Friday, May 28, 2010

Homeward Bound

A little over two months ago I was sitting on a bench on the platform of the railway station ten minutes from my home in south-west France. It was cold, it was wet, it was still winter. I was excited, stressed, depressed, all at the same time.

I was waiting for a train that would take me to Paris, and from there to the United States, where ahead of me lay two months of touring, talks and travel, to promote three new books which had come out at the start of the year.

I was daunted. And, to be honest, if I could have turned around there and then, and gone straight back home, nothing would have made me happier.

A song kept going around and around in my head.

I’m sitting in a railway station got a ticket for my destination...
... And every stop is neatly planned for a laundry and a one-night stand...

Homeward bound, I wish I was... homeward bound...

Ok, so I amended the lyrics a little, but you get the point.

Two months on, here I am sitting at Gate B41 at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC. I have given more than 20 talks at events in bookstores and libraries all over the country, culminating at Borders at Bailey’s Crossroads just outside of DC, and the LaPrade Library in Richmond Virginia.

I find it hard to believe that it was eight weeks ago that I flew into Minneapolis, jumped into a rental car, and drove immediately to Uncle Edgar’s bookstore to sign the piles of books that Jeff Hatfield had waiting for me. Since when I have lost my coat and found it, lost my cellphone and (miraculously) found it, lost my voice and found it, and lost my heart to a dog called Odin. I also lost my way in the dark of southern California, and almost got shot. In the end I very nearly lost my sanity - and I’m still looking for it.

But here I am, finally... homeward bound. And I have that song going around and around in my head again. As they call my flight...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Powerfully Close

Okay, so where was I? Oh, yes, Connecticut. So where the hell am I now? Damned if I know!

Wait, let me take a peek out of the window. Draw back the curtains just a touch. Ohhhhh, yes. I remember now. I’m in Oxford. No, not Oxford, England. Oxford, Maryland. On Chesapeake Bay. Just about 40 miles from the White House in Washington DC.

The British (or, “you”, as someone put it to us yesterday) sailed into Chesapeake Bay just over 200 years ago on a fateful expedition to set Washington alight, igniting the war that would wrest North America from colonial hands and establish the United States.

But this quaint backwater, with it’s English overtones (and undertones), could hardly present a more different face of modern-day America. The Oxford Inn, where we are staying, is like an old-fashioned hotel in the Scottish Highlands - from its squeaky floorboards, to its village pub filled with local worthies spilling beer and stories.

Just down the road is the Scottish Highland Creamery, which produces amazing ice-cream from traditional Italian recipes. The owner is, of course, a Scot. From Edinburgh.

There are hundreds of miles of coastline following ragged inlets in and out of bays and creeks. The roads are all inland, long driveways leading off into trees on either side towards hidden houses which face on to the water, each with its own private jetty, and a curious veil of anonymity. People who live here are, for the most part, either very rich, or very private.

As someone said in the bar last night, about forty percent of the population is probably on the witness protection scheme.

But it is also an artistic community, with writers, artists and poets settling in large numbers in search of inspiration and peace.

Among them is Kathy Harig, who recently moved her delightful mystery bookstore down here from Baltimore. Which was where, yesterday, I chatted with customers and signed books, on a damp, quiet Sunday.

Seven days ago we were in upstate New York, since when I have driven nearly 1200 miles, stopping in Connecticut, New York City, and Pittsburgh, PA. There, on Saturday morning, I gave a talk to a full-house at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont.

Owners, Mary-Alice and Richard, had laid on breakfast for their regular customers, who filled all the available table space, nibbling muffins and sipping coffee as I talked about my books. We had a lively and fun session, culminating in the signing of many books.

We left at midday, to pick up a take-away pizza, and get on the road for the six-hour drive south-east to Chesapeake.

I have to confess to a serious dose of fatigue. I feel (and probably look) as if I have aged ten years on this trip. Careful dieting and serious exercise will be necessary preparation in the weeks ahead of ever doing this again. But right now, for the purposes of recovery, all I want is to sleep - in my own bed!

