Monday, December 03, 2007


Ever been whacked with a shillelah? No, me neither.

But I've been bludegeoned by a polished vine root. And made to drink copious amounts of chilled white wine from a giant glass. And encouraged to swear an oath of loyalty to an alcoholic beverage.

And all in the space of about fifteen minutes!

For the uninitiated, this was called an intronisation. Yes, I was intronised. And if you think that sounds painful, read on.

It all took place in the presence of a little-known brotherhood whose twenty-five members wear red and black robes and triangular hats. And it all unravelled this weekend in a tiny village on the south bank of the River Tarn, just a bridge span away from the town of Gaillac in south-west France. Oh, and there were a couple of hundred other people looking on (including La Patronne, and Le Beau Frere who had travelled from the States for the occasion).

In the packed lecture theatre of an agricultural training centre in the Midi-Pyrenean village of Brens, twenty-one chosen ones - myself included - were called down to the stage one by one by the be-robed members of the Order of the Divine Bottle, to be made Chevaliers of the Order. In nearly sixty years, only three thousand people worldwide have been selected for this honour.

Why me? Because my latest book, THE CRITIC, is set in the vineyards of Gaillac, and when I take the book on tour around the US next February, I will be offering Gaillac wines to my readers to taste.

And the purpose of the Ordre de la Dive Bouteille? To foster and promote the wines of Gaillac - a little-known wine producing area which has been making wonderful vintages since the days of the Romans.

So what happened? Well, we were called down to the stage in groups of seven, and made to stand there while our individual sponsors - all members of the Order - delivered two-minute eulogies. And how did they time the speeches?

I watched in awe as an elderly man is flowing red robes knelt at a triangular symbol etched into the floor of the the stage and set a small pot of water boiling over a candle. Some bizarre ritual owing its evolution to centuries of tradition? Well, no. He was boiling an egg. And when it was cooked, time was up.

The wonders of technology!!

My sponsor, or "parrain", was a lovely lady called Francoise Proust - no relation to Marcel, I was assured. After making me blush for two minutes, myself and my fellow chevaliers to be, had to sing a song and recite an oath of allegiance, before being presented with ENORMOUS engraved wine glasses which were filled with copious amounts of chilled white Gaillac wine which we had to drain before the song was finished.

You'll be surprised to hear that I managed to drain mine. Without dropping the glass or dribbling down my chin. Well, not much, anyway.

We had maroon aprons wrapped around us . And since I had my kilt on, bare legs poking out from below the apron made iit look like I might have been naked beneath it. Brass amphoras dangling from red, blue, and white ribbons were then draped around our necks, and the Grand Chancelier of the Order, the distinguished winemaker, Jacques Auques, whacked us on each shoulder with his shillelah - sorry, his polished vine root.

And that was it. We were now Chevaliers of the Order. Members of an elite and unique group of wine lovers whose particular predilection is for the vintages of Gaillac. All that remained was for us to sign the Golden Book - the Livre d'Or - and receive our certificates.

And thence to the gala dinner.

Now, dinners are dinners. And I only mention it because there were two very unusual aspects to this particular repas.

But, before I tell you what they were, just let me run through the menu - and, more importantly, the wine list!!!

Following an aperitif, we were served foie gras cooked in a terrine and served with fig confiture and salad.

Then came the fish course. Perch, caught locally, and poached in a wonderful cream and garlic sauce.

Naturally, our palates were then cleansed by a "trou normande", comprising an iced grape marc.

The meat course consisted of venison steaks served with a blueberry sauce, artichoke hearts and an exquisite vegetable gratin.

Then to the cheese - brought to the gathering by a "confrerie" of cheesemakers come to witness our graduation to the order. It was a ve-ery mature brie from Melun served with a wine confiture.

And finally a lighter than light cake - described as "le d'Artagnan" - presented in a display of fireworks.

But it was the wine.... what can I say? We were served a Gaillac primeur, followed by a sweet white with the foie gras. A dry white Gaillac with the fish, then two different reds with the meat and the cheese. Then finally a Gaillac effervescent - a champagne-type wine (actually they were making wine like this in Gaillac a hundred years before Dom Perignon stole the idea).

What made it all really unique was the presentation of the menu. It was engraved on the reverse side of individual 37cl bottles of Gaillac red provided as part of each place setting. A wonderful memento of the evening - even if the bottles are now all empty!!

