Monday, August 14, 2017

The East African Rift Valley: Where We Became People

Annamaria on Monday

To geologists, the most interesting place is in East Africa: the largest seismically active rift system on earth.  What’s happening there is that new tectonic plates are being formed by their spreading apart from the landmass.  This the opposite of where tectonic plates have pushed into each other to form mountain ranges.  In this case, when hunks of a tectonic plate separate, it causes chasms.  In the distant past, other such divorces have taken place on our sacred planet, but they are all now underwater or silted in—no longer active.

The separations—and there are two of them—taking place in East Africa have been going on since the onset of the Miocene about 25 million years ago.   The Nubian Plate and the Somali Plate are still moving, now at the rate of six or seven millimeters per year.  In another 10 million years or so, the Somali Plate will be completely broken off, and the sea will surround it.

Earth scientists are fascinated to be able to study this process and to theorize about why and how it is happening in this geologic wonder of the world.   The rift area includes not only parts of Ethiopia and Somalia, but also extends into Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the African Great Lakes.  The rift is deepest north of Nairobi.  Theories vary as to why this process is underway just there and no where else on earth.  It seems that, like many thorny scientific questions, this one is a result of interactions of more than one force, making it difficult to sort out.

We know that the East African Rift Zone is the site of many dormant and active volcanoes, fifty of them in Ethiopia alone.  The Crater Highlands of Tanzania are part of this system, even though they now lie outside the rift area.  One of the active volcanoes is unique: The magma of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano contains no silica, so it has extremely low viscosity.  National Geographic described it this way: “Its lava fountains crystallize in midair then shatter like glass.”  Wow, wouldn’t I love to witness that!

Ol Doinyo Lengai
Most fascinating to me is that this is where our race Homo Sapiens evolved.  The bones of our hominid ancestors have emerged from the sediments of the Rift Valley highlands.  These include the famous “Lucy”, the partial australopithecine skeleton from 3 million years ago, discovered by anthropologist Donald Johanson.   The rift in Ethiopia more recently yielded two other 10-million-year-old hominid ancestors: Chororapithecus abyssinicus and Nakalipithecus nakayamai.

Since so many hominid fossils have been found in the Great Rift Valley, scientists have begun to think that the evolving conditions there played a pivotal role in the development of our species.  Current theorists believe that the local situation caused the climate to alternate between wet and arid, which forced our hominid ancestors to adapt by becoming bipedal, increasing their brain power, and developing culturally.  My favorite article on this theory is the 2008 paper by Beth Christensen and Mark Maslin, delightfully titled “Rocking the Cradle of Humanity.”

For me personally, the African wilderness plays in my blood and in my soul in such a way that my response runs far deeper than ordinary joy.   This is where our species evolved, and I believe that, when we human beings go there, regardless of where we were born, on a cellular level, we recognize the place as home.  Ever since I first went, when I am not there, in my soul, I am homesick for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Long Time Coming — Zoë Sharp’s FOX HUNTER: Charlie Fox book 12

I freely admit that there were times when I truly thought I was never going to finish the latest Charlie Fox book. Number 12 in the series, FOX HUNTER seems to have taken me longer to write than anything since the very first novel about Charlie, way back when.

(US print/ebook edition)

The extended gestation period has had nothing to do with character fatigue, though. I’m still as interested in the nuances of Charlie’s psyche as I was when I started out. More so, if anything. She’s become far more complicated as a person than she was, and although she’s rather more practised when it comes to taking a life, the conflict it causes her internally is just as strong — if not stronger.

Yes, the locations for this story were trickier to realise than the books that went before it. While I’ve been to the Middle East, going into present-day Iraq was always going to be a dubious proposition. Getting across a flavour of the places, without making it into a travel guide, is always a fine balance. As with all research you put into a novel, I was aiming for realistic rather than real.

Sometimes I think you spend more time describing the locations you know less well, just to try to ensure you’ve got them right. On the other hand, it’s also difficult to give a first impression of somewhere you know intimately. If a stranger was visiting your home town for the first time, for instance, how would they come away feeling about it? What would be the thing that struck them most?

In FOX HUNTER, I had to take care with my descriptions of Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan, in an effort to make them distinct without overdoing it. I’m thankful, yet again, for my years as a photographer, working almost entirely on location rather than in a studio, which makes you look at places in a different way.

(UK print/ebook edition coming Sept) 

On top of that, of course, was trying to overlay how Charlie would view her surroundings. She’s worked in close protection for long enough to always be looking for the next threat, and here there were plenty. I read widely, mainly memoirs of people who’d worked in those countries as outsiders rather than written by locals.

The actual storyline of FOX HUNTER follows on directly from the previous book, ABSENCE OF LIGHT. Sean Meyer is missing, last seen crossing the border from Kuwait into southern Iraq. The next thing Charlie knows, the body of one of the men who ruined her army career turns up dead:

‘The dead man had not gone quietly … There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.’

Charlie Fox will never forget the men who put a brutal end to her military career, but she vowed a long time ago she would not go looking for them.