But wait. Again. It’s not over. Today is a “day off”. A chance for some relaxing tourism, to take some fresh air and seafood. Then tomorrow it’s off to DC, an event at Borders at Bailey’s Crossroads, and an overnight at the home of our friend Barbara Busch. Before moving on to Richmond, Virginia, for a speaking engagement at the LaPrade library.

Then, and I hardly dare to believe it, we climb aboard an airplane at Dulles Airport and fly home to Paris.

But for now, that is a thought that I will push to the back of my mind. The game is not over till the fat lady sings.

Tonight, I will go to bed again, knowing that the President of the United States is slipping between the sheets less than an hour’s drive away. Tomorrow night I get a little nearer. For Barbara lives less than five miles from the White House. And that’s probably as close to the most powerful man in the world as I’m ever likely to get.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Connections in Connecticut

Dr. Richard Ward is one of the most pre-eminent experts on crime and international terrorism in the United States.

And it was thanks to Dick that I received my introduction to the Chinese police when I started writing my China Thrillers series in 1997, since when he has been a constant source of research and inspiration for all my books.

He has also become a great friend. And it is with Dick and his wife, Michelle, that we are staying these three days in Connecticut. It is my first trip to New England, towns and villages with quaint English names nestling amongst rolling countryside of spring green natural forest.

They live just outside of New Haven, the home of Yale University. Dick is Dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, a part of the University of New Haven. He moved there two years ago from Sam Houston State University, where he was Dean of the College of Criminal Justice for ten years.

During that time he set up a terrorism monitoring organisation, where data gleaned from open sources is analysed by specially designed software to find hidden links between terrorists, terror groups, and organised crime. The data is collected and entered by criminal justice students, both domestic and foreign, at five different locations around the US.

The group is known as ISVG - the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups - and has its own website.

I took advantage of my time here to sit in on some of their briefings, and talk to the guys who are running the show. Fascinating stuff!

A local journalist thought so, too, and showed up for a briefing while we were there. On the table in the briefing room, was a CV of the Times Square bomber, which the guys at ISVG had put together for him. Not realising it was for him, he proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes surreptitiously sliding the CV in amongst his own papers so that he could slip quietly away with it when he left.

Oh how we laughed when he was gone. He figured he had pulled off some kind of journalistic coup, when really he was just stealing from himself.

A further source of amusement came when he briefly left the room with his photographer to take pics of the kids entering up data at computers in the facility. We were all startled by the sudden ringing of a cellphone in the pocket of his jacket which was hanging over the back of a chair - the theme from Mission Impossible (a comment on his own self-image, perhaps?). We half expected the cellphone to self-destruct after five seconds.

Dick also does an hour-long weekly radio show which broadcasts to around 400,000 people, so we spent the next hour in the studio, where he recorded an interview with me for the show.

That was Tuesday, an unseasonally cold and wet day.

Wednesday we took the train to New York City to sign books at the Mysterious Bookshop at Tribeca in lower Manhattan. Afterwards, La Patronne and I met up with Susie for lunch. The weather was still cool, but improving.

Thursday was beautiful, with temperatures soaring to 28C, and Dick and Michelle drove us up the coast to the beautiful historical town of Mystic on the Mystic River, where majestic talls ships are berthed in a sheltered harbour overlooked by the original boatyards and chandlers, banks and immigration offices that lined the dock.

Tomorrow, it’s an early start and a long drive south and west to the city of Pittsburgh where I will give a breakfast talk on Saturday at the Mystery Lovers’ Bookshop, under the heading of “Coffee and Crime”.

At the same time, Dick will board an airplane and fly to Afghanistan.

I think I prefer my itinerary.

Dick and Michelle go overboard in Mystic

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Fates Conspire

Memories of nice people in Scottsdale - Susan and Jim, who took us to the hottest Mexican in town - literally.

Sometimes it seems (and I am not one of life’s conspiracy theorists) that fate simply conspires against you. And when life is stressful it does everything it can to make it more so.

So there we were. Three-thirty in the morning, standing outside the house in Scottsdale, Arizona, due to check-in for our flight at 4am. And the taxi we have ordered is late.

Not just any old taxi. It was a car from Arizona Executive transportation services, ordered and agreed during an exchange of several e-mails. Price nailed, time double-checked.