But, really, the piece de resistance was the bread.

I have to say, I have never seen anything quite like it. A miniature round loaf at each place, engraved with the legend, 2007.

Was this a sell-by date, I wondered? Or maybe they were just letting us know that these weren't last year's left-overs. Of course, it may just have been notification that this was a very good year - for bread. A fine vintage.

I don't know - not being a connoisseur of bread. But it tasted good. So I ate it. And now, in the famous words of an old friend, "S'gone."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Thursday, October 18:
We gathered around the table in the foyer of the salon where the book festival would be held over the next three days. Myself and five other writers. We had all been shortlisted for the most unusual literary prize in France - the Prix Intramuros. Literally, the prize within the walls. A prize decided by real life prisoners, serving real life prison terms. The book which had won me this place was "Snakehead", the fourth in my China Thrillers series.

There should have been a seventh writer among us. But sadly, the poor man broke his leg while riding (or should I say falling off) one of the new free-to-ride bikes in Paris - "les velos libres".

The seven shortlisted books had been chosen from a long list of forty, before being farmed out to juries of prisoners in penitentiaries all over the north-west of France. The prisoners had all read and discussed the books and voted for their favourite, even before we arrived. But before the prize would be announced, we had to visit the participating penitentiaries and talk to the prisoners. About our books, literature, writing in general.

I should have been accompanied by the guy with the broken leg during a day-long trip to visit a remand jail in Angouleme, and a longer term prison near Bordeaux, but was dispatched along with my chauffeur to deal with it on my own. The other writers headed off to other prisons in the region.

The maison d'arret in Angouleme was a grim, stone-built, nineteenth century prison. Many of the prisoners kept there had not yet been convicted. Some were awaiting trial, others sentencing. Some of them had been held without either for up to two years. A group of fifteen to twenty men trooped into the room where we were to discuss the books. They all shook my hand and sat in chairs in a solemn circle, and three women from the social services department kicked off the debate.

It was slow to start, but I think the guys realised pretty quickly that I wasn't some intellectual come down from his ivory tower to hold forth. I was just an ordinary guy who wrote stories meant to entertain - and was doing his best to speak good French. So they warmed to me, and we ended up having a very lively discussion about the process of writing, of books in general, and of mine in particular.

Two hours later, the ladies from social services drew the session to a close, and I breathed a sigh of relief. One hundred and twenty minutes of French, responding to questions, getting involved in debate, had left my head spinning. I signed copies of my books, and looked forward to escaping the grim claustrophobia of life behind bars. At least I got to leave. I felt desperately sorry for those who had to stay behind - warm, intelligent and articulate men of all ages. What in God's name were they doing in this place?

Then, to my shock, I discovered, that my sentence was not quite over. They were taking me to the "quartier femmes" - the women's wing of the prison - to go through the whole process again with a group of female prisoners.

Beyond a blue-painted barred gate, I was led down a short corridor past the doors of their cells. There are only fifteen women in the whole prison. A room at the end of the corridor provides their sole opportunity for recreation and companionship. It was there that we met, after they were released one by one from their cells. Several of them were very young. Barely more than teenagers. Others were old hands. Tired, drink-puffed faces. They were less focused than the men. More likely to go off at tangents. But we did connect. Escpecially when I told them stories of bizarre Chinese cuisine - deep-fried whole scorpions, dog and cat, ants, hundred-year-old eggs.

And then, when I left, they stood patiently by the doors to their cells to be locked up again in tiny, cold, stone spaces. I found the experience deeply depressing. We have only one life, and for whatever reason these poor souls were wasting theirs.

Out into the sunshine. Free to breath the cool, fresh air, feel the sunshine on my skin. Free to live.

And then an hour's drive south. Almost to Bordeaux, and the prison at Bedenac. A former US military base, this prison comprised a very high wall built all around a huge open space. Inside, once past security, I saw scattered buildings built amid abandoned spaces. There were construction and logging workshops. Cell blocks. An administration block. I ate with the prison guards - cooked for by a inmate, and served by yet another prisoner. It was good grub.

At the far side of the compound was an old US army block which contained a music room and the prison library. It was there that I met a dozen or so men - most of them in their late sixties or early seventies. I was given the warmest of receptions. These were nice, well-read, lucid-speaking men serving long sentences. They ran a well-stocked library and loved to read. After all, what else is there to do with all that time.

