Tuesday, March 3, 2015

It's publication day for Murder on the Champs de Mars!

 Murder on the Champs de Mars comes out today! Please excuse the shameless and brazen self-promotion but this happens only once a year. So far the dogs

and cats approve
Well, at least they snooze and get comfortable on it.

Here's a video showing locations in my story with a Gypsy song:

 Reviews have come in -
“Aimée’s 15th outing is a killer, with all the suspense, all the surprise and all the Parisian flavor you’d expect from Black.”
“Delectable… another smashing and suspenseful tale.”
—BBC Culture, “Ten Books to Read in March”
Publishers Weekly
Today I'm in Washington DC at Politics and Prose Bookstore, a great Indie, who are partnering with my publisher to win a Trip to Paris. Passports updated? Bags packed? You could join me in October. Details here:
www.pariswithcara.com or here http://parisisformurder.com/

It would be great to see you and I'm hoping you'll make it to an event if it's in your 'hood:http://carablack.com/events/

Cara - Tuesday on the road

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hero or Villain: The Conflicted Life of Fritz Haber

Confession #1:  My taking up this subject was inspired by an episode of Radiolab, which is the best radio program in the history of the universe.  I have referred to it here before.  You can find the episode about the Haber’s life among the podcasts in their archive.  http://www.radiolab.org/archive/

(If you are not a fan of the show, become one.  It will enrich your mind and your conversation.)

Confession #2: Until I learned about him on a Radiolab, I had never heard of Fritz Haber.  Now that I know his story, I can’t figure out how to think about him.

Here he is.  Tell me what you think.

Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia (later, Germany) on the 9th of December 1868 to a prosperous German-Jewish couple.  The family owed a lot of its wellbeing to an 1812 edict that gave Jews something approaching full citizenship.  Haber’s parents were first cousins who married over the objections of his grandparents.

Fritz’s mother died three weeks after his birth, which devastated his father and left him to be cared for by his mother’s and father’s sisters.  After that, though eventually he got along well with his stepmother and half sisters, his relationship with his father was always contentious.  The young man grew up to be fiercely patriotic and determined to succeed.

Despite his fraught relationship with his papa, the brilliant young student prepared to go into his father’s successful business, which specialized in dyes, paints and pharmaceuticals.   He studied chemistry in the best universities of Germany, including a stint as a student of Robert Bunsen, of “burner” fame.  He earned a PhD cum laude in chemistry at the age of 23.

The good work

After bouncing around in several minor academic posts, he tackled the most serious problem facing his country—starvation.  I know, “starving Germans” is not a phrase the leaps to mind these days, but at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the world food supply was quite limited, putting many people, including Germans, at risk.  What was needed was nitrogen to boost agricultural yields.   At the point, most fertilizer came from animal waste—bat guano, that sort of thing.

The air is full of nitrogen, but its chemical nature made producing artificial fertilizer difficult in the extreme.  (Nitrogen is trivalent.  It fiercely clings to itself rather than willingly forming molecules more easily collected.)   The stubborn element met its match in Haber.  With monumental persistence, he devised a process involving heat and high pressure that forced nitrogen to combine with hydrogen and form ammonia.  Voila!  Thanks to Haber and his colleague Carl Bosch, the world food supply soared.  “Bread from the Air” they called it.  Today, half the world population owes its existence to that boost in agriculture production.  HALF of the seven billion people on this planet (or their grandparents) would have starved to death without Haber.  No kidding.

Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery.

The bad work

The other side of the story is grim.  Remember that I said Haber was fiercely patriotic?  By the time he was headed for that Nobel Prize, Germany was at war.  Despite the Hague Convention of 1907, which proscribed chemical weapons, Haber had a killer of an idea.  As a Captain with the Chemistry Section of the German Ministry of War, he lead a team that weaponized chlorine gas.  He went in person to the Second Battle of Ypres in April of 1915.  There he personally oversaw the release of a green cloud that destroyed somewhere around 6000 lives; most died in the first ten minutes.

Haber considered this a great achievement.  When he got home to Germany, he threw himself a celebratory dinner party.  At this point, he was married to Clara Immerwahr.  They had a thirteen-year-old son.  Clara was a remarkable scientist in her own right—one of the first women on the planet to earn a PhD in chemistry.  She was so appalled by what her husband had done that after the dinner party, when Fritz had gone to sleep, she took his service revolver out to their back yard and shot herself in heart.  Their son reached her before she died.

