Saturday, October 25, 2014

Brambles and Briars.

I’m off on book tour for Sons of Sparta. Just left Scottsdale, Arizona (where I had a terrific time doing a joint event with Tim Hallinan at the Poisoned Pen) for Houston, Texas and Murder by the Book. But this isn’t about either place. It’s about the farm I left behind in New Jersey. I’ve been away from it for six months, and though I’ve good friends looking after it, there’s a lot of work to be done to keep the woods and pond from being overrun by invasive species.

The culprits massed along the waters edge.

I love doing that sort of work, but this year my schedule made it impossible to do so in what is generally the best time, the Fall. So, I asked a friend, a former New Jersey state forest fire fighter to help me out. To understand Bob, think Smokey the Bear, in physical vision as well as in dedication.  Nor does he wear much more than Smokey even in the harshest of winters.

Smokey prepared to do battle.

I’ve always known Bob to have a quick wit, but not until this week did I realize what a natural writer he is.  I just received this (unsolicited) report from him on what he’s been doing at the farm and it had me laughing out loud.

It also got me to thinking about how two other friends who do work on my property also possess uncanny facility with the written word.  One, who mows my fields in summer and plows the driveway in winter, contributes to a national landscape magazine, and the other, currently working on restoring my barn, is a renaissance man possessing an uncanny grasp of local history.

The road less plowed.
The barn not fallen.

Perhaps it’s something in the water?  Maybe I should change the name of the place from “Tsoris Springs Christmas Tree Farm and Bagelry” to “Literary Springs?”

But for now I think I’ll just share Bob’s quick note to me he titled, “Brambles and Briars”…and in the process give you some idea of the sort of fun I’m missing out on to trod along the writers’ trail.  Here goes:

The enemy's armaments.

Hi from Northwest New Jersey.  Just wanted to let you know I started the eradication project on your farm.  You have a plethora of things with thorns growing there.

I am still licking my wounds after two days.  Not only is the autumn/Russian olive thorny—maybe you have both—but the multiflora, floribunda rose, and barberry are challenging too.

I got rained out today, but I worked Monday 10:30-18:30, eight hours, after riding my bike four miles to the farm after dropping off my car in town for repairs, and Tuesday I rode my bike three miles from home to town to pick up my car, worked 10:00-13:30, three and a half hours, and then picked up my son from school.  

The bow saw may not be effective for cutting larger dead wood, but for this project it is invaluable, so are the lopping shears.  My neighbor gave me a handsaw with large teeth that also works well.  The only expense so far has been for a disposable camera to document the project for your forester and the tax assessor.

Your forester is going to wonder where the 3-5' Norway spruces came from.  They were struggling to survive under all that brush.  Two large piles have accumulated in the field so far.

The good news is no problems so far with bears, bees or ticks, although I did lose my shoe down a groundhog hole on Monday.  

The only strange thing is now when I travel around town I see the fields, on the edge of streams, everywhere...autumn olive.  It mocks me, growing faster than I can cut it, gobbling up more and more otherwise productive ground. Help me!   Bye for now.

I agree, “Bye for now.”


Friday, October 24, 2014

The Tragic Tale Of Lynda Spence

Linda, the house in the West Of Scotland,
The upstairs bedroom taken apart by the forensic team
the remains of the burnt out chair
From the Daily Record

There was another infamous murder case recently in Scotland where a successful murder conviction was secured with no body.

I hope this blog makes sense as I am writing it only using the information that is available to the public. I did attend a lecture about the use of forensic evidence in this case but there are appeals and reviews going on so I am only going to use the information that is currently in the public domain.

The case surrounds 27 year old Lynda Spence. It’s difficult to describe the type of person Lynda was.  Her best friends described her as loving, generous and extravagant.  She loved living the high life and entertained her friends lavishly and “owned” two properties in Glasgow’s most exclusive address.  The same friends would also describe her as a compulsive liar, who would rip off anybody for a quick buck.  Looking at the woman she was probably very bright but without the chances of a good education… but no matter what she did, to who, the pain that she went through in the final two weeks of her life is unimaginable
Her big mistake was spending other peoples’ money under the pretence that her property company was accepting money for investment in property development… but instead she spent the money and when she took the money off two violent criminals (one of whom was a cocaine dealer) with an inability to pay it back, she must have known there would be payback. She had promised them a £100,000 return for a £85,000 initial investment and there was a promise of millions coming from a property deal near Stansted Airport in Essex. No such deal existed. In desperation she persuaded a Glasgow printer to print fake Danish Government Bonds that covered £6,500,000.  Her investors found out.

