Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I'm watching the sun coruscating across the rippled surface of the harbour. A yacht cruises slowly by, its sails filled by the warm offshore breeze. The Stars and Stripes flap in the sunlight, tall palm trees sway listlessly, silhouetted against the ocean beyond.

I feel sad, because tomorrow is our last day here. Since returning from Vegas, time has slipped away through our fingers, like the sand on Newport Beach. On Saturday I did a small signing event at Martha's bookstore down on Balboa Island. It was a beautiful day, so they set up a table out on the sidewalk, and I spent two hours signing books and chatting to passers-by.

Among the first to buy a book was a family out for a morning stroll - Ma, Pa, son, daughter-in-law, grandson. Pa was looking curiously at my kilt, then the son approached. He was a good-looking young man in his twenties.

"Are you Scottish," he asked, in an unmistakeable Scottish accent.

Turned out he lived in Newport Beach with his American wife, and his parents were there on holiday from the east coast of Scotland, to visit their son and grandson.

These Scots are everywhere!

Next up was a real American. You could tell from his accent. Then it turned out his family was Scottish and his name was Donald Stewart. You cannae get much more Scottish than that!

Of course, they all bought books.

Then Mike and Barbara Monachino, our friends who live in Newport, New York, Jersey, Canada...I lose track... showed up, fresh from a holiday in St. Bart's in the Caribbean. They bought a couple of books and we agreed to meet for lunch at Chimayo's, our usual cycling destination at Huntington Beach.

Many margaritas later we returned to doze away a somnolent afternoon.

Sunday, we should have left for Houston, Texas, to teach a one-week writing course at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Unfortunately, the university had no take-up on the offered course, so we rearranged our flights to give ourselves a few more days here.

We leave on Wednesday to spend time with my friend and adviser, Dr. Richard Ward, who first opened doors for me in China with the Chinese police. I have a live radio interview on John DeMers' "Delicious Mischief" radio show on CNN650 in Houston on Saturday morning, followed by a book event that afternoon at "Murder by the Book".

Then on Sunday we head north to Denver and Boulder, Colorado, and cooler climes - the beginning of the long trek north and east, via Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and ending in New York City in two weeks' time.

Then home.

It feels like we've been a long time gone.

Susie and the Monachinos at Chimayo's...

Friday, February 23, 2007


Las Vegas is an experience everyone should have. Once.

It is the capital of tack, an assault on the senses - from the doubled over plastic figure outside a trinket store on The Strip blowing bubbles out of his backside (calm yourself, Gary), to Elton John, Celine Dion, and The Beatles.

Sadly, all we got to see were the bubbles.

We arrived mid-week, and all the major shows were "dark" - i.e. not playing. Even the standing exhibition we had wanted to see - a display of plasticised human body parts - was mysteriously closed... although it seemed to be on show everywhere else I've been; Seattle, Phoenix... And The Beatles tribute band, Rain, were away on tour.

We settled instead for a fabulous meal at the Aureole restaurant in Mandalay, where a girl on a pulley system flew up and down a vertical wine cellar housed in an air-conditioned glass column in the centre of the grande salle. We also sent her hurtling skyward - to fetch a bottle of chardonnay from Susie's own Ambullneo winery.

In a sense we were lucky. Because the previous weekend the whole city had been in gridlock - a combination of the NBA playoffs, St. Valentine's Day and President's Day, had brought unprecedented numbers of visitors to Las Vegas. "Worse than New Year's," a taxi driver told us. So although it seemed busy to us, apparently we had the place to ourselves.

Daytime Vegas is less impressive than the nightscape. The lights lend it glamour and glitz. Daylight reveals a certain tawdryiness. It is a city of gapsites and construction, a restless search for the next bigger thing. But in the casinos themselves you'd be forgiven for losing track of time. There are no windows, and so no daylight. Gamblers sit at tables in a constant twilight, long-legged girls feeding them endless free drinks to stay there and lose more money.

Land is cheap, property is readily available, there is no state income tax, and so Las Vegas has become the fastest growing city in the USA. The weather might also have something to do with it.

Before we left, we visited Caesar's Palace, wandering through ancient Rome, with domed skies going through twenty-four hour cycles in a matter of minutes. We ate near the Trevi fountain, pizzas at Spago's, before heading off into the dusty heat of Death Valley.

This is what the moon must look like, minus the craters. Rocky outcrops and stony mountain ranges rising out of the sand of the Mojave desert. Endless, blistering miles of it. It is 86 metres below sea level, and temperatures range from upwards of 130 degrees farenheit during the day, to below freezing at night.

