Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

09 June 2020

Some thoughts on the short-story-related Anthony Award nominations


While we talk about many things that are writing related here at SleuthSayers (and many things that aren't), our primary focus is crime short fiction. So it's wonderful timing that today, a few hours before I sat down to write this column, the Anthony Award nominations were announced, including for best short story and best anthology/collection published last year.

I'm not going to write long today because I'd rather you take some time to read one of the nominated anthologies or short stories. But I do want to say a few things:

First, thank you to all of the authors who heard about my crazy idea to do a cross-genre anthology, mashing crime with time travel, and submitted stories for Crime Travel back in 2018. (Crime Travel was among the nominated anthologies.) I could only accept fourteen stories (plus one of my own). I wish I could have taken more.

Thank you to everyone who has congratulated me today. I love the camaraderie of our industry. This nomination belongs to the authors in Crime Travel as much as it does to me, and I applaud them.

Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken (whose The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was nominated for best anthology) and Art Taylor, who is up twice (!) in the short-story category, once for "Better Days," which appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and once for "Hard Return," which I was proud to include in Crime Travel. I'm so proud of you both!

I'd edited anthologies before Crime Travel, but this was the first time I chose the stories. It was a daunting task. One thing I learned from doing it is that while stories about a theme can be wide-ranging, in different sub-genres with varying approaches to storytelling, the best stories--at least to me--are the ones that touch you. The ones that have heart. And I hope that the nomination for Crime Travel today means that the stories in this book touched a lot of readers just as they did me. Thank you to everyone who read it and nominated it.

So, without further ado, here are this year's nominees for the Anthony Award in the best short-story category and the best anthology category. I hope you'll pick up one of them (or all of them).

BEST SHORT STORY
“Turistas,” by Hector Acosta (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Unforgiven,” by Hilary Davidson (appearing in Murder a-Go-Gos: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos)
“The Red Zone,” by Alex Segura (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Better Days,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019)
“Hard Return,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Crime Travel)

BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION
The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)
¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out Books)
Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)
Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)
Murder a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)

Happy reading!

04 February 2020

Words you think are synonyms--but they're not!


Are there some word choices that drive you nuts? Or should that be crazy?

English is full of synonyms. And it's full of words that many people think are synonymous but actually aren't. For the sake of language purists out there, I'm going to touch on some of these words that often are used interchangeably but shouldn't be.



Eager versus Anxious

Anxious has anxiety wound up in it. (Notice the first four letters in both words are the same!) If you are anxious about something that may happen or that will happen, you are worried about it. Eager, in contrast, has a positive connotation. If you are eager for something to happen, you are ... well, eager. Looking forward to it. So if you lost a tooth and know the tooth fairy always brings you a tidy sum, you are eager for the morning to come so you can check under your pillow. But if you are afraid of the dentist and need to have a tooth pulled, you are anxious about your upcoming appointment.

Convince versus Persuade

The difference here is subtle. You persuade someone else to do something. You convince someone that something is true. Persuade has an action element to it. Convince doesn't. So just remember: persuade to versus convince that. Example: I persuaded the love of my life to marry me by convincing him that I was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Currently versus Presently

Currently means something is happening right now. Presently means something is about to happen. I understand why people think these words are synonyms. The word presently sure sounds like it should mean in the present, but it doesn't. Example 1: Currently I am typing. I am about to finish this paragraph, and presently I'll begin the next one. Example 2: When a plane is a minute from landing, it currently is in the air but presently it will be landing.

Momentarily versus In a Moment

Momentarily addresses how long something is going to happen--for a moment. The term in a moment addresses when something is going to happen. Example 1: In a moment I'm going to pause momentarily (i.e., for a moment) to take a drink of water. Example 2: The terminally ill man may die in a moment or any moment now. But he's not going to die momentarily unless you expect he'll die and then come back to life soon after.

Historic versus Historical

If something is historic, it has importance in history. If something is historical, it happened in an earlier period of history. The election of the first female president of the United States will be historic. The mystery novel set in the year 1900 is considered historical.

Do you have any words you often see used as synonyms that shouldn't be? Please share in the comments.

And a little BSP:

I'm delighted that my short story "Alex's Choice" has been nominated for the Agatha Award this year. The story appeared in the anthology Crime Travel. You can read it on my website by clicking here. I'm nominated along with some fine writers: Kaye George, Cynthia Kuhn, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. The attendees of the Malice Domestic convention will vote on the winner during the convention in May. Links to all the nominated stories are available on the Malice website, which you can reach by clicking here. Then scroll down to the story titles.

24 December 2019

My Secret About "Alex's Choice"


This column is about my newly published short story "Alex's Choice" in the anthology Crime Travel. If you plan to read the story, I recommend you do so first before proceeding here. What I'm about to reveal isn't a plot spoiler but it may impact your reading experience.

Okay. Let's get started. (And if you just read the story, I hope you liked it!)

When you start writing a short story or novel, you have some basic decisions to make. Who will my main character be? What will this person's name be? Job and hobbies if relevant? Appearance? What journey will the character face? And perhaps one of the biggest questions, what will the character's gender be? Maybe that question shouldn't be important, but it is, as it can (though it doesn't have to) affect so much in how a story is told.

It's a decision I've made for the main characters as well as the minor ones in all of my stories, except for one. When I wrote my story "Alex's Choice" (published earlier this month in the crime/time-travel anthology Crime Travel), I purposely chose not to make that decision for the title character. I chose the name Alex because it was the most gender-neutral name I could think of. Alex could be short for Alexander or Alexandra, for Alexi or Alexa or Alexis. Or the name might not be a nickname at all. I polled Facebook friends, asking if they thought someone named Alex would be a boy or girl with no other clues. For those who hazarded a guess, the results were pretty evenly split. So is Alex in my story a twelve-year-old boy or girl or perhaps even nonbinary? I never tell you. The answer is up to the reader.