The very next morning, Fritz left his son and dead wife to return to the front so he could continue to use his gas to fight the war.

When Germany lost, Fritz was devastated.  He spent years trying to extract gold from the ocean to pay their war reparations.  But then, with the rise of Hitler, despite the fact that he had served Germany in the previous war and had converted to Christianity, he was not allowed to hold a university post.  He left for England, where his wartime activities made him a pariah.  He eventually made his way to Switzerland where very soon he died in 1934.

After his death, the most chillingly ironic thing happened.  In the 1920’s Haber and his team had developed a cyanide-based gas used to fumigate grain stores.  Zyklon-A was formulated with a telltale smell that would keep people safe from accidently inhaling it.   In the 30’s, when the Nazis were looking for a mortal gas for their chambers of death, they reformulated Zyklon-A without the safety odor.   Zyklon-B became the weapon of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

So what do you think?  Was Fritz Haber a good person or a bad person?  Was he a boon to humankind or a curse?

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Rope and the Sword

Today, we're leaving the modern world for a tour of "justice" in samurai-era Japan.

The medieval Japanese justice system was actually two parallel systems: one for commoners, and the other for samurai.

By the 16th century—the era when my Shinobi Mysteries take place—Japan had a highly developed system of courts and law enforcement. 

Ashikaga Yoshiteru, shogun of Japan and a great supporter of the Japanese justice system

Magistrates presided over the courts in every major city (and many towns had magistrates as well). Magistrates acted like modern judges, resolving disputes and conducting trials when commoners were accused of crimes. Although the magistrates themselves were members of the ruling samurai class, their official law-enforcement activities generally focused on commoners. By law, the noble samurai class had the right to resolve their legal disputes themselves. 

Beneath the magistrates, the yoriki or “assistant magistrates” acted as supervisors for the “beat cops” (known as dōshin) who patrolled the cities and arrested commoners accused of crimes. Like magistrates, yoriki and dōshin were always members of the samurai class. However, policemen usually came from low-ranked samurai families, whereas the magistrates were appointed from among the more noble, educated clans.

Although the police force was composed entirely of nobles, samurai rarely used the justice system to resolve their own disputes. Samurai families generally tried to resolve minor issues through negotiation, but where that failed, samurai justice was delivered on the edge of a sword. On rare occasions, samurai did resort to the magistrates, but for the most part the official justice system existed to manage the lower classes rather than the ruling elite.

Like the justice system itself, punishments meted out to criminals often depended on the social class or rank of the convicted (or condemned).

Samurai delivering an order to commit seppuku

As the highest-ranking social group, samurai had special privileges when it came to punishment. For serious crimes, samurai often had the right (and, occasionally, the obligation) to commit seppuku – a form of ritual suicide in which a samurai disemboweled himself with a dagger. The "self-determining" samurai was usually allowed a “second,” called the kaishakunin, who ended the samurai’s life with a merciful strike to the neck as soon as the fatal stomach cut was completed. 

A skillful kaishakunin would not completely sever the head; instead, he would leave it barely attached to the body, hanging by only a narrow strip of skin. The thinner the strip, the more respect the kaishakukin--and, by association, the samurai committing the seppuku--received.

Ritual suicide by seppuku restored a samurai’s honor, and that of his family, preventing the need for a feud between the wrongdoer’s clan and the clan of his victim. However, only samurai were allowed the option of seppuku (and the “honor” was not extended to every samurai who committed a crime.)

Among commoners, the sentence for serious crimes was generally death by hanging. In contrast to seppuku, which restored a condemned man’s honor, hanging was a degrading and defiling form of death. It shamed the convict and also his (or her) family. Hangings often took place in public,  sometimes followed by decapitation and display of the criminal’s head as a warning to the population at large.

19th century woodblock showing a beheaded criminal (the clothing indicates
 he's a commoner)

In an ironically “modern” twist, the Japanese justice system treated women as equal to men, at least where punishment was concerned. Female criminals went to the gallows alongside their male counterparts, and female samurai who committed crimes were often allowed the option of suicide (though usually by poison rather than seppuku).

Prisons existed in medieval Japan as well, but mostly as holding areas for commoners awaiting trial. Unlike modern prisons, medieval Japanese prisons were neither designed or intended for long-term incarceration.