By ten to four, there was still no sign of it. Just the hot wind blowing off the desert in the dark. I searched through the yellow pages and called a Yellow Cab. The driver said he would be with us in twenty minutes - and the airport would be another twenty-minute drive away after that.

We waited and waited.

Until finally, the cab arrived, with still no sign of the car from Arizona Executive transportation. Of course, I had already phoned them... and got a recorded ad. for their “services”. No one at the other end of the phone.

As we slipped into the back seat of the cab, and hung on for dear life while the driver hurtled, bumped, and swerved his way along the freeway to Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, I vowed that I would advise the world never to order a car from AE transport services - AE clearly being an acronym for Absolute Eejits.

So we arrive late for check-in, scramble through security, walk what seems like two miles to the gate, trailing computers and iPads, when I suddenly remember I have to upload my blog for Type M for Murder. I have two minutes to spare. But fortunately there is free wifi in the airport. Perched on the edge of a seat I log in and upload the blog, which I had written the night before, and make a dash for the plane.

Only to be stopped in my tracks by the announcement that carry-on bags are going to be arbitrarily checked into the hold. Strict limits are being applied. I am carrying two laptops, my iPad, all my electrical equipment, money, passport etc, in three bags. No way will it all be allowed on.

As if I wasn’t stressed enough. I was not going to let my computing power out of my hands. So I secreted one bag beneath my coat, and endeavoured to hide another on the farthest side from the check-in girl. Sweat and heart rate increase as I get closer.

She takes my ticket, looks suspiciously at the one immediately visible bag and... lets me through.

When I finally get into my seat, I should have been sighing with relief and relaxing for the rest of the flight. But no. I can’t get my feet under the seat in front. The guy sitting beside me is all elbows. I seem to be twisted in the seat and can’t get comfortable.

It was just going to be one of those days.

Three hours to Chicago, the clock going forward two. A two-and-a-half hour wait at O’Hare Airport, then another hour’s flight to Rochester, New York - and another hour moved forward.

There we meet up again with Susie and pick up a rental car. First of all the boot (trunk) is so small we can’t get all the bags in. Then the automatic gear gets stuck in low as we try to navigate out of the airport. I make two tours of the damned place before returning to the Hertz garage and demanding another car - which they provide, eventually, with a bad grace.

Finally we get to our hotel, only thirteen hours after dragging ourselves out of bed at 3am, and losing three hours on our day.

Of course, we were there for a family wedding - the marriage of La Patronne’s niece, Suzi, to Joel. So it was quick wash, then head off for the rehearsal dinner in a church hall somewhere. A loooong day.

This was not the limo that failed to take us to the airport - it was the bride and groom's ride to the wedding!

On Saturday I slipped into my pre-ordered kilt to discover that I must have lost weight. Only my belt (purchased for the purpose at the Grand Canyon) holds it up.

I won’t go into details of the wedding, suffice to say that all went well. Suzi and Joel finished the day husband and wife, and we all fell wearily into bed around midnight, only to be wakened three hours later by a fire alarm.

Susie and La Patronne do their imitation of Married to the Mob at the wedding.

The whole damned room reverberated to the sound of it, and a soporific female voice urging us to leave all behind and flee from the hotel by the nearest exit. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be parted from my computers, even by fire. So, laden with bags, I toiled down four flights of stairs, half-dressed, to stumble out into the car park. There the entire population of the hotel shivered for the next forty minutes until the fire service determined that there was a “mechanical issue”, and that it had been a false alarm.

Having been wakened from a sound slumber, I found it impossible to get back to sleep, and the whole of Sunday was spent in a haze of fatigue - an early morning drive to take Susie to the airport, a wedding brunch at 10am, coffee by the canal at Fairport, sun streaming through the window to encourage increasingly heavy eyelids to close, and a late burger to settle a growling stomach.

Then up at 5, and on the road, south and east, through Massachusetts to Connecticut and the home of friends Dick and Michel Ward, where there is one day to draw breath before heading by train for New York City.


And tomorrow.

And tomorrow....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nae Rest For the Wicked

And still the sun shines. Relentlessly.