Actually, I wrote the story hoping the reader would not consciously make that decision. Given that the name could be viewed as male or female, I hoped it would lead each reader to assume--without realizing it--that Alex is of the same gender as that reader. That was important because I wanted readers to remember stories they read as a child, fantasies or adventures that swept them away, and to get that same feel from this story. By not telling the reader Alex's gender, I allowed every reader to identify with Alex and perhaps picture themselves as Alex. At least I hope I did.

While I've done no research on this, I'd guess my decision not to tell the reader Alex's gender is similar to the gender-neutral approach to the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular when I was a kid. "You" were the main character, as I recall. The books were oriented toward every child. The main character's gender was never mentioned, likely because the author and publisher wanted every child to be able to see themselves as that character and go on that adventure. (Illustrations in some the books unfortunately depicted the main character as a boy, but I believe the stories themselves never did that.)

This no-gender-mentioned approach added challenges to the writing process. For instance, when talking about toys Alex had when younger, as well as activities Alex enjoys now, I chose things that I hoped readers wouldn't  associate as male or female. This was important because, while boys can play with dolls and girls can play with action figures, for some readers, a reference to dolls will automatically make that reader think the character is a girl, and a reference to action figures will automatically make the reader think the character is a boy.

One choice I made that made the writing process a little easier was telling the story in first person. I didn't have to avoid using pronouns in reference to Alex.

Of course I'm not the only writer to have ever written about characters' whose genders are ambiguous throughout the entire tale. Most such novels and stories, it seems, have been penned in the science fiction realm. As for crime fiction, my research has turned up the Detective Hilary Tamar four-novel series by the late Sarah Caudwell. Tamar's gender is never revealed in any of the books. In Steven Rigolosi's novel Androgynous Murder House Party, the author never reveals the gender of any of the seven main characters in the book. He hints near the end about some of their genders, but they are only hints. And Louise Penny has a character in two of her books, Bean, whose gender is never revealed.

So now you know a big secret about "Alex's Choice." If you read the story before you read this column, did it work--did you picture yourself as Alex? Did you assume Alex was the same gender as you? I'd also love to know if you've read any of the other books/authors I've mentioned above. If so, did not knowing the characters' gender affect the reading process and your enjoyment of the works?

And if you're now intrigued and are dying to buy Crime Travel or are at least thinking about it, here's some helpful information. It has fifteen short stories. The authors with stories in the book are: Melissa H. Blaine, James Blakey, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, Brendan DuBois, David Dean, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Barbara Monajem, Korina Moss, Art Taylor, Cathy Wiley, and, of course, me. We've had some solid reviews. To find them, just Google Crime Travel and my name. (I edited the book.) The anthology is available in trade paperback and ebook. (A hardcover version is coming but hasn't been shipped from the printer yet.) You can buy Crime Travel from the usual online sources. Indie bookstore Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, also has copies they are happy to mail to you.

I wish you a wonderful holiday season and new year. And happy reading!

05 May 2019

You'll get yourself killed!


Sint Maarten

About a hundred dog-years ago I visited Sint Maarten, the Dutch half of Saint Martin of the now-dissolved Nederland Antilles. Another couple had attached themselves to me. Unfortunately they were condescending, complaining, and often rude. Fed up, I ventured off on my own. Deeply provoked I dared leave their august company, they shouted after me, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

St. Martin hadn’t yet experienced the gargantuan resorts, the huge hotels, the star-rated restaurants. Its infrastructure consisted of single lane dirt roads meandering among pastures and groves. I loved it.

I came upon a goatling caught in a fence. As I knelt to untangle it, a young girl on a bicycle and then a man and woman stopped to watch. I lifted the goat free and set it over the fence.

“Come,” they said. “Come to our house. Would you like juice, tea?”

Their walls were constructed of foot-thick adobe. They explained its hard-packed ‘mud’, so to speak, kept the interior cool. The front door was a curtain. Except for tourists, the island experienced virtually no crime, so no need for locks. Their kindness dissuaded me from murdering that horribly unlikable couple.



After reading David’s and Eve’s recent articles about traveling, I told my friend Darlene I always knew I wanted to travel although I didn’t know how I’d pull it off. Fortunately consulting provided the ways and means.

David’s love song to Paris reminded me of my much later visit to the city, one that RT Lawton also knows well. It’s a city of light and delight, but some people…



France

In Paris you can send out for cous-cous just like you order pizza. Cous-cous, made from bulgar wheat– the same ingredient in pasta– has a vaguely rice-like texture. Like rice, you top it by selecting a variety of vegetables, meats, and sauces.

“Don’t order in,” I said. “Let’s go out. Let’s visit the restaurant.”

My French friend Micheline agreed, but my colleague James reacted in horror. “You can’t!” he said. "Not at night! Algerians roam the streets and, and Moroccans, and, and Iranians! I read about these foreign hooligans in a magazine.” (The tabloid News of the World, published by Rupert Murdoch.) He finished with, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

He didn’t like cous-cous either, so Micheline and I left him to his own devices as we enjoyed dinner.



Darlene laughed. “I get the feeling those aren’t isolated incidents.”



Barbados

So in Barbados– I love Barbados– my shoe ruptured like a flattened tire. Barbados is 2800 kilometers from Orlando, 1500 nautical miles, maybe 1750 land miles. I needed options. Bridgetown houses a basket market and gimmicks and gadgets for tourists, but not a repair shop, not for tourists. A few questionings later, I learned of a local cobbler.