For people in medieval Japan, crime and punishment were inseparable from the larger ideals of honor, respect, and social class. Serious crimes were an unforgivable disrespect for the law and the social order. A major crime created a debt that could only be “repaid” with the criminal’s life—a truth that transcended even the sharp class lines that pervaded every aspect of medieval Japanese culture--and one that provides a limitless source of fodder for a mystery author interested in justice as well as crime.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Into the Woods

Today is the final day for European Parliaments—including Greece’s—to approve the four-month extension deal (deferring predicted financial Armageddon) entered into between Greece and the Eurogroup.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about don’t worry.  No one does. 

You see, even the Greek party in power responsible for negotiating the deal is having trouble explaining what’s going on to its own party members.  So much so, that a day ago Greece’s Prime Minister wasn’t sure he had enough votes in his parliamentary coalition to agree to the lifeline deal, leading him to say that he might decide not to submit it to Parliament at all.  

And protestors are back on Athens streets tossing Molotov cocktails, burning cars, and shattering shop windows.

As for what the deal actually meant, well, Greece’s tieless Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, called it a deliberately vaguely worded “fig leaf” document designed to give cover to European parliaments so they could approve an agreement actually “dispensing with Greece’s bailout deal”—something the member countries said they would not do.  He also said Greece’s “coffers are empty,” and that the folks now wearing the fig leaf should turn over the money Greece needs to help with its “relatively small cash problem.”

Like I said, who knows?

Frankly, I see two ways of enduring all this while preserving sanity.  

Option #1.  Keep a sense of humor…something American television and German television have found fit to do by poking fun at Minister Varoufakis.

John Oliver from HBO's "Last Week Tonight."

Germany's ZDF "Neo Magazin Royale."

Option #2:  Take off into the woods until things sort themselves out…hopefully by the Spring thaw. I’ve opted for option #2, as I don’t see what’s happening in Greece as much given to humor at the moment.  

All I can say is, things might look bleak but the sun will shine again.

And once again, thank you Barbara Zilly for the photos.


Friday, February 27, 2015

The Story Of Mikaeel Kular

A happy wee boy, always smiling

At about 9pm on Wednesday January 15th last year, a three year old boy, Mikaeel Kular was last seen in the house he shared with his mother and four siblings in Edinburgh. He was going to his bed dressed in his PJ’s. 


By 7.15 the next morning the temperature had dropped to 2.3 degrees outside. Rosdeep Kular, the boy’s mother, made the terrible discovery that he was missing from his bed. She found a stool pulled over to the front door and deduced that he had climbed up to reach the lock to get out.

Two hours later a massive police search was under way. Neighbours heard about Mikaeel and came out to help. A helicopter was scrambled as the  police released a picture of the boy with a description of what he might be wearing. It touches the heart, an innocent faced Asian featured boy, with a big smile. He is said to be wearing a beige hooded jacket, brown shoes and blue joggers over his pyjamas. 

This picture makes every TV news, the late editions of the papers carry it on their front page.  People talk, as people do. The Mum’s marriage was in trouble. Maybe the Dad had taken the boy? How many three year olds can dress themselves? Do their own shoes up? How many are strong enough to open the heavy fireproof front doors on a modern house?


An hour after that image is released, the police make a  statement that  there is no suspicion of foul play but they are keeping an open mind. The mother is said to be distraught. Neighbours of the family are asked to search huts and garages, just in case Mikaeel has taken shelter from the weather and got locked in.


That afternoon  coastguard and lifeboats search the coast. A Child Rescue Alert is initiated so all police forces in the UK are now involved. This allows TV and radio programmes to be interrupted with news flashes. Statements are made in parliament, hoping for a safe return of the child. The police refuse to comment on ‘local intelligence’ that there was a custody issue about the boy.


As darkness falls again,  more neighbours, the entire community, all emergency services are out looking for the boy as the temperature drops well below freezing. It is now a matter of extreme concern. The search goes on all night.
By nine the next morning, the police issue an  updated image, showing  what he was wearing when he disappeared.

 By first light the public, the police and all support services, police dogs, horses are all out searching. Family dogs are asked to help. There are over 150 calls to the helpline but no confirmed sightings. By mid morning, one hundred people are organised into a specific search. Mikaeel's image is prepared to go on billboards and train stations across the country. Meanwhile on Cramond Shore more volunteers, firemen and mothers with prams search the sand and rocks.