A low pressure weather front was moving in off the Pacific as we headed west, colliding with a standing high pressure. The result, at first, was wind. We saw great clouds of sand whipped up into clouds in its hot, swirling breath. Then, as we rose up through the mountains to over 4000 feet, we met the rain. A thrashing, battering downpour.

And so it was, that we got back to Newport Beach on a blustery wet night, glad to be home. An early night, and a deep sleep, were rewarded by sunshine at dawn, and the fantasy that is Vegas seemed to vanish in the haze of our memories, like a mirage in the desert.

Dawn view from Susie's...

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Okay. No words this time (well, not many), just pics (click on the picture to enlarge, then the back button to return).

Let Vegas speak for itself...

Susie stands by a familiar address... in New York?

Eating Irish in the Big Apple

...served by Kelly from Calistoga, California (wearing the Black Watch)

...watched over by a free lady

Disney mean much to me...

And there's that lady again...

Ahhh, New York, New York!


La Patronne gambles on a penny...

...while Susie figures out the odds

A lady with extraordinary nails tries her luck...

Vroom, vroom...

Big, bad bikers...

Hey, what happened? Paris!!!?

Speaks for itself...

Bit of an eyeful!

And more...

In the fading light...

The ladies of the night - Les Girls!


Wednesday, February 21, 2007


It was dark by the time we got to the Hoover Dam, La Patronne, Susie and I. Earlier, we'd been burning up the tarmac on Route 66. The sun had taken forever to set beyond the mountains. The sky was incredible. Like the cover of "Snakehead".

And then there it was, floodlit, spectacular, an extraordinary feat of engineering accomplished in the nineteen-thirties to harness the power of the Colorado River and bring light to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We felt dwarfed by it, as slowly we drove around its perimeter, rocks rising sheer around us.

A tower showed a clock set to Arizona time at one side of the dam. It was 8.25pm. On the far side, another clock showed Nevada time. It was 7.25pm. It had been a long drive since our early start in Phoenix more than twelve hours earlier. The hour-long TV interview I recorded with Barbara Peters at nine o'clock that morning, seemed like a week ago.

Since then we had braved barren desert scrubland, mountain roads climbing above the snowline, 5000 feet and more, the spectacular red rocks that rise out of the ground all around the little town of Sedona - rocks like cathedrals, stunning in scale and colour.

And now, as we crested the final ridge in the dark, there it was. Las Vegas. Laid out before us like some vast carpet of light, spread across the desert plain between jagged mountain ranges. If ever there was a way to enter Vegas, this was it, hurtling in on the freeway through a blaze of neon, then swooping down on to The Strip, Susie at the wheel, monuments to man's creative madness rising on all sides.

My antipathy for big cities is well-known. But this was an experience not to be missed. For those worshippers of mankind's most fabulous of follies, this is a must-make pilgrimage. It is crazy, but compulsive - escpecially for those gamblers among us.

Treasure Island, Caesar's Palace. And then - how crazy is this? - Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Across the road is Venice. Further along The Strip are Monte Carlo, New York, the Pyramids, Luxor.

We are in the Bellagio. A vast reception area leading into an even larger gambling floor. Row upon row of slot machines, croupiers turning wheels, flipping cards, gathering dice. You have to run the gauntlet of it all to get to the elevators. Clearly they hope to tempt you to lose money en route.

And then our room, on the 26th floor, with ceiling to carpet windows looking out on the Eiffel Tower, and a huge man-made lake with a spectacular water and light show that runs every fifteen minutes.

I stop to pinch myself. It's all so unreal - and at the same time so incredibly real. Because we are here.

A long way from the tiny South Pasadena bookstore of "Book 'Em" that we visited on Sunday to talk to customers and sign books. Or the afternoon drink we shared with our old French neighbours, John and Bettie Jensen in Beverly Hills, before dining at the Los Angeles Country Club - where the maitre d' made me wear a jacket and tie in an attempt to accomplish some veneer of presentability.

Or the long drive through barren moonscapes, punctuated by forests of wind turbines, and a dramatic desert thunderstorm, to the upscale town of Scottsdale on the edge of Phoenix. The vastness overhead on that Arizona desert drive had been extraordinary - a cistine sky of dark, bruising brushstrokes, smeared across a wet, purple fresco (that one's for Ian and Hilary).