Now she doesn’t have a choice.

Her boss and former lover, Sean Meyer, is missing in Iraq where one of those men was working as a private security contractor. When the man’s butchered body is discovered, Charlie fears that Sean may be pursuing a twisted vendetta on her behalf.

Sean’s partner in their exclusive New York close-protection agency needs this dealt with—fast and quiet—before everything they’ve worked for is in ruins. He sends Charlie to the Middle East with very specific instructions:

Find Sean Meyer and stop him. By whatever means necessary.

At one time Charlie thought she knew Sean better than she knew herself, but it seems he’s turned into a violent stranger. As the trail grows more bloody, Charlie realises that unless she can get to Sean first, the hunter may soon become the hunted.

I worried that this novel might contain too much of Charlie’s past for new readers, although I’ve tried to explain the role the recurring characters play, again without overdoing. The further on in a series you get, the more you either have to explain the back story, or ignore it entirely and have each book stand alone with no reference to the others. And if you want the protagonist to grow and learn from their experiences, you can’t escape having progression, and therefore history.

(US audio edition)

I hope I’ve created a couple of engaging and entertaining new characters in FOX HUNTER, such as slightly jaded CIA operative Aubrey Hamilton, and private military contractor Luisa Dawson. I’ve also brought back characters from much earlier novels in the series, like Ian Garton-Jones — owner of Streetwise Security from RIOT ACT — and Balkan gangsters Gregor and Ivan Venko from HARD KNOCKS.

FOX HUNTER also marks the appearance on stage for the first time of characters mentioned but never seen — Charlie’s former army comrades, Donalson and Hackett, and Commanding Officer, Colonel Parris. This involved going back through quite a few of the earlier books to see what snippets of information I’d included about each of them.

In fact, the more I think about it, I’m surprised it didn’t take me longer to finish writing this one …

Especially when there were delicate subjects I had to tiptoe around, from ISIS to honour killings. I admit that when FOX HUNTER came out in the US this week, I was holding my breath on its reception. The first reviews have been good:

“Gritty, hard-hitting, all-around outstanding crime fiction.” Booklist (starred review)

“Nonstop action and an intricate plot weave together to create another thrill ride for fans of Sharp's heroine.” Kirkus

And emails so far from readers are enthusiastic. The only trouble is, they already want to know when they can expect the next one.

Note to self: Must Write Faster …

This week’s Word of the Week is insidious, meaning evil by stealth, as oppose to invidious, which is a more open kind of nastiness.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

It's Time to Save Mykonos.


I was inspired to write a piece on Mykonos this week based upon an article I’d read in the Greek online newspaper, Protothema, offering a disturbing assessment of the state of our island (For those interested in reading the article, if it doesn’t automatically translate into English, you can get its essence through Google Translate). As I started to write my post, I experienced a sense of déjà vu, and so, I dropped “Mykonos” and “crime” into my browser and voilà, up popped a post I’d written three years ago almost to the day. Titled “Mykonos Shame On You.”

I couldn’t believe it.  The points I’d covered back then within the power and authority of the municipality to address had not only festered or worsened, but in neglect had attracted a host of additional opportunistic, insidious infections.

The only genuine improvement to what I’d described back then was that the island no longer faced drought, something I think all would agree was attributable to divine intervention raining down on the island, not political will.

Come to think of it, from the way things are going over here, divine intervention may be its only salvation.

In my original piece I wrote, “The new mayor does not take office until September [2014], so none of what I’m about to say is directed at him, except of course to point out what I trust he already knows: Mykonos is in desperate need of order.”

Three years have passed, and as I said at the time to the newly elected Mayor when handing him a copy of my then new novel, “Mykonos After Midnight,” fictionalizing where I thought the island was headed, “If this book comes true, it’s on your watch. So take care.”

Three years have passed…on his watch.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s well known that I’m a close friend of the candidate that the Mayor defeated for office.  But I’m also a close friend of Mykonians of all political persuasions who feel defeated by the current state and direction of their island. In that, Mykonians are not alone, for international party hotspots, such as Spain’s Ibiza and Mallorca, face similar threats, yet they are taking action to contest their fates, and not just sitting idly by in the cannibals’ pot enjoying all the dancing around them as the heat cooks them up for dinner.

Here’s what I wrote three years ago. Kick it up a quantum level or so for a better idea of the tack Mykonos is on, and with no course correction in sight, I fear for its future. 

As I said then, and repeat now, Mykonos is in desperate need of order.

A half-dozen years ago, one of the fictional characters in my debut novel, Murder in Mykonos, said, “I’m like a Mykonian: I’m used to living in a bordello—filled with police.”

Just the other day I heard a Mykonian say, “Mykonos is a brothel run by police.”

I guess you could call that evolution.

Frankly, I’m not sure who’s running it now.  Certainly not its elected officials.  The new mayor does not take office until September, so none of what I’m about to say is directed at him, except of course to point out what I trust he already knows: Mykonos is in desperate need of order.