“I’ll send a bellboy,” said the hotel concierge. “Don’t try it yourself,”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s off the beaten path.”

A hanger-on, Miss Transparent Swimsuit, interrupted. Days earlier, Miss TS discovered her white swimsuit turned invisible when wet. The beach bars and about half the island became aware of this fact when she waded from the water like Venus on her seashell. No one looked until she shrieked, flapped her hands, jumped voluptuously up and down, a fascinating study in the physics of motion dynamics. Subsequently, she decided none of the hotel shop’s bathing costumes quite fit. She continued to bathe in the bay. As other women rolled their eyes, she’d emerge and suddenly rediscover the optics of her wet swimsuit hadn’t changed, thus the name, Miss Transparent Swimsuit. Anyway, she interrupted the concierge.

“Is it dangerous? Finding the shoe guy?”

“Well…”

“Don’t go,” she said firmly, leaning very close. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

If my girlfriend caught another woman’s hand resting on my upper thigh, I could certainly get myself killed. There’s danger and then there’s DANGER.

From the basket market, I left the pavement and strolled up a shady street. Women in their tiny gardens gave me a curious glance. A dog on a doorstep kept an eye on me.

I found the repairman without difficulty. The front of his house extended to shelter his workspace. No need for a signboard when your activity advertised your business.

He looked over my ripped shoe. “Did you bring the other?” he asked.

I had. He studied it.

“Come back in two hours,” he said.

I cut over to another street to see more of the village. After lunch, to the clucks and head-shaking of Miss Transparent Swimsuit and the hotel staff, I revisited the shoe man with my girlfriend.

Not only had the repairman resoled my broken shoe, he’d resoled the other as well.

“Only a matter of time,” he said, “no extra charge. Is two dollars too much?”

I squatted down eye level where he sat.

I said, “I’m not rich, but at home, I would pay much more. I don’t want to offend you, but would you allow me to pay at least a portion I would pay at home?”

He nodded and we shook hands. My girlfriend, a teacher, asked about schools and he directed us to one where we visited a classroom. We felt welcomed.

Miss Transparent Swimsuit represented the only peril. I knew how not to get myself killed.



We North Americans fear the unfamiliar. That’s the main reason I despise the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island.

Darlene said, “Why is that? Don’t they provide hundreds of jobs?”

“Thousands, they claim.”



Bahamas

In the days before the Atlantis, tourists walked the streets of Bridgetown, dining on vegetables or meats wrapped in banana leaves. From little shops you could buy seafood, seashells, deep sea gear, and sea inspired art. Now, instead of the Welcome to Nassau signage, they might as well erect “Dare to visit” signs.

Now, the moment a plane lands or a cruise ship anchors off Nassau, water taxis rush in. Before precious DKNYs touch native soil, the shuttles snatch up travelers with money falling from their pockets and rush them to Paradise Island for surgical removal.

Money and investment have made it possible to visit the Bahamas without actually visiting the Bahamas. Head into town on your own, and cruise directors shout, “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Once upon a time in the Caribbean, locals rode colorful jitneys. I learned about them from my grandmother, these decorated minibus coaches done up with rhinestones and mirrors, carvings and colors, perhaps a boombox and more tassels than a Baha Mar topless floor show.

On a trip, one of my traveling companions demanded steak for dinner. Imagine, we’re surrounded by the ocean’s bountiful, beautiful seafood, and one landlubber insists on dead cow flown in from far-away freakin’ Florida.

“Fine,” I said. “We’re taking the jitney.”

Jaws dropped. “You… You can’t do that. Only the dark…” (our  black waitress rolled her eyes) “er, locals after dark, I mean, by natives, see. Tourists can’t ride them.”

“Go ahead, say it,” I said. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Our waitress, with more aplomb than a table full of half inebriated tourists, explained anyone can pay 50¢ and can go anywhere without getting killed.

The steak turned out… not so good.

Venezuela

Speaking of steak… (I’ll get there eventually), I found myself in La Guaira, Venezuela, the seaport serving Caracas. Tourists boarded buses into the city, but I heard about the teleférico, a cable car that soared over the mountain into the capital. Tourists frowned at me.

“How do I find it?” I asked.

“Motor coach or taxi,” said the man hawking a tour bus.

A Hispanic woman quietly said, “Take the autobus. It better.”

The gringos rolled their eyes, fully expecting to see my body in the news.

On board, bus passengers smiled. I took an empty seat near the woman who first advised me. After a few minutes driving, someone double-clapped their hands. The bus stopped and let the passenger off.

We drove again. Another passenger double-clapped and more people disembarked.

The woman who suggested the bus pointed to the pull cable, normally used to signal the driver.

“Vandals thought it clever to cut the cables. Now we clap. It works.”

At the teleférico station, we climbed aboard.

The car lifted off. We rose into the sky.

The jungle below unfolded in beauty. We sailed over tropical forest and waterfalls.

Eventually the car pulled to a platform and stopped. Confused, I looked around, seeing only mists and jungle. The woman nudged me.

“Only first third of trip,” she said. “Here comes another car to take you to the peak. At the summit, take another car down into the city.”

Part two of the aerial adventure proved more beautiful than the first. The jungle below has since been designated El Ávila National Park.

From a natural beauty standpoint, the descent into Caracas proved anticlimactic. I ambled through the city. At a lunch counter, I ate damn good beefsteak that would make a gaucho proud.

A woman in a post card stall complained. “Stupid city. Yesterday I rode that tram car all the way to the top. Such a waste, all fog and stupid clouds. Why can’t they do something about that?”

“You’re lucky,” I said knowingly. “You could have got yourself killed.”

“Really?” Her face lit up. “I didn’t know that, and here I am, all safe and sound. Wait until I tell Myra.”

I live to please.