Then rain pounding on the skylight as author Mary Anna Evans and myself were interviewed by our publisher, Barbara Peters, before an enthusiastic audience at the Poison Pen bookstore. The one place you don't expect to be cold, or rained upon, is Phoenix. But, then, nothing about this trip is conforming to the expected.

Barbara Peters prays for success...

And now we have a day to play, and I'll leave you to guess at what it is we might get up to in this original sin city. For, after all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

See you in California.

Writing the Vegas blog...

Sunday, February 18, 2007


As we sped down Interstate 5 heading south for San Diego, I watched the gauge charting the outside temperature rise and rise. In farenheit, of course. At one point it touched a staggering 86 degrees - which is an unbelievable 30 degrees Celsius. With twenty-four feet of heavy woolen plaid wrapped around my waist, you could say I was feeling the heat.

And when the holiday traffic on the freeway ground to a halt (it's Presidents Day on Monday), we all started cooking. It was hard to believe it was still mid-February.

We were headed for a book event at the "Mysterious Galaxy" bookstore in San Diego to sign some books. Because of the holiday weekend, we didn't really expect a crowd. As it happens, my good friend and pathology adviser, Dr. Steve Campman, turned up with his whole family - Trenda, Danielle, and Jacob - and staff and customers gathered round as we talked about how it was Steve who had made the writing of the China series possible - since one of the main characters is a pathologist, and I knew not the first thing about pathology when I began writing the books.

Steve, currently a medical examiner in San Diego, is the perfect adviser for a writer. He has an eye and an ear (and a nose) for those things that a writer is looking for when describing a scene - particularly an autopsy. He doesn't just answer my specific questions, but looks beyond them to their wider implications and always makes valuable suggestions.

When, in "The Killing Room", I was looking for my pathologist to find tiny clues towards establishing the identites of murder victims found on a building site, Steve came up with some great ideas. A slight groove between the front teeth of one, made by holding pins between them, suggested that she might have been a seamstress. Polyps on the vocal chords of another led to the thought that she might be a singer. Another had tiny stress fractures in the bones of her feet, suggesting that she might have been a dancer. In fact, she turns out to be an acrobat.

Other books dealt with blood spatter patterns, an accident during autopsy, getting DNA from ten-year-old bloodstained flagstones, and many other complex pathological and forensic issues.

It is all those tiny little insights that lead towards authenticity, and it is Steve that I must thank for them all.

We got back to Newport Beach in the early evening and went to the Chakra Indian restaurant on the UC Irvine Campus to, finally, satiate my desire for Indian food. It is just about the only thing we miss since we left Scotland. Our home town of Glasgow has some of the very best Indian restaurants in Europe. Indian cuisine is almost impossible to find in la France profonde, and it never tastes quite the same when you make it yourself.

But for now you'll have to excuse me. As usual, after a curry there is somewhere I have to go in a hurry.

La Patronne and Susie at lunch on the Lido at Newport Beach

Friday, February 16, 2007


It's weird! I live in France, I wrestle with the language daily, and I think I've made some progress over the last few years.

I've been in the States for about four weeks, and whatever confidence I have in my French seems to have evaporated. A flurry of e-mails and iChats first thing this morning brought that realisation home with a bang.

I got two e-mails from my French publisher: one about my rail tickets to the Paris book fair in March, the other concerning my nomination for a literary prize awarded by prisoners.

It was the latter that made me question my understanding. The award is called the Prix Intramuros, and it is made as part of a festival of crime writing held in Cognac in October. I had already been shortlisted for the Prix International which is also awarded at that festival, so was surprised to find that I had been nominated for a second one.

But as I read on, I seriously began to question my comprehension of the French language. What the e-mail seemed to be saying was that six writers had been shortlisted for the "Intramuros", and if they agreed to be put forward for it, they would have to arrive at the festival a day early. Then first thing the next morning, they would be taken in twos to a nearby prison, where two juries of prisoners would quiz them on their work during a nearly twelve-hour day.

That night, at a dinner in the banquetting hall of a local chateau, the winner would be announced and the prize awarded.

In a panic, I e-mailed my French translator, Ariane, in Paris asking if I was understanding this right. We then had a lengthy iChat in French, via instant messaging, during which I struggled with both comprehension and expression, before finally arriving at the realisation that my first impressions had been correct.

This really is an award made by prisoners. The prize was first given in 2005, and is an attempt to bridge the gap between those on the inside and those on the outside through the medium of reading. I'm not sure if I'm the first foreigner to be nominated, but I know that last year's six writers were all French. I read their accounts of their prison visit and interrogation by the juries of prisoners, and it certainly seemed to have left an impression on them.