In April 2011 Lynda was lured from her home.  The rest of the story is all too awful to contemplate. 

She was tied onto to a computing chair for nearly two weeks, not even allowed to go the toilet.  It is unclear what they hoped to gain as there was no information that she could give them other than finding out where the money had gone.  To achieve this end they cut off Lynda’s thumb, showed it to a property developer she had also scammed and he immediately stumped up some money. It has to be said that at the time of her disappearance Lynda was already being investigated for fraud by Strathclyde Police. But both the Scottish Crime and Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency and the Serious Crime Squad are rumoured to have recruited her as an informant.  In the midst of all this the police wanted information on an Albanian called Sokal Zefraj who claimed that he was Lynda’s husband but it turned out to be a marriage of convenience.

Alarms were raised because Lynda called her mum every single day and in April 2011 the calls abruptly stopped. She was tortured with garden loppers and an iron, her kneecaps were smashed with a golf club, her fingers were cut off.  This went on for two weeks and the police do wonder why the people who knew this was going on didn’t do anything to stop it and the most likely answer is that they too were in terror
The prosecution counsel have never been able to say how and when Lynda was murdered or where her body is.  The defence explained to the jury that someone clever enough to con that much money out of hardened criminals would also be clever enough to leave the country with their stash of cash but her mother has never heard from her and that doesn’t explain how the amputated digits turned up.
One of the accused has boasted to a cell mate that he smothered her, decapitated her and burnt her remains in a furnace.  Someone else came forward and said that the accused had driven to the wilds of Argyll and asked a friend if they could borrow his boat.  The friend thought he was being asked to dispose of a body and refused.
Initially any investigation by the police was hampered by the reluctance of the witnesses to say anything but eventually a few witnesses felt more threatened by the perpetrators and turned 'Queens Evidence' in popular parlance.  The police were led to an old property in west Scotland with a totally refurbished upstairs room.  One of the cops commented on the unusual nails used to keep the brand new floorboards down so they lifted the floorboards and found tiny blood specks, which proved to be Lynda’s. They also traced the code number on some of the materials used back to a warehouse. They traced one single purchase of that amount of material and the odd combination of the items being bought meant that the assistant remembered them and could identify them.  There was also CCTV of them buying the aforesaid goods. The itemised billing system meant there was a timestamped record in the till and the timing ties exactly with the recognisable images on the CCTV.  So in the end even without a body it tied up to be a neat case against those convicted.

The main two perpetrators got a total of 67 years in jail. The two henchmen who agreed to baby sit Linda got 11 years each.

As a postscript, in February 2014, Lynda's mum age 57, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than two years to live. She has appealed to the convicted men to reveal the whereabouts of her daughter's body.
So far, the pleas have been ignored

Lynda, as a baby with her mum.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Protein is Everywhere

Mopane "worm"
Thanks go to Annamaria for both the idea and the title of this blog.  It all started with a discussion around so called mopane worms which are regarded as something of a delicacy in parts of Africa and are a very important source of protein for large numbers of rural people.  Actually, they are the caterpillars of a species of emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina) which is widespread in areas where the mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane) grow.  Elephants are very partial to mopane as well, and the caterpillars don’t win that argument!

Emperor moth

Mopane leaves
Trees stripped by caterpillars
Much of the low country of southern Africa is covered by mopane trees and so the moths are common.  In fact, the caterpillars can eat a variety of trees and shrubs so they are not restricted to mopane country, but it is their favorite.  I recall visiting a bushveld camp where – in midsummer when the trees are normally lush with green foliage – every tree was completely bare.  Every scrap of every leaf had been eaten by the caterpillars.  It looked as though whole forests would die, but, no, within weeks the trees had sprouted new leaves and looked as vigorous as before. 