Iceland

When I announced plans to visit Iceland, friends advised the usual. “It’s frickin’ Iceland. What part of ‘ice’ don’t you understand? You’ll get yourself killed. Hey, it could happen.”

Joined by a French journalist, we landed in Keflavik (now Reykjanesbær) hours ahead of the worst blizzard in recorded history. Far-away friends surely believed I’d done it this time.

If Icelanders know anything, it’s ice, cold, and snow. Coming from Minnesota, I’d worn my insulated boots and goose-down parka, so the century’s worst blizzard wasn’t particularly distressing for me. The worst deprivation was having to live on German wines and caviar, considerably cheaper than hamburger. Seafood… Did I mention I love fish? Worst hazard: I risked overeating.



Folks, we’re not talking about wandering through Iraq, Sudan, or Yemen in search of ISIS Daesh. As far as I can tell, Americans believe the rest of the world lurks in dark alleys, waiting for tourists where tourists never go… or something like that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was once held at knifepoint and another time at gunpoint. That threat happened in… the United States of America. The latter incident occurred here in Orlando. That's a story already told.



USA

Perhaps the saddest incident began after delivering my car to a dealership for servicing. The shop provided a minibus to pick up customers and deliver them to and from. I received the call to pick up my car right at 5pm. Orlando’s Lee Road is no joy during rush hour, but that day an accident on Interstate-4 choked the six-lane thoroughfare.

As the expected ten-minute drive stretched toward infinity, the shuttle driver announced he’d have to pull over and park for the next two hours. He might not be able to deliver us before the shop closed.

“Nonsense,” I said. “Take Kennedy Boulevard.”

A man on the bus said, “Doesn’t that run through Eatonville?”

The sole woman on the bus blanched.

The town of Eatonville, home of famed author Zora Neale Hurston, bills itself as America’s oldest black community. It’s a pretty little town if you’re not fearful of getting yourself killed.

The driver said, “You know the way?”

“Of course.”

The woman started to say, “You’ll get us all k-k-k-…”

“If you know the roads,” said the driver. “Let’s do it.”

The lady flew into action, mobilizing other passengers. “The windows, raise all the windows. Driver, lock the door. And you, don’t you dare roll your eyes.”

With the help of the other three guys, the lady battened down the hatches. They seemed as much excited as fearful, daring to adventure into deepest African-America.

The driver followed Edgewater Drive to Kennedy and swung right. We passed barbecue and crab restaurants, a clinic, stores, and a repair shop. Above us at the I-4 overpass, sirens whooped as ambulances, police, tow-trucks, and fire engines struggled through traffic.

As we entered Eatonville’s town center, our passengers stared in awe, apparently surprised we weren’t assailed by by crack-pushin’ gang-bangers waving Glock 9 knockoffs. Traffic came to a standstill from commuters who’d thought of the same escape route.

“Turn right,” I said.

“No!” said the woman. “Where are you taking us?”

“This side street and a left will bring us out right at the dealership.”

After double-checking the windows, the lady– I swear this is true– pressed her face against the glass to see what might be seen. Possibly she expected rap artists gunning down one another on the back alleys. To the surprise of many, we made it without a single Mad Max style takedown.

That evening at the dinner table, I’m convinced fellow travellers told trembling tales of the idiot risk-taker who directed them through darkest Eatonville.

“That fool! That crazy fool. He almost got ourselves killed!”

Eatonville, Florida
Eatonville, Florida © VisitFlorida.com

21 July 2017

A Change of Place


I first encountered Thomas Pluck in 2011 when I read  a remarkable tale in A Twist of Noir called "The Uncleared."  You can read it here.  When I reviewed it at Little Big Crimes I wrote that "I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand.  Quite remarkable."  It is that.
Thomas's most recent book is BAD BOY BOOGIE, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller.  Ken Bruen called it a "must re-read novel."  And like me, he is a New Jersey boy.  What else do you need to know?  

He made a guest appearance here in March, which should have warned him off, but apparently he is a slow learner and agreed to take a permanent seat at our table.  This is his first shot as a regular.  I'm sure you will enjoy it. Please make him welcome, and remind him to cut the cards.   - Robert Lopresti

Hello, everybody. I'm honored to join the crew here at SleuthSayers, and I hope you'll enjoy my triweekly musings here. And thank you for the kind words, Robert. I keep going back to "The Uncleared" and there's a novel waiting to come out, once I visit Alaska... which brings me to the subject of today's post. But first, let me say how I came to be here.

I've been a fan of the crime and mystery genre since grade school, when I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown. Later came the Fletch series, Ian Fleming, and Hammett brought me into hardboiled. For a good while my trinity was Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, and the pet shop cozies of Barbara Block (no relation) and now I read everyone from Hilary Davidson and Tana French to Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, and I have a soft spot for Liza Cody's Bucket Nut wrestler tales with Eva Wylie, and Christa Faust's Angel Dare series. I read outside the genre a lot as well. Stewart O'Nan, Victor LaValle, Laird Barron, Joyce Carol Oates (though she does write suspense as well), Roxane Gay. To get an idea of the range, I recommend Protectors 2: Heroes, the anthology I edited to benefit The National Association to Protect Children, which has a solid core of mystery with fantasy, horror, lit, SF, and poetry mixed in.

But enough about me, we're here to talk writing. I recently returned from a two week tour of central Europe by car, where my wife Sarah, and my best friend Johnny and I toured seven countries in 3800 kilometers, having adventures and seeing both expected and uncommon sights. And of course, it inspired several story ideas. I've always felt envious of writers who can master a sense of place without having physically visited it. Lawrence Block for one, has written several stories about countries and cities he's never been to--despite being an accomplished world traveler--and the level of verisimilitude he manages never makes you question whether he's been there.