By coincidence (or maybe not), the book which has won me the nomination is "Snakehead" - "Cadavres Chinois a Houston" in French. And during the research for that book, which is set in the United States, I visited several prisons in Texas - including the so-called "Death House" in Huntsville, where prisoners are executed by lethal injection.

So we should have a lot to talk about, those French prisoners and I. But I'm going to have to brush up on my French prison vocabulary first!

When finally I broke the surface of this sea of French, I looked out of the window to reacquaint myself with my present reality - i.e. southern California - and was delighted to see that the sun was blazing out of a flawlessly blue sky. I was reminded, briefly, of a jet which had worked its gymnastic (and at the same time laborious) way across those blue acres the previous evening. Clever manipulation of an on/off smoke trail spelled the words WILL U MARRY ME above the setting sun. It was, after all, Valentine's Day. Awwww.

Of course, in a few years it will probably be GIMME A DIVORCE!

But with the morning sun now rising, and the temperature soaring into the mid-twenties centigrade, it was time to get on the bike and blow some of that French syntax out of my hair. So La Patronne and I cycled and ferried and cycled our way to a restaurant called the Crab Cooker near the ocean. We gorged ourselves on scallop and prawns before making our way to the beach, paddling in the Pacific, then dangling our legs from a lifeguard station as we let our feet dry in the breeze.

I looked up from the book I was reading, which was in English naturally, and got sudden butterflies at the thought of prisons and prizes in October. That, of course, is my reality. Not this. Not California. This is unreal. Sea and sunshine in February! I expect to wake up any minute to feel the cold French winter blowing around my ankles, and French words tumbling naturally from my lips.

With the distantly echoing words rattling around my head, 'And it was all a dream.'

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Yet another testament to the glamorous life of the writer - unblocking Susie's waste disposal with a toilet plunger. Yeeeugh!

The worst bit was when the thing suddenly slipped and sent vile, sticky, oily yuck splashing all over us.

Roll on San Diego!!


I made what is, hopefully, my final visit to Stanley the Dentist this morning. I had my mouth stretched open and held in place by a strange green webbing for nearly an hour while he drilled, gouged and dug out the root canals of my abscessed tooth.

Afterwards he made an examination of the rest of my mouth and shook his head sadly.

'You need a plan,' he said. 'Let me take a full mouth x-ray and I'll give you a plan. There's a lot we can do with those front teeth, and some of those bottom ones, too.'

I asked him for a ballpark figure. He scratched his head thoughtfully and said, 'Think in terms of buying a new car.'

I gulped. 'Fifteen to twenty thousand?'

He looked at me, obviously wondering what kind of cheap car I drove. 'At least,' he said.

I told him I'd think about it if my books became bestsellers. Meantime, I was figuring out how I was going to pay for the present lot of treatment, which came to almost 2000 dollars. I've got travel insurance, which should cover part of it. And today I downloaded a form from the French social security website with which I can claim some reimbursement from the French government. An advising doctor will decide if the treatment was an emergency or not (I think an abscess is definitely an emergency), and some amount of reimbursement with be offered - or not.

Vive la France! I find it hard to imagine any other country even considering reimbursement.

And speaking of France, and the fact that I live there... we ordered a Mexican carry-out last night, which arrived at Susie's door in the hands of a very pleasant young Asian man. As I took the food from him, he looked around the house (and its night-time view of the harbour) in wonder. 'Have you lived here for long?' he asked in a heavily accented English.

I explained that I was just a guest, and that I actually lived in France.

He looked at me with admiration. 'Your English is ve-ery good.'

Sunset view of the harbour from Susie's house...

Sunday, February 11, 2007


It's funny how something you can't see gets blurred.

I'm talking, of course, about time. I'm sitting here, Sunday morning, in Newport Beach. And it's raining! The last time I wrote, I was in San Francisco. And it was raining. In between there has been MORE rain (huge amounts of it in Northern California), sizzling sunshine in LA, a birthday dinner, a VERY drunken night, a brilliant review of "The Fourth Sacrifice" in Entertainment Weekly...

"May exposes Beijing's dirty charm in a country grappling with modernity. The fast-paced second half is strongest, but the love-hate tension of the romance captivates throughout."

... and two great book events.

Already, it's all blurring into one fuzzy lump. So I'll get it all down before I forget.

