Sunday, September 21, 2014

Guest Blogger: David Swatling––Bicycle Fishing in Amsterdam

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today David Swatling who grew up in New York and moved to Amsterdam in 1985. David produced arts & culture documentaries for Radio Netherlands, winning numerous international awards. His debut suspense novel Calvin’s Head is published by Bold Strokes Books. To learn more about David, check out his website at

Welcome, David.

“This city is murder,” said posters for the 1988 Dutch thriller Amsterdamned. A serial killer uses the canal system to stalk his prey. After a late-night sequence featuring the murder of a prostitute, the scene shifts to one of those ubiquitous boatloads of visitors touring the canals on a sunny morning. As they pass under a low bridge, the hanging victim is dragged along the glass windows above the screaming tourists until it falls in amidst them. Great stuff! 

Canal Noir

I had moved to Amsterdam three years earlier and loved the city, especially the charming tree-lined canals. There’s nothing more relaxing than a leisurely canal-side walk. I consider a certain bench around the corner from my apartment an annex to my office, a perfect spot to read or write. Now that I spend the summer half of the year in the States, I miss the canals more than anything else and look forward to returning to them in the autumn.

Canal Office

The complex 100-kilometer network of canals is part of why Amsterdam is called the Venice of the North. But like its Italian counterpart, there is another side, a darker side to the waterways. Remember Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now? But it’s not a dangerous psychopath that lurks beneath the surface, such as the one portrayed in Amsterdamned. It’s bicycles.

According to the city’s Water Authority, between 12,000 and 15,000 bikes are fished out of the canals every year. Those responsible for dredging the canals on a regular basis call it bicycle fishing. If not securely locked to a bike rack, sometimes they’re blown into the water by strong winds. But most end up in the canals as a result of theft or vandalism. Even if in salvageable condition, all the drowned bikes are relegated to a scrap metal facility. Other large objects also end up in canals, including an average of about 35 cars per year, but bicycles are far and away the dredgers’ most common catch.

Bikes on Canal

The city of Amsterdam employs four full-time professional divers to deal with more serious incidents. They estimate 100 people fall into the canals each year, often requiring assistance to get out due to the very steep banks. Many are attributed to drunken men losing their balance as they urinate into the canals late at night, a misdemeanor that I’m reluctant to admit I once plead guilty – fortunately without calamitous consequences. But occasionally there are more grisly discoveries. In the spring of 2009, the body of an Irish drug dealer was found dismembered and stuffed into a suitcase that had been dumped into a canal. The alleged murderers currently face extradition proceedings to be brought to trial in the Netherlands.

And perhaps Amsterdam is seeing an inevitable renaissance as a locale for crime fiction authors. Beginning in the mid-70s, Janwillem van de Wetering wrote a series of Amsterdam mysteries in both Dutch and English (and reissued since his death in 2008 by Soho Crime), featuring a pair of Dutch homicide detectives. But in recent months British publishers have launched two new crime series set in the Dutch city. British author David Hewson’s The House of Dolls is a gritty police procedural featuring a former police detective who lives on a canal houseboat. The other, originally published in Dutch, is Lonely Graves by Britta Bolt, a German-South African writing team. It begins when a young Moroccan immigrant’s body is found – you guessed it – in a canal.

Misty Canal

Not surprisingly, both books feature cover artwork of the Amsterdam canals. It might be interesting to note that when presented with possible cover art for my own suspense novel set in Amsterdam, most of the designs also included canal scenes. But although an important location in the book is an unusual canal-house, I opted for a different look. The story takes place on the outskirts of the city and I felt the picturesque canals might give the wrong impression when they are so emblematic of the Amsterdam most people recognize. But I can’t imagine the city’s Office of Tourism will be particularly pleased if the canals begin to acquire a new reputation as crime scene locations.  

Guest Blogger David Swatling—Sunday

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who's In Charge Here?

I think it’s time to head back to the States. 

I just returned from a trip to Delphi that reminded me of how often we take for granted that things will never change.  But things always change; it’s inevitable.  Take Mykonos for instance. Just fifteen years ago it looked nothing like it does today…except, of course, for the layout of the old town.

I never say to first time visitors anything like, “You should have seen it thirty years ago,” because they are discovering it for the first time and falling in love with it for what it is today.

Having said that, I feel I do have the right to say to myself, “Hey, this isn’t anything like how I remember this place umpteen years ago.”  I was saying that a lot this past week.  Not in a bad sense, but more so in melancholy recognition of how time marches on.

Then again, I also found myself staring in awe and wonder at places I discovered for the first time—or so my memory had me thinking it was my first.

Above Chrisso looking out across olives to Itea and Gulf of Corinth

So, let’s start out on this journey with a simple, incontrovertible premise: Greece is an extraordinarily beautiful country with land and seascapes rivaling any paradise on earth.