I don't always visit areas I want to write about, or write about places I've been, but some can't help but inspire a good story. In Munich, we stayed in an area where there was a high refugee population, which gave me a good view of the stark differences; the heart of an old city blocks away from a modern one. In the space of twenty minutes we walked from a tight neighborhood of buildings hundreds of years old celebrating Charlemagne, through a tony open mall where opera was performed, to a grimier urban red light district reminiscent of old Times Square.

In Amsterdam, the streets were clogged with bicycles. And our canal boat guide joked that the canals were filled with them, too. It didn't take much to make me wonder how easy it would be to chain someone to their bike with a few cinder blocks and chuck them into the water. (I might have even thought it a fitting end for a couple of cyclists who blew through pedestrian walkways while looking at their phones.) That's not so different from New Amsterdam, New York, these days with cars parking in the bike lanes and bicyclists veering onto the sidewalks and phone-addled pedestrians walking wherever they please, but there was no electricity in the air in the older city; everyone was relaxed, perhaps due to the easy access to the demon weed. (The one place they weren't relaxed was in the supermarket, the munchies, I suppose).

The story that relied on my travels the most was Blade of Dishonor, which I based on my trip to Japan to see my oldest friend compete in his first martial arts competition, train at his teacher's school, and galavant throughout Tokyo and Niigata with a bunch of rowdy fighters. That was such a culture shock that I knew I'd write about it someday, and was glad David Cranmer gave me the excuse, when he approached me to write a story about a fighter who comes into possession of a stolen sword.

Some writers draw inspiration from familiarity. The same routine, the comfortable writing room, or spot--I have a nook in the parlor with a view of Manhattan in winter, and trees the rest of the year--but others need a jolt, and some of us benefit from both. I couldn't visit the Talheim Death Pit in Germany before I wrote "Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind" for Lawrence Block's upcoming art-themed anthology Alive in Shape and Color. But I visited the area last week, and saw similar remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin, just in time for final edits. But the odd thing was, I changed nothing. What I'd come up with in my imagination felt true enough. There's one scene in a quaint Medieval village that drew on a real visit, but nothing I couldn't have gotten from a trip through Google Maps and Street View, and perusing the Medieval Justice and Torture Museum website.

So maybe you can write stories without ever leaving your chair. That's where the work gets done. And I'm glad I got back to it last night, savoring a dram of peaty scotch and writing a safecracking scene in the basement of a colonial-era tavern that never existed, based on several that are now lost to history. That's a place I like to visit in my head, and I hope it will be as enjoyable for readers to join me there on the page.

What works for you? Are your best vacations in your head, or do you draw from the real ones for inspiration?

-TP

09 May 2014

Crime Cruise-Ocho Rios


Everybody dreams about going to Jamaica on holiday. It's tropical breezes, sandy beaches, clear ocean water, dark rum, exotic flowers and coconuts. Tourists of one type or another have been coming to this island since Christopher Columbus discovered it on one of his voyages. Even the pirates of centuries ago enjoyed this paradise on earth until an earthquake destroyed their town and harbor of Port Royal. A later fire finished the destruction. Survivors moved over a few miles to establish the town of Kingston, destined to become the capital of Jamaica after the Governor moved the government offices out of Spanish Town due to the scandal of brothels in said community.
Ian Fleming's house, now a resort hotel
No doubt, many of you original James Bond fans will remember scenes of Jamaica from the movie Doctor No.If you don't remember the scenery and you are a guy, you were probably distracted by the sight of Honey Rider coming out of the ocean in her white bikini, a daring piece of swimwear in those days. In any case, the scenery was beautiful. Ian Fleming, author of the Bond series, liked the place so much he kept a house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica.


The Tour
Dunn's River Falls


After four previous ports of call, we were pretty well toured out for scheduled land excursions, so we went ashore on our own. Plus, Kiti and I had been to Ocho Rios some thirty-two years before, at which time we toured Fern Gully. (Them crazy bus drivers insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, which is slightly unnerving when you're sitting in the forward part of the bus and see oncoming fast vehicles also driving on the wrong side. What were the British thinking when they came up with that system?). During that earlier trip, we went on to climb Dunn's River Falls in swimsuits and tennis shoes, wet but refreshing in the heat of day. Of course, when our cruise ship ported thirty-two years ago, Ocho Rios didn't have the nice new dock it now has. Instead, we docked at the wharf for the local bauxite mine shipping point. Way back then when I got off the tour bus at the mandatory shopping site, a local Rastafarian sidled up beside me and in a whispered voice offered to sell me some "bud." I told him I couldn't because I was on vacation. He had a very confused look on his face as I walked away.

New cruise ship dock in Ocho Rios
For our 2014 port of call, our group of four went down the gang plank, up the new winding dock, through Jamaican Customs and into the new construction of the town of Ocho Rios. Incidentally, there are no eight rivers here. It is speculated that the British corrupted the Spanish words "Las Chorreras," which means the waterfalls, a name given to the village because of the nearby Dunn's River Falls. (As writers, we all know what a problem language can be.)

Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the beach
After running the gauntlet of vendors and taxi drivers (it's only a three block walk to town and the price decreases considerably the further you walk), we went through the usual tourist shops, Blue Mountain coffee stores and jewelry establishments (the latter maintained armed guards out front). Then it was time to head for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on a nearby beach. Here we whiled away the hours with Jamaican nachos, the local Red Stripe beer, rum drinks and one free margarita for every customer. Thank you Jimmy Buffet.