Thursday we went to the home of Susie's sister, Kathy, in Sacramento. It was her (I'mtoopolitetotellyou'th) birthday, and we all drove up with her daughter, Gillian, to the little town of Auburn where Susie and Kathy grew up in the halcyon days of the sixties. There we met her mom and went to a restaurant for Kathy's birthday celebration.

Kathy's husband, John, was in Toronto on business, and her twelve-year-old son, Sean, had gone to a dance to chat up girls. His friend, Eric, was a head shorter than Sean, and complained that he was the fourth smallest boy in his school. La Patronne told him not to worry, it meant his head would be in perfect alignment with the girls' boobs. Which sent the boys off into paroxysms of giggles, and Eric went off to the dance seeing the world from a whole new happy perspective.

We drove back to our hotel through a downpour, and headed off the next morning through even worse rain to the central Californian coastal town of Santa Maria (near Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch). But first, we traversed those huge plains of the state's vast featureless interior, the Californian breadbasket. Crop fields stretch off to endless shimmering horizons. Occasionally, in the very far distance, you catch sight of mountain ranges washed pale in the dusty haze, and crop-dusting bi-panes swoop and dive like demented birds.

We passed whole orange groves damaged by frost in January. Dead leaves. Ruined oranges hanging from lifeless branches and gathering in drifts on the hard earth. One-and-a-half billion dollar's worth of ruined crop. The frost had killed just about everything, and the land was a dead, straw brown.

The hills of the central coast area were greener. They were nearer the ocean and had been protected from the frost. We checked into a hotel in the little beach resort of Pismo Beach where, Susie revealed, she had lost something very valuable many years before. I wondered if it wasn't too late to go back and look for it. But she assured me it was long gone.

The Pacific Ocean lapped at the balconies of our rooms. It was dry here, and warm. But we didn't linger to enjoy the view. We had an appointment at Susie's winery - Ambullneo (which stands for New American Bulldog - a breed of dog which is the passion of Susie's partner and winery owner, Greg Linn).

The winery has been fashioned from an old barn, and sits in the lee of Scottish-looking hills which have been planted with hundreds of acres of vines (the climate here is somewhat different from Scotland where only pine trees would grow). This being "Sideways" country, the main varietal is Pinot Noir.

Greg proudly gave us the grand tour, and then we spent the next couple of hours barrel-tasting the 2006 wines - many of which were still in malolactic fermentation. A young South African lad called Dieter, leapt nimbly among the barrels with a large pipette to siphon off chardonays and pinots for us to taste. Of course, you are supposed to spit - but, well, it does seem like such a waste.

It was dark by the time we finished and wobbled out into the night for a hairy drive through early evening traffic to Greg's extraordinary home near the coast, where New American Bulldogs frollicked and snuffled about our legs, and Greg's beautiful wife, Jana, produced trays of hors d'oeuvres to be washed down by champagne.

This was a fabulous house, with a dining room like a banqueting hall in a mediaeval chateau. We ate beef ribs marinated in Ambullneo's best vintage, and drank from the full range of Ambullneo's 2005 wines - glasses lined up in front of our plates like plump little monks tempting us with the produce of their cellars. Fabulous!

I have to say, I don't remember much about the journey back to the hotel. I think we got lost a couple of times. I do remember waking in the middle of the night with a thundering headache, and got up to drink copious amounts of water.

The morning arrived in a haze of grey pain, and I had to get into the kilt for the long drive south to Los Angeles. We were going straight to The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, LA, for a book event at 1pm.

As we headed south, so the skies cleared and the temperature rose. By the time we got to LA it was 24 degrees centigrade and still rising. We had a small, enthusiastic crowd at the bookstore - there was a couple there, the Toppens, who had read the entire China series, having bought the books directly from us over the internet when they were living in Arizona. The bookstore's owner, Bobby McCue, had huge piles of books lined up for me to sign before we got back on the freeway to head north again to the valley community of Thousand Oaks, where a large and enthusiastic crowd was already gathering in the "Mysteries to Die For" bookstore - even although we were half-an-hour early.

It was a really great event - and a good way to end a hectic first week. It's hard to believe that in under ten days I've been to Seattle, Sacramento, Davis, San Mateo, San Franciso, Auburn, Santa Maria, Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks, giving five talks, a radio interview, meeting an old friend from thirty years ago, and covering well over a thousand miles in the process.

Now I'm looking forward to a few days of respite (the good weather is forecast to return this week, with temperatures soaring to 25 and 26 degrees centigrade), a chance to finish revisions on the new book and make a return visit to the dentist, before starting all over again next Saturday with a trip to San Diego..

There's nae rest for the wicked!