Security here was quite different. The men carry the keys to their own cells and lock themselves in at night. We sat around a long table and drank coffee and talked for two hours. They were interested and interesting, and I learned that three of them were to be given special dispensation to attend the book fair at Cognac the next day. Free, and trusted to return. They were looking forward to it in the way that a parched man craves a glass of water, but were already dreading their return.

I enjoyed our conversation. It was lively and intelligent. And afterwards I signed their books and shook their hands, and took the long road north in the dying light, back to Cognac, and the gala dinner to be held in the Chateau Otard - the birthplace of Francois Premier - where the winner of the prize would be announced.

To be honest, I had no expectation of winning. There were several well-known French authors on the shortlist, and it seemed to me unlikely that a foreigner would carry off the prize.

You can imagine my astonishment, then, when they announced my name, and I had to leave my table, applause ringing around the vaulted chambers, to receive my plaque and my 200 dollar bottle of Cognac. "Snakehead", or "Cadavres chinois a Houston" as it is published in France, had been selected by the juries of prisoners - some of whom I had met, and others whom I never would. And I felt a special pride in that. Because these were no professional critics, peddling personal preferences or literary snobbery. These were real readers. Men and women with little else to do with their time but read. And escape through reading. And they had chosen my book. And for me that was worth a hundred critics' prizes.

I felt privileged, too, to have met at least some of them. Who knows what had led them to their prison predicament, or why. But I couldn't help thinking that but for fate they might have been you or I.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


They say there's no rest for the wicked. In which case, I must be awfully bad.

I just finished writing Book Three in the EnzoFiles series. I started storylining it on July 9th, after three months of research and development which took me to the French Mediterranean, the North of Spain, a small town in the hills of Provence, Strasbourg, and Cahors!

I should mention that somewhere in the middle of all the writing I had to go to Lorient in Brittany for a promotional event at the Festival Interceltique, which this year featured Scotland. So I was guest of honour at the Bistro Litteraire, where I was interrogated for an hour in front of an audience by two delightful "animateurs" as they call them here in France - Maette Chantrel and Rachid Oujdi.

I was there for four days, with lots of time off. So I used one of those days to make a research trip for a forthcoming EnzoFiles book which will be set entirely on a Breton island. I spent the whole Sunday on the Isle de Groix, which is the second biggest of the Breton islands. Apart from the trees, it made me think of the Scottish Hebrides. A rugged coastline, crap roads, and little whitewashed cottages with steeply pitched slate roofs.

La Patronne et moi hired an open-topped jeep and travelled the island from top to bottom, loosening teeth and spinal joints in the process. GREAT location! We had a fabulous seafood lunch on the terrasse of a harbour restaurant, before finding a beach shaped like a concave crescent and falling asleep in the sun. Bi-ig mistake! Blue-white Scottish people transformed into cooked red lobsters.

I should also mention that while in Lorient, I became a legend in my own back garden. Sound strange? It really was. A local arts organisation here in France, Artzimut, wanted to take a tour of people around my village to meet the local artists - a painter called Christian, a couple of musicians called Chris and Fleur, and myself, the writer. When they discovered I was going to be in Brittany when they did the tour, they rigged up a computer communication deal, via iChat. They set up a big screen and a sound system in my back garden, all connected to an online computer. I went online at my hotel in Brittany, and came up on the big screen. I could see and hear them. They could see and hear me. The idea was that they would ask me questions about my books and I would respond.

Well, the organiser spoke to me about ten minutes beforehand to tell me I would have to do the Q & A twice. Why? I asked. He said they'd had to split the people into two groups, because there were too many for a single session. How many? I asked. Three hundred, he told me. THREE HUNDRED! I couldn't believe it. Three hundred people were going to trek up from the woods behind my house and through my back garden. When finally I connected with them, I asked if they wouldn't mind cutting the grass while they were there. Unfortunately there were no volunteers. I saw my neighbour, Georges, on screen, and when I spoke to him, he jumped. Georges is nearly 80, and couldn't understand how the TV screen could be talking to him. Altogether a pretty bizarre experience.

Anyway, once back from Lorient, it was back to work. The daily grind. Up at 6am, 3000 words a day. Until the last of them tripped off my fingertips and on to the computer screen at the beginning of this week.

BLOOD. That's the working title. A good title, I think. Apposite. Because the story really is about blood, in every sense.