Enthusiastic worm collector 
So we're talking about poor rural people collecting caterpillars because they have nothing else to eat, right?  Wrong.  Harvesting and selling mopane worms is a multi-million rand industry in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The caterpillars are not farmed but collected when they have reached near maturity from the areas where they occur naturally. It's so enthusiastically pursued that there are questions about sustainability.  In the season, the caterpillars are harvested, guts removed, and then they are dried in the sun or lightly smoked.  It's estimated that South Africa alone trades three million pounds of dried mopane worm annually, and that Botswana's involvement in the industry nets it ten million dollars a year.  And the numbers add up too.  Only three pounds of feed (mopane leaves) are needed for one pound of mopane worms; for beef it’s ten to one and cattle aren’t partial to mopane.  What’s more the caterpillars are good fat protein, rich in iron and other minerals.

Dried mopane worms can be eaten raw as a crunchy snack, often a little salt and spice is added in the drying process.  When it comes to cooking them, however, they are soaked for several hours to rehydrate them – one recipe I saw recommends beer for this – and then stewed or fried.  And, yes, like many other interesting food sources, they taste a bit like chicken.  Here’s a recipe if you want to try this at home and you have some dried mopane worms handy.  It serves four people if you can find another three sufficiently adventurous participants:

One pound dried mopane worms;
three tomatoes, diced or 1 can of tomatoes;
two onions, diced;
1/2 teaspoon turmeric;
three fresh green chilies, finely chopped;
three cloves of garlic, finely chopped;
tablespoon of fresh ginger, finely chopped.

Soak dried worms in water for 3-4 hours to reconstitute.
Fry onions in groundnut oil on medium heat until translucent. Add turmeric, chilies, garlic and ginger. Fry for about five minutes. Add tomatoes and cook on low for about 20 minutes until spices are well blended.
Add drained worms and cook until they have softened a bit but still are a little crunchy. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with pap, the local staple mielie meal porridge. Enjoy.

And HERE you can see the way restaurants do it.  (By the way, the name is pronounced mo–pa-nee, not the way the announcer does it.) 

Moving beyond mopane worms, the UN estimates that over 2 billion people eat insects as a normal part of their diet rather than as an occasional curiosity.  It is particularly widespread in Africa and Asia, and even has its own name – Entomophagy.  In fact, the UN estimates that the only way we will be able to feed future generations, extrapolating population growth and global warming, will be by bringing insects centrally into the human diet.  

Take a look at some of these interesting options:

Deep fried crickets

Locusts. The boy doesn't look convinced...

I'm not convinced...

This looks more promising

If you'd like to try dried mopane worms for yourself, come to the Murder Is Everywhere panel at Bouchercon and join us at the signing for a snack!

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Being a Viking

Yrsa is on deadline for her new book, and we definitely don't want anything to interfere with our next Iceland read.  So she hasn't been able to write a new blog for tonight - she says every word she types is painful - but we thought you'd like to revisit her tongue in cheek summary of the Vikings and her own experiences in that line.  So here is Yrsa, being a Viking.

I don‘t think I have every blogged about the Vikings. Oddly enough. The reason I am reminded of this is the very recent opening of the new Viking exhibition in the British Museum in London. Although I am not lucky enough to have been to see it, I have seen the catalog and it promises to be very impressive.

But I do not intend to run through the somewhat bloody history of these forefathers of present day Nordic people, including the Icelanders. I am just going to briefly correct some common misconceptions and interesting facts.

Viking did not originally mean what the English term implies today. It was not a nation or band of people but a profession. To go to víking meant to make a journey by sea, for trading with willing or mostly unwilling people (raiding) in far-away places. Someone who joined such an expedition was a Viking or a víkingur.
In modern day Iceland if you refer to someone as being a Viking you infer that this person is strong and daring. When the Icelandic investors and bankers began to expand their operations to overseas markets they were lovingly referred to as the Export Vikings (útrásarvíkingar). We had no idea that they were old school in terms of raiding. Now the term Export Viking is considered derogatory. But all is not lost, a Viking is still someone healthy and courageous and one of the most popular Icelandic beers is named Víking.

The Viking heyday was the period between approximately 800 to 1170 AD. Despite this relatively short history, the Vikings had a massive impact on western society.  

The Vikings home base was most of Scandinavia, in addition to Iceland and the Faeroe Islands - which are Nordic but not a part of geographical Scandinavia. To begin with these lands were not specific countries and the people had a fluid notion of nationality. As an example it was only in 872 that the various Viking bands or clans in Norway were untied under one king – Haraldur hárfagri – Harald with the beautiful hair. Goldilocks introduced the at-the-time newfangled notion of taxes to the Norwegian Vikings, at which time my forefathers packed up and left. The ones who were willing to pay stayed behind. This is believed to explain why Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns do not mind being taxed up to their chins while the Icelanders and the Faeroese detest it. It is a genetic thing.  