The Crime

According to United Nations estimates, Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Kingston, Montego Bay and Spanish Town were cursed with high incidents of crime and violence over the years. In 2005, Jamaica had a murder rate of 58 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world for that year. Three years later, the Jamaican Parliament voted to retain the death penalty by hanging. Due to subsequent increases in police patrols, curfews and more effective anti-gang activities, that high murder rate fell and continued to fall. Many of the murders were reported to have been committed by organized crime involved in the illegal drug trade.

In 1976, Bob Marley, the famous reggae singer, and two others were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen in his Kingston home. This murder attempt was thought to have been politically motivated by one of two warring political groups, since Marley's then upcoming free concert was seen by some as backing one particular politician.

A view of the old bauxite mine and wharf from the other side of ship
During the mid-1980's, I flew into Kingston to follow the paper trail of one of our fugitives. Parts of Kingston that we drove through were burned out buildings with political slogans painted on the walls still standing. That night, the other agent and I stayed at a hotel which was surrounded by cyclone fence with concertina wire on top. We were advised not to go outside the compound at night. It was explained to us that there were two political parties in the country and that a different criminal gang had attached itself to each of the parties. Kingston being on the opposite end of the island from the tourist resorts, we were assured the resort areas were kept safe because no one wanted to scare away the tourist money. The two Jamaican feds we worked with, and who escorted us everywhere, informed us to stay out of the mountain country at night and not to run any army checkpoints in the middle of the country. Those guys will machine gun you, we were told. But that was back then.

For our 2014 walk into the resort area of Ocho Rios, I was entirely comfortable with our environment. Our worst problem was saying "No" to vendors and taxi drivers. My only regret was not having the gear and time to go snorkeling on my own. Seems I should have signed up for the snorkeling excursion. Still had a great time at a beachside bar in a warm sun with balmy breezes...and out of the Colorado snow and cold. Sure, we'd go again sometime.

That was our last port of call before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale, disembarkation, U.S. Customs and the airport for home. It was a fun trip, seeing the tourist side, yet knowing what was or had been lurking in the past of each city and/or country we had visited.

25 April 2014

Crime Cruise-Costa Rica


Harbor at Limon, tug ready to assist
During his fourth and final visit to the New World in 1502, Columbus discovered a land he named Costa Rica, meaning the rich coast. Unfortunately, there was no gold or treasure to be found here. The place he first anchored was an island near the future port of Limon, the Spanish word for lemon.

Costa Rica is a country where Central America narrows before joining the South America continent at the land bridge of Panama. It has coasts in two different oceans while its capital, San Jose, lies in the Central Valley between the two coasts.

Our boat dock in rain forest  for the Tortuguero Canal
The Tour

We docked on the Caribbean side in the harbor of Limon, but as we had been reminded by our guide, Costa Rica is a third world country and poverty is widespread in Central and South America. We saw no tourist resort areas and therefore assumed that today's rich coast was on the Pacific side of the country. Online tourist ads seem to favor that side.

Toucan eating a piece of fruit



Our first stop on the tour took us to the Tortuguero Canals, a series of natural and man made waterways which connect Barra de Colorado and Tortuguero with the port of Limon. Here, a short boat trip on the canal showed us some of the various wildlife native to the area, such as small caimans, sloths, a variety of birds and a lizard nicknamed the Jesus Lizard for his ability to run across short stretches of water on his hind legs without sinking. Naturally, the lizards we saw and photographed didn't perform for us. Must have been camera shy.

Bird walking on water lilies





Next came a short walk through a portion of the Veragua Rain Forest. We lucked out, it wasn't raining at that moment. At the end of the walk, we entered the Sloth Sanctuary, which raises seized and abandoned wild animals until they can be released back into nature. Underneath a large net dome, we found two types of sloths hanging in trees and on caretakers, two types of small monkeys running amok up and down vegetation, a very friendly Toucan who wanted a fruit snack and several turtles in ponds. Many of the caretakers were student volunteers from Germany, Austria and other countries.

taking a break from running amok
Back on the bus, we rode a few miles to a banana plantation and packing house. All the banana bunches still on the trees were wrapped in blue canvas bags to protect them from insects. When the bunches reach the right maturity, they are cut and tied onto a cable system which delivers them to the packing station. Here, the blue bags are removed, they get water baths in two different large tubs under an open air shed and are then graded and packed into cardboard boxes for shipping. We learned there are three upright stalks on a banana tree: the mature stalk with a bunch of bananas, the  shorter stalk that will bear bananas the following season and the just growing stalk replacing the mature one cut from the year before.

The Crime

Casinos are legal in Costa Rica and while there were no laws on the books about online gambling, U.S. and Canadian entrepreneurs started setting up and operating online sports books and poker rooms in this Central American country during the late twentieth century. Not having a physical location in the U.S. allowed them to evade U.S. gambling laws, and by keeping their accounts in other foreign countries, the online gambling sites also avoided paying taxes on their massive profits to Coasta Rica. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. government passed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1999, banning online sports books and poker rooms. Since these operations were based in Costa Rica, the online gambling entrepreneurs thought they were safe. Their business flourished into about 2006 when they soon found they had a problem whenever they arrived at an American airport during a money run or for other reasons. Arrests were made. Then, the FBI stepped up the pressure by coming to Costa Rica to make raids and arrests. These defendants were quickly extradited back to American soil on charges of money laundering and violations of the Wire Act. In 2006, President Bush signed an even more restrictive law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. However, it was the Black Friday Raids of 2011 that finally broke the back of the big online gambling organizations in Costa Rica.

To depict the heyday of this time period, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake starred in a recent movie, Runner, Runner about the online poker rooms in Costa Rica. The movie showed scenes of the piles of money made by the entrepreneurs, violence between rivals, drug usage by those involved, their hedonistic life style and the coded software written by employees to cheat the online customers.