So next week I start the revisions, which will take me into October, and the promotional month from hell. I have four major promotional events in France in October. The second EnzoFiles book comes out in the States in November, published by Poisoned Pen Press, along with the paperback of EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. The new one's called THE CRITIC, and La Patronne has already started planning the US promotional tour for it in February/March 2008. Of course we'll also be promoting THE KILLING ROOM which is published by St. Martin's Press in February.

But since THE CRITIC is about the murder of a wine critic in the vineyards of south-west France, the emphasis of the tour is going to be on wine. A sort of Book Tasting tour. We've been in negotiation with several American wine importers about bringing some Gaillac wines into the States to allow readers at my events to taste the wines I write about in the book. But, of course, nothing is simple, so I'm hoping that's all going to work out.

The first event has already been plumbed in at Houston, Texas, for late February. An event hosted by the Alliance Francaise, books provided by Murder by the Book, and wine provided by Specs. A bi-ig crowd is expected. There should be ten or twelve similar events around the States, as well as smaller signing events at the usual bookstores. And, of course, it's straight back from there to four days at the Paris book fair.

And then another book to write!

See what I mean about wicked?

The most bizarre moment of the next few months awaits me at Cognac in October. There is a huge festival of crime books held there every year, called Polar & Co. There are various prizes given out at the festival, and this year I have been nominated for one of them. It is called the Prix Intramuros - literally, the prize between the walls. There are seven nominees. We have to turn up at the festival a day early to meet each other during a dinner in a chateau. The following day we will be driven to the local prison in Poitou Charentes, where we will each spend the day being interrogated by panels of prisoners. At the end of the day, it is the prisoners who will decide the winner of the prize, and the award will be made that night.

I have to confess to being a little nervous about wearing my kilt in prison!

However, spending a day in jail was just about the furthest thing from my mind last week when I drove into my local town to go the bank. I'd forgotten it was market day, and the town was taken over by stalls and marketeers. I had to park on the edge of town and walk in. As I was crossing the main street near the bank, a blue gendarmes' van pulled up in the middle of the road. All the traffic behind it ground to a halt. The gendarme in the passenger seat rolled down his window, pointed at me, and then crooked his finger to indicate that I should approach.

I went to the van with great trepidation, wondering what the hell I had done. He looked at me and said, "Monsieur Peter May?" I just about fell over. How did he know my name? 'Yes,' I confessed reluctantly.

His face broke into a wreath of smiles. "I lo-ove your books,' he said. "I'm really pleased to meet you." And he pumped my hand and told me he'd read all four which had been translated so far into French. He wanted to know when the next one would be out, and would I sign it for him.

I couldn't believe it. He just wanted to talk. Meanwhile the traffic was tailing back all the way through the town. But nobody was going to honk a horn at the cops. Finally he shook my hand again and off they went. I walked on to the bank in a daze, ignoring the motorists glowering at me from their cars.

Was this, I wondered, fame at last?

Well, fame in my own lunch hour, anyway!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


It's over!

Fifty-nine days, more than twenty cities, tens of thousands of miles, and Peter May's World Tour of America Part II is finally at an end.

Now I can afford to lift my eyes to the finish line, and let my legs buckle just a little. Last night was our last in a strange bed. Tonight we board an airplane at JFK in New York and fly to Paris. Tomorrow night we shall sleep in our own bed for the first time in over two months.

Yesterday was a hectic last day in New York City. Signings at three bookstores at opposite ends of Manhattan - in Greenwich Village, Tribeca and the Upper East Side. That followed lunch with Ruth Cavin, my editor at St. Martin's Press, at a charming Spanish restaurant in 22nd street called Bolo. Ruth is the doyenne of New York editors. She is eighty-eight years old and still going strong. She is a delightful lady, sharp and observant, with dark, twinkling eyes.

St. Martin's Press, one of the biggest publishing houses in the States, is based in the nearby Flatiron building - so-called because it is built in the gushet (or triangle) between converging roads.

We walked from there, La Patronne et moi, down into Greenwich Village, then ventured further into the labyrinthine network of subway tunnels that so characterises transport in this huge city, navigating our way south, then north and east, for a meeting with my agent, Emma Sweeney, before the final booksigning of the tour at the Black Orchid.

Then Korean barbecue in Little Korea, and a smiling Korean waitress. When we asked for two vodka tonics and a couple of glasses of red wine, she tipped her head to one side and said, "Oh, you like to drink!"