And to that let’s add a corollary: Responsibility for maintaining their paradise falls on the shoulders of those lucky enough to live there.

For those who might be interested, a few weeks back I offered my pre-trip recollections of my last time up to Delphi.  This time there’s a new road—no doubt courtesy of the 2004 Athens Olympics building boom—so the trip was quicker.  I noticed a lot of light industry and corporate headquarters along the six-lane highway running north out of Athens; much the same as you’d expect to find on the outskirts of any major city. It makes sense.

Farther along I entered the agricultural corridor I’d remembered, where broad stretches of farmland ran back toward hills on either side of the road—now down to four lanes.

Here’s where I had my first big surprise. There’s apparently a new cash crop taking over the brown and green world of agriculture up here by Thiva (Thebes).  It’s sprouting up everywhere, in huge lake-like patches amid fields alongside the road and in barcode-like brandings of once virginal hillsides, all in distinctive air force blue and shiny silver.  There’s a catchy name for this new crop:  Photovoltaic solar panels.  Yep, progress has come to the farmers. 

I’m not looking to get into the politics of the situation, nor the sociological implications to communities that once based their lives on revenues received from working the land rather than monthly checks for not.  That’s all open to debate.

What’s not debatable is the affect these solar panel farms must have on the image tourists passing by them form of Greece’s attitude toward protecting its natural beauty. And please don’t tell me of the great need for clean energy. I’m on board with that, but there’s no doubt the generating capacity represented by these units and far more could have been placed somewhere out of sight.

Manufacturer represents these are installations in Thiva

You’d think those in charge of shepherding the image of this beautiful land would know better. Haven’t they ever heard of New Jersey? 

Over sixty years ago the State of New Jersey built the New Jersey Turnpike.  It’s one of the most heavily trafficked roadways in America.  For those unfamiliar with the true beauty of the Garden State—that’s its state slogan—their experience passing along the New Jersey Turnpike left them with one indelible impression of the state: UGLY.

Why? Because in a massive public relations blunder New Jersey ran the Turnpike through a gauntlet of oil refineries and chemical plants.  No one passing through that stretch of road ever forgets that image.  It’s their memory of New Jersey, one that they share with others when they return home, despite how very different that tiny bit of road is from the rest of the state and even the rest of that highway.

I wonder what memories tourists will carry back home to share of their road trip up to Delphi?

And don’t get me started on the giant power generating windmills springing up in clusters of a half dozen or less on hilltops all the way up to Delphi and beyond.  Thankfully, the upper site of ancient Delphi has no such modern distractions from its eternal view.   

Sadly, the same cannot be said for those who trek off to the lower site and the Sanctuary of Athena and look west.

Tholos and Sanctuary of Athena (looking east)

Don’t misunderstand me. I love Delphi. Revere it in fact. Which is why I’m writing this. And since I’m likely going to take heat over it, I may as well let it all hang out: Who in their infinite wisdom decided a couple of years ago to redo a stretch of the most significant part of Delphi’s Sacred Way (running from the Athens Treasury to the Temple of Apollo) in a “stairway to the stars” textured concrete beige nightmare? 

Current steps
Old steps

Okay, I get it that marble is slippery. I also get it that (please God this is true) the new steps sit above the old marble walkway so that nothing has been destroyed.

How The Sacred Way once looked

But HEY, come on, surely the descendants of the creators of Delphi, the Acropolis, and so much more of the architectural beauty in our world could have come up with something more suited and less jarring to the sensibilities of this sacred place.  After all, visitors come here hoping to experience in some small measure the spiritual power drawn from Delphi’s environs that made it the literal center of the ancient world. 

In fact, that’s what Delphi is all about:  Standing at the base of Mount Parnassos’ massive Phaedriades cliffs, imaging how it must have been to have been part of all this so many thousands of years ago, staring down across the seemingly endless green Pleistos River Valley, basking in the intense spirituality that surrounds you, hoping to carry just a bit of it away with you when you leave. 

Or at least it should be.

For those who might say, “Okay, wise-butt, how do you think things could be better handled?” I have a simple suggestion. Look east twenty miles from Delphi to the Monastery of Hosias Loukas, grasshopper.

Eleven centuries ago a pious hermit (hosios in Greek) found his way into a valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty on the western slopes of Mount Helikon, the favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses.  In that place, Hosios Loukas began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the Tenth Century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age and adjacent to the country’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (or big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Terra cotta roof tiles above classical Byzantine cloisonné style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone enclose frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of its precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings long ago lost to time and plunderers.