As almost everyone knows, the Vikings were considered highly violent and brutal when raiding and pillaging. As an example of this viciousness old historical texts often mention the fact that they did not respect the sanctity of Christian churches. To me this is incredibly childish. Of course they didn’t. They were not Christian.
Being a history skeptic I must additionally mention an ancient reference to a Viking raid in Constantinople that says the invaders chopped their captives up into little pieces and threw them into the sea. Oh really? Why would anyone waste the energy needed for raiding to chop up captives? I would get it if they intended to scare people but that cannot be the reason since they threw the bits from their boats into the sea. The Viking swords were additionally not made for dicing, although able to pierce and easily kill. So chalk such stories down as exaggerations.   

However, I am sure they were pretty brutal – as were all people raiding and pillaging at the time. Yet, the Icelandic Sagas describe a people that did not consider killing anything pleasurable. A killing had bad consequences. But were occasionally required. Hundreds of years later, when Iceland fell under the Danish crown, public executions required rallying people by authoritative force to watch. No one wanted to see such a waste of life.  

The Vikings were neither dirty nor wild looking brutes. They were in fact very vain. They were clean, owned combs and took baths every Saturday – the name Saturday in Icelandic is “laugardagur” meaning bathing day (laug = pool/bath, dagur = day). At the time this was unheard of in Europe. I am also told that they have found traces of eyeliner on some of the Viking leaders unearthed in archeological digs. Ouch. Try not to think of the 80s but more Pirates of the Caribbean. It feels more acceptable.

The Vikings kept slaves which were mainly captured in Ireland, Scotland and the Orkney Islands. A slave is called “þræll” in Icelandic or a thrall in English Vikingese. The term enthralled originates from this old Norse word.

So, I hope this highly unorganized summary of Viking tidbits contained something you did not know. If not here is my last attempt. When I was born the doctor told my mother that I was a Viking as I was a big baby – even for Icelandic standards. I have not been able to verify this until last week when I was attending a crime festival in Oslo (Krim Festivalen). While there I was walking on a cobblestone sidewalk searing high heels and my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. One of my heels got stuck between the stupid stones, causing me to fall flat on my face. At which point in time I broke my nose. But, being a Viking I did not let that ruin anything. I made my appearances and my face did not even hurt that much. So now I think I could have been a raider.   
Finally, after falling I made sure to wear high heels at all times. You see, horse riding lessons of my youth taught me one good thing. If you fall you must get directly back in the saddle.

Yrsa - Wednesday  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Who says Paris isn't bébé friendly?

I did a lot of research for my next book in which my detective has a six month old bébé. Nuff said about that for now but researching baby friendly spots, cafes, etc. opened up a whole new world my detective would need to know if she had a little person in tow. Here's some basics. And with bébé it's usually finding a place to nurse and la Toilette.

-On the fifth floor of Galeries Lafayette department store behind l'Opera there's an area for babies and young children; a place to breastfeed, a microwave to heat up bottles or food, a changing facility and small play area.
-If you're in the 7th arrondissement at the Bon Marché department store there are great FREE publics toilets with swanky changing facilities.
-Les Bio Gosses is an organic store with everything for young parents and pregnant women.  Food, clothes, toys, games, nursing products and cosmetics. A special thing to know about this store is the hidden area upstairs, where pregnant women can rest, you can change your baby's diaper or breatfeed your baby while your older kids are playing. Les Bio Gosses is simply heaven for parents.

-Point WC on the Champs Elysées this is bathroom boutique line with designer public toilets called Point WC. Point WC are the first 'luxury' public toilets featuring a toiletries boutique and well-being services. Disinfected by staff after every visit, they guarantee cleanliness. Each cubicle is different: with 'designer' 'ethnic' or 'chic' styles' and you chose. Coffee and beverages are available and also a changing area for babies - with a towel provided at no charge - and a comfortable area for breast feeding.