Actually, I think we earned it.

Nothing more to be done. Nothing more to be said.

It's over!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Incredibly, Spring has now followed us to New York. Outside our hotel window, the Empire State Building towers overhead in brilliant sunshine.

We flew in yesterday from Pittsburgh, and from the clearest of blue skies had a fabulous view of Manhattan, tall buildings sprouting from a narrow strip of island that looks like it is anchored to the mainland by the bridges that span the waters to east and west.

The Statue of Liberty stood on her rock off the southern tip of this most densely populated of cities, and made me think of home - it was the French who gifted this powerful symbol of freedom to the Americans.

This is the final stop on our extraordinary two month adventure which has taken us from Seattle to San Diego, from Phoenix to Vegas, from Houston to Denver, from Minneapolis to Pittsburgh.

On Sunday we drove through the heart of Pittsburgh, following downloaded instructions from the internet, to the small town of Oakmont on the city's southern fringes. There, a gathering of fans had "Afternoon Tea with Peter May" at the Mystery Lovers' Bookshop. In fact we all sat around chatting, and I talked for the last time about where I had found my inspiration for both the China and French series.

La Patronne and I were pleased to see the store's owner, Mary Alice, looking so well after her recent illness, and delighted to hear that she and her husband, Richard, are hoping to come to France this fall.

Then it was back to our hotel with carry-out barbecue ribs and a bottle of wine,

And now to, NYC, where last night we met our American friend from France, artist Ellen Shire. Several paintings from Ellen's spectacular summer 2006 exhibition at Castelnau, near Bretenoux, are currently hanging in our house in France. Ellen had problems of storage for the winter, and having large, empty walls available, we offered our services as temporary keepers of the art - until the next exhibition or, even better, sale. It will be hard to let them go, come the time.

We had a great curry at the Indus Valley Indian restaurant on the upper west side with Ellen and her brother Peter - another artist. We negotiated our way there and back via the New York subway, our first attempt to navigate the island's subterranean transport system. And, well, the only thing we got wrong was swiping our cards too slowly - guess we're not up to speed yet.

So today is packed with signings and appointments. Three drop-by signings, lunch with my publisher, and a meeting with my agent. And tonight we'll spend our last night in a bed that is not our own. The draw of home is now nearly irresistible. Two months is a long time to be away.

A wave of fatigue washes over me when I realised that, well, we're going to have to do it all again next winter. And, of course, there is no rest for the wicked in between. A Paris radio station wants to do an interview with me on Thursday morning as I transit between airport and train station en-route for home. The following weekend I will be back in Paris for the salon du livre, folowed by a rencontre at a Paris bookstore. Then the weekend after that, it's the salon du livre at Limoges...

When will I ever find the time to write!

Sunday, March 11, 2007


From a cold, but brilliantly sunny Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, a tall cup of Caribou coffee in my hand, I'm looking back over the last couple of days.

For all our fears of heading north and east and back into winter, the weather has really been with us. Spring has followed reluctantly in our wake to Denver, Minneapolis, and now Pittsburgh. It's warming up everywhere, and looking at the weather back home in Puymule, I see that it is sunny and warm, with temperatures getting up to 19 or 20 degrees centigrade this week.

Let's hope that winter has issued its last icy exhalation.

The sun just never stopped shining in Minneapolis, and the several feet of snow dumped by the previous week's blizzard was melting to send rivers of water running down the streets. Which was treacherous at night, when temperatures plunged to freezing and water turned to ice.

But it was in brilliant sunshine that we went with Elizabeth and Tom to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to revisit our hippy pasts in an exhibition called San Francisco Psychedelic - a photographic record of the bands and vocalists who populated the Haight-Ashbury era in the late sixties: Big Brother and the Holding Company; Country Joe and the Fish; Grateful Dead; Janis Joplin; Jefferson Airplane; and many others.

These were great pics that really captured an age, and a generation many of whom are now dead. And, God, did they all look so young! I suppose we all were, then. And thought we would change the world.

Guess we got that one wrong!!

I signed huge piles of books at Uncle Ed's mystery bookstore around the corner, and preached the gospel acording to St. Peter (that's me, in case there was any doubt), at Once Upon a Crime, signing more piles of books in the process.