But at least it is cooling down at night, and we can keep windows open and fly screens in and breathe fresh chilled air, rather than the canned AC type.

Arizona is an amazing state. Eighty percent of it is owned by the federal government or given over to Indian reservations, leaving just 20 percent for private development - and this is the sixth largest state in the US!

Two thirds of the state’s population of over 6.5 million, live in the greater Phoenix area. So vast tracts of this state are simply empty. Desert, mountain, high plains, pine forests. The Grand Canyon. It has a stark beauty. Brutal heat in the low desert, ice cold winds and winter snow o n the upper elevations.

Phoenix itself just goes on forever. Since space is not a problem here, no one builds up. They build out. In places you can drive 125 miles to get from one side of Phoenix to the other.

Last Thursday I had an event at the Velma Teague Library in Glendale, on the outskirts of town - it was quite a drive. The library is run by the incomparable Lesa Holstine, who took assiduous notes during my talk and reproduced them faithfully on her blog the following day - along with a terrific review of “Freeze Frame”.

Then on Friday we briefly exchanged the heat of the desert for the humidity of Houston in Texas. After a two-and-a-half hour flight, we landed in temperatures of 35C and 85 percent humidity. A hotel on the edge of the freeway, within striking distance of the Bush International Airport, was home for the next two days. Such is the glamorous life of the writer.

As compensation, we found a great Indian restaurant in a strip mall not far away - it is the only cuisine we really miss in France. We ate there on both Friday and Saturday nights, making up for a long period of abstinence.

The book event, at Murder by the Book, drew a good crowd on the Saturday afternoon. Many books were bought, and many more signed. And then on Sunday it was an escape from the humidity, back to the dry heat of the desert.

The trip was punctuated by my failure to meet my obligation to provide a Friday blog entry for Type M for Murder, exacerbated by the failure of my invited Sunday guest blogger to respond. So in the early hours of Sunday morning, I sat with my iPad on my lap in my hotel room, writing an entry for immediate upload. Thank God for technology.

Back in Scottsdale, it was back to work. Monday saw me break the back of the story for my follow-up to “The Blackhouse” - the second in the trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It has been playing elusively around the outer fringes of my mind for some time. But following an hour-long telephone interview with a former “inmate” of an Edinburgh orphanage, combined with some detailed research into “bog bodies”, things finally started falling into place.

Today we had a four-way Skype conference with the French film producers who have bought the rights to “The Killing Room”. We were discussing the first draft long synopsis of the script treatment, and detailed notes will follow in the next two days. A revised version must be produced within the next two weeks. Which will be fun... given that we go back on the road on Friday, and don’t stop till we fly back to Paris from Washington DC in sixteen days’ time.

Then they want a meeting in Paris at the beginning of June. No problem. I only have to fit it in to a schedule that includes three days of promotional events in Lyon, followed by another at Fréjus on the Med., then Le Havre on the English Channel. Not to mention a visitor from Scotland for a week, followed by a research trip to the Hebrides, a promotional weekend in Corsica, and a trip to Hong Kong! I guess I must be the walking, talking incarnation of wickedness.

Anyway. First things first. It’s goodbye to Arizona Friday morning, and hello New York state Friday night. Followed by a family wedding on Saturday.

Ah, well, time to hitch my kilt up around my oxters and get on with it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A Crack in the Earth

This was a long and adventurous weekend.

I had an event at the Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Arizona, on Saturday afternoon, and we left on Thursday to go up and stay overnight with friends, who had offered to take us to the Grand Canyon on Friday.

Sedona is about two hours' drive north of Phoenix - a long climb up to around 4500 feet.  We went from 30C in Scottsdale to just above freezing in Sedona, and as we drove up Oak Creek Canyon with our hosts, Pat and Jim, to eat in an incredible log cabin hunting lodge tucked away beneath towering pines and sheer cliffs, there was still snow on the ground from the winter.  It hardly seemed possible after the heat of the desert.

Pat and Jim came to one of our writing courses in France eight years ago.  They recently moved up to Sedona from Phoenix to build their dream home amongst the spectacular red rocks that rise up out of the plains.  And it is almost like a dream being here, with views from every picture window on to stunning scenes of blood red primeval rock formations soaring all around.