As a side note, one of my prior racquetball partners had a son who left a sports book in Vegas several years ago to work online gambling in Costa Rica. However, he was smart enough to get out of the business and out of that country before the Black Friday Raids.

Yep, we'd go back to Costa Rica, but I think we'll try the Pacific side next time.

See you in Jamaica in two weeks. That Jimmy Buffet's got some nice rum drinks there in his establishment, not to mention the one free Margarita for every customer.

11 April 2014

Crime Cruise-Panama Canal


Our ship made its approach into the Panama Canal just before dawn. Since cruise ships have priority for passage, several dozen freighters lay at anchor in the bay, waiting their turn. In the misty grey of early morning, all those ships on the near horizon resembled an old movie scene of an invasion fleet during war time.

Entrance to 1st lock and hanging roadway for vehicles
As we entered the channel for the first lock, a hanging roadway could be seen several feet above the water line and running across the face of the lock. It was one-way vehicle traffic until a signal sounded and traffic could then go the other direction. When our ship moved further into the the channel, guards closed traffic gates on both banks and all vehicles were stopped. The hanging roadway parted in the middle and each section rotated to the side, allowing room for our ship to pass.

Two 'mules" guiding the freighter next to us

Eight "mules," resembling small train engines on railroad tracks, attached cables to the ship to help guide her through the narrow locks. (Some very large freighters left grey paint smears along the walls of the locks.) There were four "mules" to a side, two forward and two aft. When we had transited all three locks on the Caribbean side, the cables were released from the ship and reeled in by the "mules." Then the little engines were off to assist the next ship.

Off to the right, we observed a narrow waterway, the site of the French attempt to build the canal before the Americans took over. Unfortunately for the French, they were used to digging in sand like they did for the Suez Canal, whereas the Panama Canal turned out to be a process of blasting in hard rock. To the left is the construction for another set of locks being built for much wider ships to transit the shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific. These locks are set to open in 2015 or 2016.

Narrow channel on right is the French attempt at canal
a few interesting facts

1~ The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when the King of Spain ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru. This route would provide the Spanish with a military advantage over the Portuguese.  In a 1788-93 expedition, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for the canal's construction.

2~ Backed by the U.S., Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, which allowed the canal to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.

3~ President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 giving the canal back to the Panamanians. They took complete control in 1999, however the U.S. reserved the right to defend the canal.

4~ Passenger vessels in excess of 30K tons, also known as cruise ships, pay a passage rate based on the number of passengers that can be accommodated in permanent beds. This charge is currently $92 per unoccupied berths and &115 per occupied berth. Freighters have different rates. Our ship paid well over two hundred thousand dollars to enter Gatun Lake through the three locks and go back out the same day.

5~ The lowest toll paid was 36 cents by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928. Wonder if he was aware of crocodiles living in canal waters? We saw one taking his own swim for free.

6~ John Le Carre wrote The Tailor of Panama, a spy thriller novel which was later made into a movie. Parts of the movie were filmed in Panama to include the canal and Gatun Lake.

Re-entry from Gatun Lake, gates close behind us
The Tour

There were several scheduled land tours, but we elected to stay on board and watch the operation of the locks and the "mules." After the ship had passed out of Gatun Lake, back through the locks and into the bay, she docked at Colon for a few hours in order to pick up passengers who had gone land tours. We picked this time to go ashore and take in the locals. Shopping wasn't much, but we did enjoy some Panama beers at an open sidewalk bar called the Lucky Seven with its very friendly owner. Once again, we found, too late, that the bar had wi-fi.


Get your Panama beer at the Lucky 7 in Colon
The Crime

Time was, back in the '80's, you could buy a cargo plane in Spain, register it in Panama, fly to a clandestine airstrip guarded by the Colombian army in the Colombian jungle, load up your contraband, get airborne after midnight, fly across the Gulf, enter U.S. airspace, pass over the SAC base in Omaha without being noticed and land in a wheat stubble field along the Missouri River about the crack of dawn to unload your cargo. If you were lucky, the law didn't catch you on the ground. One plane in particular wasn't lucky. We took the load, crew and ground crew.

On December 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama. Its dictator, Manuel Noriega, was subsequently taken as a prisoner of war. He was flown to Miami and tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. His forty year sentence was later reduced to seventeen years based on good behavior and he was extradited to France in April 2010 on a money laundering conviction. In December 2011, he was extradited back to Panama for murder and human rights abuses where he had been sentenced in absentia for a term of twenty years. Guess it's good to be the dictator, unless you screw up and the U.S. comes knocking on your door.

Would I go back to see Panama? You bet. We are already thinking about a Panama Canal cruise in 2016 when the new set of locks is open to wider ships.

See you in two weeks in Limon, Costa Rica.


28 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Cartagena


by R.T. Lawton


Harbor with skyline of new Cartagena
Cartagena was the second port of call for our cruise ship. Even though I came as a tourist, I left the badge I usually carry in my billfold at home. Probably wouldn't do to inadvertently become involved in a situation and have that gold shield come to light. Back when the Medellin and Cali cartels were in full swing, some of our guys got kidnapped and shot in Colombia. Plus South America likes tourist money, but they are wary of U.S. citizens in-country who could appear to be there in an unofficial capacity. So why take the risk? I'm on vacation.

The Tour

These days, Cartagena is a large commercial shipping port, a carryover from the early years when it was a Spanish stronghold during their conquest of South America. Founded in 1533 on the site of an Indian village by the name of Calamar, the conquistadors used this port to gather much of their gold looted from the natives and then shipped this treasure to Spain.
Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Our tour bus met us at the pier and drove through some of the poorer parts of the city en route to our first destination. All of the side-by-side, squeezed together residences and small businesses had metal grill work over their doors and windows. It's not there just for decoration. At one spot, a large open gate provided a quick glimpse of an old man in shorts, no shirt, working on a dilapidated car, but then most commercial port areas are life in reality, not scenic attractions.