Then it was off for a meal at the Rainbow Chinese restaurant with Tom, Elizabeth and Sophie, followed by fabulous late night ice-cream at Sebastian Joe's ice cream parlour.

The sun was still shining as we headed out early Saturday morning to the airport for our flight to Chicago, and connecting flight to Pittsburgh. A wet day there cleared up for our arrival, and as we drove out of the airport in our rental car, the sun made a brief appearance before dipping beyond the horizon.

We then spent a frustrating hour cruising a huge, sprawling and poorly lit mall near our hotel in search of a meal. All the restaurants were full, with waiting times of up to an hour. We ended up in a cut-price supermarket buying smoked salmon, tortilla chips and dips, and then cruising for another half hour to find a wine store. We finally returned to our hotel room to sip on Spanish wine, stuff our faces, and slip off into a sleep that would, in a few hours time, be cut short by Daylight Savings.

In those last moments, before I drifted off, I recalled a conversation we'd had in the car on the way to the airport that morning with Tom and Elizabeth. For some reason we had got to talking about sore backs, and I mentioned that I had first injured mine twenty-five years ago.

"How did you do it?" Elizabeth asked.

"I was heaving sacks," I told her.

She turned, wide-eyed with shock. "What?"

"Heaving sacks," I repeated.

I saw her exhale with relief, then she burst out laughing. "It's your Scottish accent," she told me. "I thought you said you were having sex!"

I should have been so lucky!

The Carr family...

With Sophie and La Patronne...

Friday, March 09, 2007


We're time travelling again!

Ping-ponging about the time zones of the US. We've been from PST, which I think is Pacific Standard Time, one hour backwards to MST, or Mountain Standard Time, in Phoenix, then forward one hour to Mental Time in Vegas, then back two hours to Central Standard Time in Houston, then forward an hour to Mountain Time again in Denver, now back another hour to CST in Minneapolis.

Are you still with me? I'm not sure I am. I'm not even sure I've got any of that right.

Then there's feet above or below sea level. Newport Beach, of course, is right at sea level. Coming back from Phoenix and Vegas we hit 275 feet below sea level in Death Valley. Houston, Texas, is about or below sea level. Denver, Colorado, is nearly 6000 feet above.

Today we dropped a dizzying 5250 feet to Minneapolis. And plunged from springtime in Denver to snowbound winter in Minnesota.

Okay, so we were up at 6am this morning in Denver, which was 7am here in Minneapolis. We flew two-and-a-half hours north and east, and found ourselves sitting at 7pm this evening in the concert hall of a Catholic school, listening to schoolkids playing drums and brass and woodwind instruments.

What were we doing there?

Well, if you'd told us at 6am that this is where we would be thirteen hours later (no, hang on, only twelve hours later - 'cos we lost an hour), I wouldn't have believed you.

But, in fact, there is a perfectly logical explanation, which goes like this...

We're staying in Minneapolis with the daughter of our friends the Jensens from Beverly Hills, Los Angeles - our old neighbours from France. Still with me? Okay. So the lady in question is Elizabeth, and she and her husband Tom, kindly offered to put us up (or put up with us) while we were here. Tom and Elizabeth have a daughter, Sophie, who is sixteen-and-a-half, and a huge fan of the China Thrillers.

Elizabeth had lined up a dinner party for our arrival, inviting a friend of Sophie's who has ambitions to be a forensic pathologist, along with her parents. Also on the guest list, were Sophie's boyfriend, Nolan, who has a Chinese father and American mother. They, too, were invited. So all the character elements of the China Thrillers would have been present.

Then it was discovered that there was a school band concert that night. Nolan plays the drums and had to be there. Sophie, of course, wouldn't have missed the concert for anything - even me. And her friend who wants to be the pathologist was also in the band. So naturally, her parents wanted to go and see her perform. Then Tom realised he had a conference that day and wouldn't be home until nine.

So you can see how Elizabeth's best laid scheme went completely agley. It left just she, me, and La Patronne. So we all went to dinner and had a great time in a Minneapolis restaurant called Tryg's, wolfing down ribs and chicken and calamari, and killing a bottle of Pinot Noir, before going to the concert to pick up Sophie, and meet everyone we would otherwise have met at the dinner that never was... if you follow.

Anyway, this is where we are now. Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the heart of the midwest. Seven hundred and fifty feet above sea level, in Central Standard Time, with two book events tomorrow.