The lodge where we ate - Garland's Oak Creek Lodge - was accessed by a perilous crossing of Oak Creek itself, at a ford which is sometime lost beneath torrents of white water snow melt.  Inside we were greeted by a roaring log fire in a huge open hearth, and a set menu featuring the most fabulous lamb - the best meal we have had in the United States, bar none.

Friday was a long, slow ascent up to 7000 feet, through the university town of Flagstaff, to the vast high plains of northern Arizona. Here the oxygen had thinned, making breathing more difficult, and the temperature had plunged almost to freezing. It is an extraordinary landscape up there. Endless scrub plains and stunted trees, distant mountains and volcanoes, and clear, luminous air in the bright sunshine.

And then suddenly... this vast hole in the ground. As if the earth had cracked open. You’ve seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. You expect it to be spectacular. But nothing quite prepares you for the scale of it. And you can only imagine how it took away the breath of those early pioneers, crossing this endless plain to emerge from the trees quite unexpectedly on its southern lip. I have taken some pictures, as you can see. But nothing you can catch within the frame of a camera does it justice. Not even being there. It so dwarfs humanity, that even as you stand on the rim and gaze a mile down to the Colorado River below, or fifteen miles across to the north rim, it seems... unreal.

Then it was back to Sedona - itself almost a miniature Grand Canyon, coloured red. But here, people live among the rocks, putting down roots, and anchoring themselves to a geological history that goes right back to the beginnings of time. Another extraordinary place.

A little further up the canyon, Pat and Jim have a log cabin in the woods, tucked away among the pines, and surrounded by cliffs and mountains. They took us on a tour of it, and offered it as a retreat for the writing of the next book. Incredibly generous. And who knows, maybe I will take them up on it. No danger of unwelcome interruptions up there. And so no excuse not the write!

My book event at the Well Red Coyote was the following afternoon. The bookstore is owned by fellow writer, Kris Neri, and her husband Joe. I had met Kris before, when we shared a panel at Left Coast Crime in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, Kris was unable to be there, but I was made very welcome by Joe, and we held a one-hour workshop on the subject of taking the skills learned from screenwriting into the writing of the novel.

(I have to confess to making a faux pas after the event. Joe asked me to sign an ARC copy of one of my books, and dedicate it to Kris and Joe. Perhaps it was the large Margarita and two glasses of wine at lunch, but I misheard him and thought he said “Chris and Jill”. Duh! Replaying the moment later, I realised my mistake and wrote to apologise, excusing myself by suggesting that I was either deaf or insane, and probably both, and wondering if he knew a Chris and Jill he could give the book to. Joe wrote back saying: “Chris, no problem. Jill.”)

Anyhoo... after the tasting (for the first time) of some (excellent) Arizona wines (bet you didn’t know they made any) at a local vineyard, we set off on the road back to Phoenix, and spent one-and-a-half hours sitting in a traffic jam on Interstate 17 because of roadworks!

Only to have to get up early the next day to get ready for a Sunday event at a Phoenix restaurant, preparations for which included taking Odin (remember the wire-haired fox terrier that went with the house swap?) to “doggy daycare”.

The event consisted of sitting in the dappled shade of the outside terrace at Lon’s at The Hermosa, an exclusive restaurant on the outskirts of Scottsdale, where the good people of the city gather on Sunday mornings for a rather exclusive brunch. A large pile of my books was displayed on a long table, and I sat talking to the customers as they arrived, and signing the books they bought.

A very pleasant way to spend your Sunday, especially when the restaurant laid on an excellent brunch for us at the end of it (even although it was well into the afternoon by then).

Then to more mundane things - grocery shopping at Safeways - before retrieving an excited Odin from his daycare adventures.

And now, with the diary cleared, at least for a few days, it is time for me to buckle down and do some deep thinking about the second book in the new trilogy. I have a research book to read, a phone call to make, and the internet to scour for relevant info. But most of all I have to dig way down into my imagination - almost as deep down as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon - to find the inspiration to match the first book, “The Blackhouse”, which still feels to me like the best thing I have ever written.

How do you top that?