes. We had eggs over easy and rashers of bacon, and mugs of coffee.

This was a Huntsville breakfast with the Wards - Dick, Michelle and little Sophia. The temperature was already in the high twenties and the humidity was soaring. Afterwards Dick took us on a tour of some of the more advanced facilities at the College of Criminal Justice - the most incredible open-source computer system for tracking international terrorists; an incident management and control centre where real people have their ability tested under extreme pressure to manage anything from a dirty bomb terrorist attack to a multiple hostage-taking incident.

The most detailed scenarios are dreamt up by resident experts who turn up the heat on their guinea pigs in a real-time control centre nicknamed the "hell" room.

Whisked off, then, to a lunch with the brass at Sam Houston State University, I notice a sign welcoming me to the campus. And in the hallway, a large poster advertises my book event in the college courtroom that afternoon.

There is a good turnout in the courtroom - ironically, a venue I had used in "Snakehead" to stage a sitting of the local Immigration Court. Afterwards we sell and sign another forty plus books.

We discuss with the university, the possibility of a special group coming to France to take our writing course, and contemplate an open invitation to spend a semester at Huntsville teaching a course in creating writing to the crime majors.

Then to Dick's ranch just outside of town, where a group of us gather to eat Chinese carry-out in the front room, looking out at the sun setting beyond the pasture where Dick's longhorn steer grazes contentedly. Joe tells us about his encounters with the Russia mafia, and Matt expresses his desire to be a Sheriff's deputy in his home country. Ginny, looks after us as always, keeping us fed with super-strong Margaritas mixed by Dick. Michelle feeds us cookies, and Sophia charms us all.

Until it's time to go. A 5.30am rise.

Our undying gratitude to Dick for his hospitality and his friendship.

Tomorrow, if it's Wednesday, it must be Arizona.

Breakfast with the Wards

Dick and Sophia

La Patronne et moi get attacked in Houston

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I see sharks!

To my left, and my right, swimming over my head in 200,00 gallons of water, rows of savage teeth catching the light in a mouth that's half-open as if in a grin.

No, I'm not at a publishers' convention, we're in the Houston Aquarium - a restaurant and aquatic theme park right on the edge of downtown.

We have come here via many a highway and byway, as Ginny, our driver and now our friend, valiantly battles the one-way system that keeps sending us the wrong way. She is manoeuvering our tank (at least, that's what it feels like - a giant Ford Excursion) from lane to lane, around monster trucks and cowboy pick-ups, with a calm that belies her tender years.

And, of course, in the end she gets us there - on time - for lunch with Dick Ward who has just flown in from a convention in Florida. Dick is in good form, and we guzzle shrimp and salad and barbecued chicken and red snapper and catch up on the last five years. That's when La Patronne and I were last in town, researching "Snakehead". Dick is our host and benefactor, but a man in great demand. He has to hurry off immediately after lunch to a series of meetings which will take him through the rest of the day, and finally home to his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Sophia, who must be the most widely travelled child on the planet. She has visited five continents, eighteen countries, and has frequent flyer miles with half a dozen airlines. She is already starting to talk in several languages.

Dick proudly shows us a photo. She is gorgeous.

Earlier, Ginny had safely negotiated the perils of the Houston freeways to get us to Radio KUHF 88.7FM, where I had an interview with the sparky former flautist, Alison Young. Ushered into a dark and hushed studio, we chatted for fifteen minutes about "The Firemaker", for a programme that would be aired that afternoon.

And after lunch we spent an hour or so enjoying the spectacular live fish exhibits of the Aquarium, riding a miniature railway through a glass tunnel of sharks, and soaring skywards on a ferris wheel to gaze across the towering downtown Houston skyline.

And then to the book event, and another radio interview. This time in a back room of the mystery bookstore, "Murder by theBook", with John De Mers for his "Delicious Mischief" show on KIKK-A Talk 650.

Of course, I guess it had to happen sometime. The bookstore event is due to begin at 6.30pm, and no one shows up. It's a Monday night, on the day the schools went back, and who the hell's heard of Peter May anyway? But, hang on... there's a car pulling up out in the lot. A couple get out. They come into the shop. She heard the radio interview from this morning while she was driving in the car and they decided to come to the store to meet me. They are Agnes and John Guthrie. A good Scots name, you think? You'd be right. He is in fact a Scot, living in Houston for fifteen years, but with an accent as broad as the day he arrived.

So I give my talk to Agnes and John and Janice and Ginny, and the guys from the store, and we all have a good time, and I end up signing about forty books. If forty people had come, I wouldn't have sold any more, and we strike up a good relationship with Dean and David and Les who hope to sell many, many more.

Off, then, to barbecued ribs, before Ginny steers us safely home, heading north into the hot, dark, Texas night to Huntsville, and bed and a full day ahead of us tomorrow.

With Alison Young at KUHF

La Patronne on a ferris ride, downtown Houston

With David (left) and Dean at "Murder by the Book"

With Ginny

Monday, September 12, 2005

Quelle drame!

Charles and Marilyn came home early from France to go to the opening of the Denver opera. They never got to see it. For Charles, dressed in his tuxedo, with luminous orange shirt and bow-tie, ended up in the emergency room at the local hospital.

I had stayed home while Charles and Marilyn got all dickied up and went off to the opening performance. I was expecting them back about nine-thirty. At nine, I went downstairs to their condominium's guest apartment, where I was staying, to pack for my departure the following morning.