The monastery sits perched on a slope amid an idyllic mountain setting at the end of a mile-and-a-half-long private road. The road winds along hillsides and above cultivated valleys––without a solar panel or windmill in sight—and ends at a simple parking area from which you descend into the monastery via two hundred yards of terraced marble and limestone steps, all in keeping with the historic architectural feel of the place.  Hosios Loukas Monastery is a not to be missed World Heritage site.

Enough said. Perhaps more than enough.

So, I started off this post by saying, “I think it’s time to head back to the States.” No, not to flee or because I’m a bit curmudgeonly at the moment, or even because my new book comes out October 7th (BSP), but because once I’m back in the States I’ll realize that what’s happening over here in Greece isn’t all that much different from what’s happening there.

But you’d think the Greeks would know better.  After all, somewhere amid all this marble there must be carved, “PRESERVE YOUR PAST IF YOU DESIRE A FUTURE.”


Friday, September 19, 2014

Bloody Scotland.....2014

I did promise last week that I was not going to mention ‘IT’ again as by the time you read this blog there is probably counting still going on. Fifty per cent of the population will be dancing in the street and the other fifty per cent will be thinking if they can afford enough gas to make sticking their head in the oven worthwhile.

                                                         Craig Robertson, kilted footballer!

We could be looking at house prices tumbling by 40% and still nobody knows what currency we are going to use but one thing is for certain.... the Scotland v England football match at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival will have an extra bite to it!

                                         Mark Billingham, bearded footballer

  During the run up to ‘IT’ I have been accused of being unpatriotic but I will prove my patriotism in my role of ‘physio’ for the match, by having a lovely bucket of warm, scented water for the beautiful Scottish boys. And a bucket of skanky puddle water for the grumpy old gits from south of the border. I shall liberally add ice cubes and a few dead pigeons. (should not be a problem in Stirling).

                                         This represents my therapeutic approach..

Here is a wee bit of Stirling to set the scene...

                                                               The hotel...

                                                                The Castle

On the serious side of things I am going to be very busy. I am pleased to say that my first event was the first event to sell out … and while that is technically true the other two factors to consider are that  a) I am on with one of Scotland’s most popular crime writers (Alex Gray)
 b) and that we have the audience capacity of my broom cupboard at the event.
                                         Fab Alex

 (I believe that some of the previous venues have been high jacked in case there is a re-count so we had to make do). So the event with Alex should go well.  I hope they give us time to get changed from our blood stained mock surgical scrubs outfit from the football match to my black shirt and tailored trousers for the event. 

Then I am hosting a table at the dinner which is OK for me but my other half, who is about as sociable as a deep sea angler fish, will find it very traumatic and with his PhD in political philosophy, he will not talk about IT.  It will all be troublesome.  But then, if it does turn to violence, there will at least be more material for the next novel.

Early the next day I am chairing an event with two writers although one of those writers is another two, (it’s a Michael Stanley situation) so I presume that that’s a fifty /fifty, or fifty/ twenty five /twenty five time split, and not a thirty three/ thirty three / thirty three split. I have checked that the male and female personages who wrote the book jointly are not married to each other although the book is written from two first person perspectives and the couple in the book are married to each other.  If I was the woman in the book married to that man he would be dead by page three and it would have been a very short book!! I am wondering how to phrase that politely....


                                                  Shari Low, and below, with her co conspirator.

Later on that day I am doing another event with Shari low, in her alter ego of Shari King. She’s a very successful chick lit writer who has teamed up with her old pal – and local lad made good- the Hollywood show biz reporter for breakfast TV, Ross King.

   So together they have penned a Hollywood bonkbuster, where three Glaswegians go to Hollywood, leaving their terrible or not so terrible crimes behind them---- but their secret past follows. It was a very funny read… looking out for who was based on who (Gerard Butler? Ewan McGregor?)…. The amount of sex in it was exhausting, some of it was physically impossible and on one occasion downright unhygienic.

It is difficult chairing an event, lots of reading, lots of thoughtful insightful questions that I shall nick from previous panels.  
I feel a Tunnocks Caramel wafer theme to the event coming on,

Caro  Ramsay 19 09 2014    Northern Europe.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Constitution Hill Revisted

Last week Michael wrote about Justice Cameron and the Constitutional Court, a keystone of South Africa's democracy.  Several years ago, after a visit to Johannesburg, I wrote a piece about the very same spot where the court is now built, and its gruesome history.  It seems appropriate to remind ourselves in South Africa not only of where we are, and where we want to go, but also of where we came from.  So I'm repeating this piece today in that context.