-The stroller hangout, Le Poussette Café in the 9th arrondissment, it's a concept store with café and shop under one roof: Here you will find everything, in a café ambiance, if you are pregnant or have les enfants. There's fashion for children, toys, books, nursing products and bébé decorations.The Poussette Café has an extended program of happenings, everything from baby massage classes to weekend jazz brunch. Enjoy lunch with a friend and your kids can play around in the play corner. Just outside the café, you will find a great playground with facilities for the bigger ones and small children. Et voilà
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, October 20, 2014

Memories False and Lost

“Tell the jury what you saw," the prosecutor asks the man on the witness stand.   We have seen this happen many times in movies and in crime shows on TV and read it in scores of crime novels.  Nothing is as convincing to a jury as an eyewitness report.

We know from Caro’s fascinating post a few months ago, though, how unreliable the hindsight of eyewitnesses can be.  If you missed her report or (ahem!) don’t remember it well, you can find it here:

This morning, while fixing myself breakfast, I listened to an episode of my favorite radio show.   It's called Radio Lab and reports on social and physical science and often about how they intersect and interact. All the episodes are available as podcasts, so I can tune one in whenever I want to hear something to stimulate the little gray cells.  This morning, it was the show called "Memory and Forgetting,” which deals with, among other things, some notions very useful to the crime writer.  Like the fact that memory is dynamic.   One does not put away one’s experiences like storing a can of tomato soup in the kitchen cupboard—with the ability to take out the exact same thing you put in.

Decades before the scientists proved what really happens to memories, Fredrick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner instinctively knew that the more often one accesses a memory, the less likely we are to remember it accurately.  Viz--

Those two characters must have been truly in love and often thought back on their love affair.  That’s why their memories of it are so different.  Science can show us that now.

This means that the more the police repeatedly question the witness, the more degraded will be the quality of the testimony.  But maybe that is what the investigators want?

And memories can be planted.  Scientific investors have been doing that quite successfully for a long time.  All it takes is to tell the subject about a childhood memory reported by, say the his parents or by her older siblings and, bingo, most people will report details of the scene, filling in with memories of other places, the mall where they “remember” having gotten lost.  What never happened begins to feel absolutely real.

If you want to hear the radio show in question, you can find it here:  (I warn you, you will likely become addicted to Radio Lab and be a smarter person for it.)

At the very least, if you listen, you will learn that the human memory—while precious beyond words and the source of our sense of ourselves—is not one hundred percent reliable.  Try to keep that in mind.

Annamaria - Monday

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In Memoriam of a Great One.

I was going to write something else today, not quite sure what but something else.  Then I had a bit of unexpected finger surgery and was told to ease up on the keyboard for a couple of days. So you’re getting a reprieve. Of sorts. 

Instead, I’m going to peck out something meaningful that requires few words.

It’s a final salute to a man, husband, father, and warrior.  One of the best of The Greatest Generation, living a life few writers could ever hope to capture, no matter how hard they might try.

A second generation American of German Irish roots, born on New Year’s Eve 1919 in NYC’S poor Lower East Side, his factory worker father finally made enough to move the family up to the Bronx into another polyglot neighborhood of hard working men and women.

His athleticism and good nature earned him a position as a batboy at Yankee Stadium in the days of Babe Ruth—and later an offer to try out for the Babe’s former team, the Boston Red Sox.   After graduating high school he attended St. John’s University, working two jobs to pay for it, leaving no time to sleep.

Then came World War II, and he made his choice to leave school and go fight for his country.

He trained as a fighter-bomber pilot, flew 133 missions over Germany, never knowing each time he went up if he’d come back.  Many of his friends did not.  He received many decorations—including the unique honor of receiving both the United States and British Distinguished Flying Crosses.  But he never made a big deal of them. He just did his job.

And thought about the love of his life, Virginia.  The young woman he’d met on a one-day pass in flight school, in Sarasota.  And how they’d been inseparable until he left a month later, knowing he could not ask her to marry a soldier going off to war.

Four years later he returned, found her, and they married. 

He started a business. A very good one.  But it ended with the Korean War when he was called back to active duty to serve for twelve years as base commander of the Air National Guard’s 139th Fighter Squadron and 109thAirlift Wing in upstate New York.

There they had three daughters.

And there he buried his wife in 1970. His life was never the same, though he lived it through his daughters, his grandchildren, and reminiscences of a life respected and admired by all who knew him.

A memorial service with full military honors takes place today as he is interred next to his beloved Virginia.

God rest your blessed soul, Colonel Frederick Joseph Zilly, Jr. (1919-2014).