At ten I went upstairs again to find them returned, changed out of their finery and chastened by a sequence of events which had shaken them to the core.

Charles was barefoot, in his vest, a white circle of bandage in the crook of his arm. He looked very pale. But not, Marilyn assured me, as pale as he had a couple of hours earlier. At the reception before the opera, he had crouched down talking to an elderly lady for nearly ten minutes. When he stood up he immediately collapsed.

Bad enough in normal circumstances. But Charles had had a heart attack several months ago, and was still in recovery mode.

He got back to his feet and collapsed again, before Marilyn took charge and rushed him off to the hospital. Fortunately blood tests showed that he had not had another heart attack. The most likely cause was a restriction of his blood supply from crouching too long, allied to the effects of the drugs he is taking.

The good news is that he had a good night, but it was Marilyn who took me to the airport this morning.

Goodbye, Denver. Speedy recovery, Charles!

So, just after one o'clock, having crossed yet another time zone, I landed in Houston, Texas, to be met by an attractive young lady called Martha. She was holding up a sign which read: "Sam Houston State University Welcomes Peter May".

Martha led me out to the biggest 4X4 I have ever seen, which was driven by another attractive young lady called Ginny. These guys are students at the Sam Houston State University College of Criminal Justice, and assistants to its Dean, Dr. Richard Ward. Without Dick I could never have written the China Thrillers. It was his introduction to the Chinese police which opened doors for me in China that would otherwise have remained firmly shut.

As one of the world's leading criminologists, Dick spent several years in China training the top five hundred cops there in the latest Western policing techniques. It's nearly ten years since I first connected with Dick, but he has been a tireless advisor and reader of my manuscripts. He is also fabulously generous, and has put a driver and vehicle at my disposal for my stay in Texas, as well as welcoming us as his guests at the university hotel in Huntsville - about an hour north of Houston - and setting up a lunch and presentation at the university itself to sell and sign my books.

He was out of town today, but left instructions for his inner coterie of students to entertain us to dinner last night - which they did royally at The Junction restaurant. It is is sited in one of the oldest buildings in town, which was once an Indian lookout. It is the same restaurant where we had lunch five years ago with the Sheriff and the Chief of Police when I was researching "Snakehead".

Afterwards Ginny treated us to Root Beer floats at a drive-by and promised to pick us up at 7.45 am tomorrow to whisk us off to Houston and the first of a series of radio and TV interviews which precede my bookstore presentation at "Murder by the Book".

The biggest treat of the day, though, will be seeing Dick again. He is hurrying back to meet us in time for lunch in Houston.

Oh... and did I mention? After I was met by Martha and Ginny at the airport terminal, I was whisked off to the international arrivals hall to meet La Patronne off her flight from Paris. We shared a big, long hug and talked nonstop all the way to Huntsville in the back of the 4X4.

Ghhhhrrrrrmmmmm (Homer noises), I'm happy again.

Charles and Marilyn set off for the Opera

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Well, this was fantastic. "Murder by the Book" in Denver had a cake baked in my honour, with the cover of "The Firemaker" recreated in coloured icing sugar. Incredible!

The cake was prepared by a specialist baker called le Bakery Sensual - - which bills itself as "The Sexiest Bakery in Town". Apparently they usually specialise in baking cakes in the shape of body parts. "Arms and legs?" I asked, puzzled. "No," came the reply, "those parts of the body which are usually hidden." Being normally self-conscious about how I sit in public while wearing my kilt, I felt strangely compelled to cross my legs.

This was a really cute store located in a house built in the 1880s on South Pearl Street. Lauri Ver Shure gave me a warm welcome when I stepped over the chalk tracing of a body on the pavement and climbed the steps to the front porch of her bookstore.

But there was another surprise awaiting me - the arrival of Philip Cherner, whose photograph of the Forbidden City was used on the cover of my book. Phil is a criminal lawyer in Denver, whose passion is photography. During numerous trips to China he has taken hundreds of pictures. He wrote to me when he discovered that his photograph was being used for the book, and today turned up in person to say, Hi. I was, as we say in Scotland, dead chuffed.

And Phil got more than he bargained for, too. When the readers who came to my talk discovered that it was his photograph on the cover, he found himself sitting next to me autographing all the books.

It was a lively group that I spoke to, and I signed another huge pile of books, before being whisked off by Charles and Marilyn to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Very apposite. My fortune cookie at the meal's end was interesting. It read: "The world will soon be ready to receive your talents". As long as the world buys my books I'll be happy!

Earlier Charles took me to the local Farmers' Market where stalls groaning with local produce were crowded with Saturday morning shoppers. The air was filled with the smell of roasting chilli peppers.

I like Denver, even if the altitude does leave me a little breathless. The air here is so clear and dry. The temperature today soared into the mid-thirties centigrade, although they said it could just as easily have been snowing. Hard to imagine.

Houston will be hot and humid, without a snowflake in sight. But I'm looking forward to being taken in charge again by La Patronne, and reconnecting with my old friend and China mentor, Dick Ward.

Tonight Charles and Marilyn have gone to the opening of the Denver Opera, and I am just chilling out and packing for tomorrow's flight. Another day, another airplane, another city. There is just no end to this country.

Au revoir Denver. Et merci beaucoup, Charles et Marilyn.

Murder By The Book

With Lauri Ver Shure and THE cake

With Phil Cherner

Charles at the Market