At some point, our route also took us past the Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is a famous South American author of several novels, some of which are in the mystery genre. Though not a mystery, one of the novels he was famous for in North America was Love in the Time of Cholera.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
First stop is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, built from blocks of stone and blocks of faded red coral. This is one impressive fortress constructed on a hill overlooking the harbor and the old city. With its long sloping ramps, drawbridge, high walls, multiple levels, dark and winding interior tunnels dug out of solid rock, multitude of cannons and crisscrossing fields of fire, this fort was a formidable obstacle to any Old World enemy assaulting from land or by sea. And the view from the top is breath taking, even if you aren't already winded by all the stairs or other climbing to get there.

Walls around old city
Next, the bus takes us to the old walled city where we walk on the ancient walls that once guarded this part of the city from pirates. Here, the walls are much lower than the fort, but have lots of cannon ports to repel an enemy. From the walls, we descend a ramp into the old city streets and enter the calle where parts of Romancing the Stone were filmed. Second story balconies, much like the ones in the French Quarter of New Orleans, are covered with bright Bougainvillaea hanging from wooden boxes. The tour guide says these house owners get a break on their property taxes for maintaining the decorative flowers. On the narrow street below the balconies, vendors with limited English abilities besiege us with offers to sell bottled pop, water or beer from tubs of ice. Others hawk t-shirts and trinkets.

Romancing the Stone street as seen from old city walls
Our walking tour leads us through a naval museum with models of the harbor, forts and walled city as they were centuries ago, a beautiful cathedral and the Palacio de la Inquisicion. A gallows and several instuments of torture are displayed in the palace's courtyard. Didn't do to be other than a faithful Catholic in those days.

On the way back to the ship, our bus stops at a small, two-level, open air shopping mall where one can buy emeralds, Colombian coffee or souvenirs. If you take a photo of one of the colorfully dressed, female fruit vendors, be sure to give her a couple of dollars, else she will track you down and make loud demands for money. There are signs on the street requiring those two dollars for any photo taken of her.

Fruit vendor
The Crime

All the gold plunder coming overland from Peru to Cartagena soon came to the attention of Caribbean pirates and privateers. French pirate Robert Baal was the first to attack the city in 1544. In 1559, Martin Cote (French) followed suit. Twenty-four years later, the English buccaneer John Hawkins decided it was his turn, but Cartagena's new cannons drove him off. In 1572, Francis Drake (English) sacked the city and pillaged its treasure, to include the city's bells. Baron de Pontis (French) occupied the city for two months in 1697, and English admiral Edward Vernon tried his luck in 1741, but didn't succeed. Seems pirates were a plague on the population back then.

In more recent years, home grown drug cartels brought money, violence and corruption to the country. Mother ships out of Cartagena sailed north with their holds packed with drugs for the U.S. market, but then everyone is familiar with Pablo Escobar and his kind. Our tour guide spoke of him and the cartels as not being a problem to Cartagena anymore. Maybe so, in which case we can talk of smaller crimes.

Old cathedral with crypt in foreground
Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena wrote an article concerning advice for the tourist, 25 things you should be wary of in Cartagena. Here's a few.

1) Never, ever change money on the streets. Unlike other South American countries, there is no black market, and it is not safe or recommended. Getting short-changed or handed fake bills, or having your wallet snatched from your hands in broad daylight are common scams. Cartagena has plenty of banks and casa de cambios. Many large hotels and emerald shops will change dollars, and most businesses accept US dollar bills.

3. Don't walk on the wall at night. Despite the romantic vistas and the fact that scores of locals and lovers do, it is a known haunt of thieves and assaults on women have been reported.

7. It might sound obvious, but don't walk around flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, wads of money, etc. Places like beaches, outside banks and the area around the clock tower are favored pickpocket haunts. Thieves have been known to follow people from banks for up to half a day before they strike. Remember there are tens of thousands of desplazados, or displaced people in Cartagena who have fled the problems in the interior of Colombia. Many of these people work for a salary of $2 a day. Be wary of pushy street vendors who wave t-shirts and other objects in your face: often it is a foil or distraction so an accomplice can relieve you of your handbag or camera. Leave your "fanny pack" or zippered money pouch at home-they are sure to attract a thief.


Fort looking at new Cartagena over harbor
10. Swat up on emeralds before you buy. There are many very good dealers, but caveat emptor. You probably won't get green glass, but you might pay more than you should. When ordering custom pieces, make sure that it is the full price you are handing over, not a deposit. Many shops use the word "bono" instead of the word "deposito" to confuse tourists. When the customer returns to pick up the piece they are then told they have only paid for materials, and the full price including labor is usually double.

11. The same goes for Cuban cigars. The ones sold on the street are of dubious origin and freshness. If in doubt, buy from one of the stores. You'll pay more, but you will be getting the real thing.

Old Clock Tower (left), Cathedral (center) & large plaza (right)
19. Carry a photocopy of your passport on your person, but not your actual passport. It is actually illegal to walk the streets in Colombia without I.D., but a photocopy will suffice in 90% of situations. Don't give your passport to anyone who doesn't produce convincing I.D. themselves.

All in all, we enjoyed Cartagena for its historical value, beautiful cathedrals and panoramic views from the fort. Other than being swamped by vendors, we had no problems. In our minds, this is not a sun and water vacation destination, but we would gladly return in order to tour other places in Cartagena that we didn't have time for on this trip.

See you in two weeks in the Panama Canal. Did you know that big ditch actually runs north and south rather than east and west?