That's before we lose another hour flying into Eastern Standard Time in Pittsburgh on Saturday!

Except that on Saturday night, they're switching to Daylight Savings Time three weeks earlier than usual, because someone in Congress read a thirty-year-old report that said money and energy would be saved on electric light. No one told them, apparently, that companies would have to spend millions re-programming their computers, and that people get up earlier these days - and since it will be dark, will be burning electricity.

And I suppose it means we'll lose another hour. Or do we gain it...?

Oh, I give up!

Elizabeth and La Patronne in the snow...

Nolan by the big bass drum...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


I figure we've been dragging Spring in our wake.

Warm Spring weather is pouring over the Rockies from the west, after one of the severest Colorado winters on record.

Since we arrived from Texas, the temperature has risen nearly twenty degrees farenheit. It was around sixty degrees yesterday, and we were shedding some of the winter layers we had put on for our arrival.

Right now I'm sitting outside Starbucks, two blocks away from Charles and Marilyn's condo. It's my third morning sitting here watching the world go by. The first day was really cold. Yesterday, the air was quite soft. Today it is positively balmy, with real heat in the sun.

I like this life. A stroll down the treelined boulevard at seven in the morning, squinting at the early morning sun with a hot grande caramel machiato in my hand, watching the world go by. And it leads me to the realisation that I am not the only creature of habit. In just three days I have begun to recognise faces - a daily procession, a morning routine, a visit to Starbucks for that first infusion of caffeine. The guy with the dreadlocks and the husky dog. The tall blond with the sharp business suit. The mom in jogpants, two bright-eyed kids in the back of her pick-up, waiting impatiently to be taken to school.

It makes me think of France - the routine, not the people. The difference is that I would have been sitting on the terrasse of a cafe in the town square with a grande creme and a croissant, and there would almost certainly have been some old farmer at the bar with a glass of wine in his hand.

Charles told me that Colorado has the least number of obese people in the US. And sitting here, my eyes bear that out. People seem leaner, fitter here. The air is cold, and crisp, and clear (we are very slowly acclimatising to the lack of oxygen), and the streets are full of folk running, or cycling, or power-walking. They wear shorts and tee-shirts and perspire a lot - earning the right to that sweet, milky coffee in the morning.

There's a nice laid-back air about Denver. Yesterday we lunched in a nouvelle cuisine Vietnamese eatery. Spicy, delicious food in a relaxed and informal restaurant called Parallel 17. Then drove through the old Denver downtown area, brick buildings and warehouses converted into bars and lofts. We pulled up outside an old-fashioned store called "Savory" , whose shelves groaned with the most fabulous array of exotic spices. They grind their own spices there every week, and so they are just about as fresh as you can get them.

This is Charles's home from home. He spends hours here, prowling amongst the jars of cumin and coriander, searching out new flavours with which to spice his fabulous curries - one of which he and Marilyn had prepared earlier for a dinner party that night. Their apartment was infused all day with delicious smells, wafting almost direct from the Indian sub-continent.

Which was what we had to look forward to after the book event at "Murder by the Book". We had another good crowd, and as they always do, the store had ordered a cake with a representation of the book cover in coloured icing sugar. Only, in this case, two covers. I've never tasted such good books.

Then came the curry, washed down with a Malbec wine from Argentina. Malbec is the principle varietal of the wines of Cahors. This one was nearly as "black", but with much less tannin. It was round and fruity, but lacked the distinctive liquorice qualities of the Cahors. A nice wine all the same, and robust enough to stand up to Charles and Marilyn's spicy presentation.

Now a day of rest, gathering our energies to drag this beautiful Spring weather north and east as we head to Minneapolis, and back to winter - and all those layers that we have been wheeling around in suitcases for the last two months!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


We were in the "HIgh Crimes" bookstore in Pearl Street, Boulder, in the shadow of the Flatirons. There was a great turn-out. I was talking about genetically modified foods, and one biotech company's attempts to create a freezable tomato by inserting a gene from a flounder (which can live in extremely low temperatures on the sea bed).

A handsome lady in the front row, who had read all my books, leaned forward and said, "I thought for a moment you were going to tell us they had inserted a flounder gene into our present administration." There was a round of hearty laughter, and I knew then why they call it The People's Republic of Boulder.

Of course, as an "etranger" in their midst, it was not for me to comment.