 By late afternoon the  Assistant Chief Constable  announces that they are  now exploring a theory that Mikaeel might have left the flat of his own free will after he became the subject  of a criminal act. And the general public were left to fill in the blanks.

By tea time it became known that all  family members had been traced and talked to. Mikaeel’s timeline was established. It showed that he hadn’t been to nursery since before Christmas because he had been ill. It was now January 17th. A  forensic team was seen entering the boy’s house that night.
Later that night the police thank everybody who has helped in the searches but say they will continue on their own. There is a sense that the investigation is now targeted and that there will be more announcements.

 Just after midnight, on the morning of Saturday 18th January 2014, the police announce that they have found a body that  maybe Mikaeel’s over 25 miles away in Kirkcaldy, fife. The  family have been informed and somebody has been detained in connection with the incident.

That person was the boy’s mother, Rosdeep.

 People are upset, flowers and toys are left outside his house and the property in Kirkcaldy. There is a genuine sense of shock. Even for those of us who didn’t really believe the first version of events.
 By four o’clock that afternoon,  a small body is removed from woodland behind a house in Kirkcaldy. The house is owned by Rosdeep’s sister and Risdee and her five children lived there until 18 months before. One hour later, the police are granted another twelve hours to keep Rosdeep in custody.

At seven that night a candle light service is held for the boy, everybody attending holds  a candle high in his memory. Four hours later, the body is officially confirmed as  Mikaeel and his  33 year old mother is arrested and charged in connection  with his disappearance. Later she is charged with his murder.
His aunt Pandeep, Rosdeep's sister, was 'devastated' by her nephew's death as the  forensic search of the wood behind her house continued. 

Two things emerged from the community involvement– a sense that they had come together. And a sense that their kindness had been abused.

Rosdeep Adekoya was  sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment after she admitted killing the boy, wrapping him in a duvet, hiding his body in a suitcase and driving him 25 miles to dispose of the body in woodland she knew well – behind her sister’s house.  In the three days prior to his death, he had received injuries bad enough to  severely damage his internal  organs.
He had passed away on the evening of 14 January,  probably from injuries inflicted the previous Sunday. The boy had been sick in a restaurant so she had beaten him with her fist, striking him about the body. He was then beaten while laid over the edge of the bath. She couldn’t take him to a doctor because of the bruising and his  condition worsened. She found his body on the Tuesday morning, but  had the sense of mind to drive his two sisters to nursery before  driving his body to Fife.
The pathologist found forty separate injuries to his body.
The judge said her actions were  "cruel and inexcusable".

So as crime writers we have gave to ask the question. Why?


Rosdeep’s remorse  is ‘genuine and heartfelt" She was an intelligent, articulate  woman with no history of violence to any of her children. She was in tears all the way through her sentencing appearance. In the end, unable to cope with the pressure, she  told the police where to go and get his body.

She is a complex lady. Her parents were doctors, her Dad died relatively young.  Her mother remarried another doctor. The family are wealthy members of the Asian community. Her five children have complicated parentage. She used to be very overweight, she got a gastric band  and reinvented herself as a slim, chick about town. Before that there was a history of depression and, at least one suicide attempt.  On social media sites she asked questions about why she loved all her children except one. Why was she so aggressive with only one of her children. And how do you get rid of bruises.

Mikaeel's father, who had already another partner and had other children by the time Mikaeel was killed, says that Rosdeep, Rosie as he called her, never got over their break up and resented the child because he looked so much like his father. That relationship was disapproved of by her family.
Rosie, the ‘dancing queen’ became a social butterfly after her marriage broke down and it seems to me, she began to live  life the way teenagers do.  She hung about night clubs with  friends of dubious character. Despite having five kids under the age of ten she set up her own  beauty business  then continued with her love of partying.  Her facebook  page was full of photos of her enjoying the night life. Including one friend who later died in a shooting incident.

The parents of her  estranged husband always had reservations about her party lifestyle.  Her husband tried to curb her behaviour, she objected so he left and believed that Rosie had moved on to another partner.

He divorced her on Christmas day 2014.

It seems a sad tale for all involved.  Little Mikaeel paid with his life. A father has lost his son. His siblings will grow up knowing that their mother killed their brother.  But you can’t help thinking that somewhere in there was a woman crying for help, or trying to be somebody she wasn’t. Trying to live a life that she thought she should have had.