Johannesburg is built on a series of ridges running east to west.  These hills, or koppies as they are typically called in South Africa, have bare rock at the top. With spring water running over them, these rocks reflected white in the ever-present sunshine of the highveld.  This gave the region its name – the Witwatersrand or the Ridge of White Waters.
In 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand – not the type of gold that an individual could pan, but rather small amounts of gold embedded in large amounts of hard rock – a few grammes per tonne.  Thousands of people flocked to the area – only 50 kms south of Pretoria, the capital of the country called The South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR)) that with various hiccoughs had been independent since 1852.
This influx posed a problem for the ZAR government, which comprised white boers (farmers) who had trekked from the Cape Colony to get away from the hated English.  The blacks in the ZAR had no political rights, of course.  In order to entice more boers to come to the ZAR, the rules for citizenship were very easy – stay a couple of years and you could vote. With the huge rise in foreigners (uitlanders) on the gold mines, the boers realized that they would soon be swamped, so they kept changing the franchise rules to make it nigh impossible for the uitlanders to get the vote.  This was one of the issues the British (through Cecil John Rhodes) used to go to war with the boers.  Rhodes, of course, wanted access to the gold mines.
Outside the Fort with modern
Johannesburg in the background
In 1896 Kruger build a fort on the top of one of the koppies not far from the centre of Johannesburg, partly because he was (rightly) nervous of a British invasion and partly to keep watch over the uitlanders, who were clamouring for the vote.  After the Anglo-Boer War, the fort became a jail.
When I was a kid, my family lived north of the centre of Johannesburg, below the northernmost line of koppies.  We did most of our shopping in the suburbs, and only rarely went “into town”.  The two main reasons for going into town were to enjoy a movie at one of the gorgeous cinemas (the Colosseum, with stars blinking in the ceiling, the Metro, or His Majesty’s) or to go to the dentist – the smiling Dr. Cogan.
The Fort as a jail
The road out of town took us up Hospital Street, passed the Johannesburg General Hospital.  At the top of the hill was The Fort.  All one could see were the earthen walls topped by a rampart and a tunnel through the wall that ended in a huge door.  “If you don’t behave, that’s where you will end up!” my parents would say. We were terrified of The Fort.
I recently visited The Fort.  It is now known as Constitution Hill and is the home of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.  It was a very emotional visit for me because once again I was confronted by the barbarity that the white government had inflicted on those whom it regarded as enemies of the state – in reality anyone whom it wanted to keep out of the way.
The conditions were atrocious.  In the words of one political prisoner – Alex la Guma – “One of the reasons for my disease (Typhoid) is found in this jail.  Filth.  The mats are filthy, the blankets are filthy, the latrines are filthy, the food is filthy, the convicts’ clothes are filthy.  The latrines overflowed and made a stench.”
Naked search
Not only were the conditions awful, but the treatment was also – prisoners stripped naked in public, then searched; beatings; solitary confinement.  And overcrowding.  Cells made to house relatively few had to house large numbers.  This incidentally gave rise to the gang system in South Africa, new inmates being forced to be servants to those higher in hierarchy, who in turn answered to the gang (or cell) bosses.  The photo shows how prisoners were forced to sleep in the overcrowded cells, tightly packed, head to feet.
Folded blankets depicting the
sleeping conditions in the Fort.

The Fort was home on various occasions to many of those who fought for their freedom:  Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, to name a few, as well as many others unknown to the outside world.
Gandhi quote

I walked around with heavy heart, and often with tears in my eyes - disgusted at how badly people can treat each other. 
But then my mood started to change.
I started to see what had become of The Fort.  Built on the suffering of so many, the area had become the focus of democracy in the country – the home of the highest court of the land, the Constitutional Court.  A place of hope.
Symbolic khotla tree
Part of Constitutional Hill is a museum – a reminder of the horrific past – and part a beacon for the future.  The new court building incorporates parts of the old jail – the stairwells of the Awaiting-Trial section – and is built on the metaphor of a traditional African khotla or gathering of tribal elders, meeting under a tree, to dispense justice.  Inside the building is a stunning art gallery with breathtaking two- and three-dimensional works.  Nearby, in some of the cells is powerful artwork by schoolchildren, looking forward by looking back.
Wood sculpture


Child's poster about the future

The Great African Steps
Running between the old jail and the courthouse are the Great African Steps, built from bricks from the demolished jail buildings.  As I walked down the stairs, the stone wall of the notorious Number 4 Block was on the left and the open glass and light of the Constitutional Court on the right - a walk between the past and the future, between apartheid and freedom.

I eventually left The Fort in a positive frame of mind.  In a couple of hours I had witnessed how low man can go, but also how dignity, pride, and optimism can raise man to unimaginable heights.  I am embarrassed to be a South African of the past but immensely proud to be a South African of the future.  As I walked out, I passed this Truth and Reconciliation Commission poster - and I thought "how apt".  It would serve all institutions to follow its truth.
Truth and Reconciliation poster
Stanley - Thursday