But I like Boulder. It has the feel of a self-contained community, a vibrant university town in a fabulous setting. We went into the Hotel Boulderado to view the fabulous arched ceiling of coloured glass in the lobby. We walked through elegent streets which, though modern, still retain something of the original character of the place. There remains a sense of its history and heritage.

The lady who made the flounder remark was there with her husband. I was flattered to learn that he had bought her "Extraordinary People" for her birthday. Then, apparently, she had been disappointed to learn that it wasn't the next book in the China series. She is writing a book about China, and France did not have the same appeal. But she'd read it anyway and, I'm happy to report, was won over. She is now looking forward enthusiastically to the next.

In Boulder, one is spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants. But we went, with Charles and Marilyn, to eat in the same place we ate the last time I was here. "The Mediterranean". And I got just about the best pizza I've ever had - wafer-thin parma ham, and fig, and garlic... Hmmmmm. All washed down with a Penfold's Shiraz. Urgggghhhgurgle.

And so we headed back through a clear night, towards a full moon rising, snow-capped peaks glistening away to the west. This had been Day Fifty. Tomorrow it's "Murder by the Book" in Denver, followed by Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and New York City.

We're on the home straight, with the finish line in sight. But our legs aren't buckling yet. Because it's still fun.

Addressing the good people of Boulder...

Monday, March 05, 2007


As expected, the day began with a final breakfast at Cafe Texan. There is, on the wall above the serving counter, a sepia photograph of an old cowboy with abundant whiskers and a huge stetson. It looks like it might have been taken a hundred years ago.

But in fact, that old cowboy still takes his breakfast in the Cafe Texan every day. He looks, if such a thing is possible, even older than his photograph. I took pictures of both. But since I didn't want to invade his privacy (who knows, he might have pulled a six-shooter on me), I snapped him from a distance, so the clarity is not great - but good enough to make the comparison.

We said our farewells to Dick and Michelle, and their delightful four-year-old daughter, Sophia. This has to be the most widely travelled child on earth. She has been to at least fifteen different countries, and counting. They include China, as well as several countries in the continents of Africa and South America. She'll be a real heartbreaker when she grows up. We're all in love with her already - blue eyes, and an ever-ready, constant, and beguiling smile.

A young man with a woollen hat pulled down over his ears took us to the airport. Andrew Link, from Palestine, Texas. He had about him, a military air, lean and fit and alert. "Yessir!" he kept saying to me. It's a long time since anyone addressed me as "sir". That military air might come from his expertise on terrorist bombings in Iraq. Still a student at the College of Criminal Justice, he is participating in a college-sponsored project which tracks terrorist activity around the world. His speciality is Iraq, and he provides the FBI with weekly briefings.

He is just one of a whole generation of law-enforcement students nurtured by Dr. Ward (Dick). They are as fiercely loyal to him as he is to them. To enter into Dick's inner circle, you have to be pretty special. And they are all pretty special kids. "It's like planting flowers and watching them bloom," he told me. "Of course, there are always a few weeds, but for the most part they really flourish. It's hugely rewarding."

And so it was that we took our leave of Houston and Texas, some 500 feet below sea-level, and took a two-and-a-half hour flight to Denver. Colorado, which is 5000 feet above sea level. In addition to losing an hour (we're starting to feel the disorientation of ping-ponging around the time zones), we also felt the loss of oxygen. Breathing is just that little bit harder, everything takes just a little more effort. Of course, one adapts to the change, but I'm not sure we'll be here long enough to fully adjust. On Thursday we head towards the frozen sprawl of Minnesota.

We were met at the airport by our old friends Marilyn Munsterman and Charles Berberich, who have a summer house near where we live in France. But Denver is their home, and their condo has a guest aparment which is to be our home for most of this week.

Although it was cold, the sun was shining, and we were greeted by the sight of the snow-covered Rockies on the western horizon, looking out over the endless dry plains below. As the sun set behind them, we drove out into surburban Denver to the home of Charles and Marilyn's good friends, Fred and Laura, who had laid on dinner for us. Other guests were Harold, who works for the famous Denver bookstore, The Tattered Cover, and his partner John, who works for a publishing house.

Good food, good wine, good company, and by ten we were ready to fall into bed, still in the grip of oxygen starvation, to sleep soundly in the shadows of mountains, anticipating our bookstore event in Boulder on Day Fifty, and another back in Denver on Day Fifty-One.