Like I say, sad all round.

Caro Ramsay Scotland 27/02/2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Naked Cook

I am arguably the world’s worst cook, so I avoid it as much as possible.  I do, however, love to eat good food, and I suppose I always thought that the purpose of cooking was to turn tasteless and chewy raw ingredients into something delicious.  To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that cooking was something that developed somewhere in our evolutionary past when one of our distant ancestors dropped a chuck of raw meat into the fire and it took him a while to fish it out.  I visualized a Neanderthal or the like doing this.  

Maybe this just displays my general ignorance.  Recently, on a long plane trip, I read a book that had a very different interpretation of events and one I found fascinating.  It’s an African story; wherever this happened, it was somewhere in Africa. And with the Cradle of Humankind up the road from where I live, it might have been quite close by.

The book is CATCHING FIRE: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham. The author is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and an expert on Chimpanzees on the side. This guy knows his stuff. It is sometimes said that we are what we eat. The thesis of this book is that it’s not what we ate that mattered, but that we cooked it first.

Professor Wrangham and friends
Compare the teeth!
The book starts out gently explaining that raw food is great except that it takes a long time to chew up and a lot of energy to digest.  Much of the food value is wasted. What you need is big, strong teeth, heavy jaw muscles, and plenty of lower intestine.  My neighbors up the road here had all that. They were much smaller than humans but had bigger teeth.  I did know that.  I suppose I just thought that our smaller teeth resulted from our larger overall size and changed diet.  Well, right.  Professor Wrangham points out that it's diet that drives evolution, never the other way around.  It was when our ancestors started cooking their food that two things happened, probably over quite a short space of time in evolutionary terms.  The one was that they were now getting much more nutrition from the same amount of food. That’s because breaking down the cellular structure with heat makes the nutrients more easily accessible. The other was that we could eat more quickly. The food was softer, less chewing was required, and less digestion.  Over time our teeth changed to reflect that situation and our guts changed appropriately too.

Australopithecus Sediba
The archaeological record shows that humans controlled fire about half a million years ago and maybe much earlier. At Swartkrans in South Africa and at locations in Kenya, there are sites dating back one and a half million years with suggestions of fire use. This physical evidence is disputed so Wrangham turns to biology instead, seeking the change in anatomy that would link with the cooked food.  

Over the last two million years, there were only three periods when our ancestors’ evolution was fast and strong enough to justify a change in species names.  The crucial one occurred some 1.8 million years ago when Homo erectus emerged from the australopithecines.  ‘Suddenly’ we had a much larger creature, one that walked and ran and was probably not well suited to climbing, had smaller teeth, and probably differently structured guts.  It had to be fire that allowed the erectus part.  The African savanna was not a safe place to be on the ground at night with saber tooth cats all over the place.  The australopithecines were probably excellent climbers and slept in trees as all modern apes do.  But if you were cooking around a cheerful bonfire, sleeping around it – presumably with a watchman to keep the fire fed – would be safe and comfortable.  So the implication is that it was the possession of fire and the rudimentary art of cooking that drove the development of Homo.
Skull of Homo Erectus
That in itself is a pretty intriguing idea.  But there’s more.  If we were happily eating roasted meat and broiled vegetables all that time ago, why did our brain size develop?  It turns out that the development of brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy demands. Wrangham believes that what we think of as intelligence was needed for social interaction rather than for food gathering.  It was the excess of nutrition from the cooked food that allowed the extra resources to feed and develop our brains. Thus it was cooking that led to our intelligence, rather than the other way around.  

Wrangham has one final twist. He observes that universally in hunter-gatherer communities, the women do the cooking. (The exceptions are a few instances when men do some culturally significant form of cooking and he dismisses those.) Men do the hunting – or whatever else they want to do – and leave the vital cooking task to the women.  In a few societies, it's much more significant for a woman to feed a man than to have sex with him.  If she gives him dinner, they're married.

Wrangham toys with the idea that as cooking developed, females could be set upon and have their food stolen, so they made alliances with males, not for sex and procreation as is the conventional wisdom – generally apes don't do that - but for shared food and resources and for defense against food thieves.  So much for ‘family values!’  It’s all about food!  Wrangham obviously feels very uncomfortable that this prehistoric motivation has settled into modern times as an excuse give women a subservient role.  He concludes this chapter with:

 “The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by a male dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

Michael - Thursday