Those with influence build as they wish wherever they want—beaches and building codes be damned; all drive and park with reckless disregard for each other and pedestrians; garbage and construction materials are dumped with impunity wherever convenient; noise regulations are disregarded if it stands to make the right folks money; and municipal licensing and tax laws selectively ignored or unenforced.

And why, pray tell, is all this done?

For the benefit of the tourists is the answer, or rather the benefit of those who profit off their presence—for one could hardly say the lack of pedestrian walkways, taxis, and public bus transportation benefits tourists.

Yet, it’s incontrovertible that tourists love it here.  At least a certain kind of tourist does. Why wouldn’t they?  Amid its beautiful beaches, heavenly weather, and pristine sea they can behave in a manner utterly unthinkable back home, for Mykonos has evolved into a place where rules are not enforced nor statistics made public that might shock some into clearer thinking on the downsides of unfettered personal freedom amid a place literally immersed in natural (and artificial) intoxicants.

It’s a three-month open party. One that Mykonians once treated as a harmless tourist tsunami—sweeping in each June and receding by September—providing what they needed to keep their treasured island alive for the balance of the year. But the tsunami now carries away far more than it contributes, draining away the very spirit and identity of the island.

It is a place for profiteers unconcerned with the long-term health of the island. The businessman who avoids paying the fees and taxes he legitimately owes is not a colorful character beating the system, he’s a villain wrecking the future of every Mykonian child in the island’s underfunded schools, damaging the year-round quality of life for every Mykonian who must suffer with bad roads, understaffed public health facilities, and garbage polluting every vista, every nostril, every day. 

And it is a place where thousands of fish are about to die as one of its two municipal reservoirs runs dry because of poor municipal planning. There is an old adage that “a fish stinks from the head down.” In this case I think there are thousands of heads to blame.

Welcome to September, Mr. Mayor, we’re all rooting for you.



Friday, August 11, 2017

Bute Noir 2017

Welcome to the Bute Noir 2017 Flanneur!

Rothesay is a past winner of Britain in bloom.
It gets enough rain to grow lovely flowers.

That cleverly form into arcs

and snakes

And borders

And colours so bright they make your eyes  ache

Three gallons of mayonnaise in transit 
Note the mayo minder
they knew there were crime writers around and you can't be too careful

The runners and riders

the puppet maker

Steve Cavanagh doing something with a stick
                                                 Craig trying to find a ball
so close but yet so far...

                                                 Luca Veste, deep in concentration
Doug Johnstone trying a new grip

trying to figure out how to get the ball in the hole.

some miscreants hanging around 

 The finale,  Craig trying to control  7 women and a Liverpudlian. No chance.

 Caro and Three Alexandras - AK Benedict is Alexandra the Third.

                                                    We clapped

We laughed

We hooted and hollered

We got a perfect ten

And that was us. not the audience
Louise Voss paying no attention to Craig whatsoever

                                             Me searching for an answer to one of Craig's deep and probing questions.
                                      Either that or I am looking at the clock to check the ferry times

We are really lucky to live on this bit of the planet - and look - the water is at the bottom, not pouring down from the top.

Clouds dancing

Sunset on Bute

Roll on August 3-5th 2018

Caro Ramsay 11 08 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Thursday - Stanley

I had started a blog a few days ago about some issues I was having about deciding what to do with my art collection when I die.  However, my computer had other ideas.

In February I left Cape Town for Johannesburg with a perfectly functioning computer.  When I landed, it was dead. About a month later, when I emerged from the bush, I had it fixed.  Water damage, I was told.  I have used it ever since.

Last Sunday, I left Minneapolis for Paris with the same computer.  It worked fine on Monday, but when I awoke on Tuesday, it was dead again.  It obviously doesn't like flying.  So here I am on Wednesday night without a completed blog and a wonderful Chablis and three Calvados under my belt, trying to decide what to do.  So I will blog about my belongings at a later date, and replay a story about one of my favorite South Africans.  Indeed, his exploits provided the idea for a novella I've just finished -- more about that later too.

So here is The Stander Gang once again.

Well, it was meant to be the Stander Gang, but blogspot doesn't like Mette's computer.  So I apologize for my non-blog.  Sigh.

Gadzooks, I kept trying to make it work, and maybe it is.

Sigh. I tried to preview the blog and it cocked a snoot at me.  So who knows.  Apologies.
Most countries have criminals or criminal events that capture the public’s imagination, sometimes positively, but usually negatively.  Some that come to mind are Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capon, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Ronald Briggs and the Great Train Robbery, Jack the Ripper, and so on.  We all have heard of these people and the crimes they perpetrated.

In South Africa, it was what the media called the Stander Gang that caused newspaper sales to soar.  The public couldn’t get enough information (or speculation) about the gang and its exploits, and even today there are many South Africans who wish that the gang had got away with its daring exploits.  In fact, at one stage in the spree of bank robberies, it became a badge of distinction to have been robbed by the gang.

The gang was named after its leader, André Stander, son of a senior officer in the Correctional Services, Major-General Frans Stander.  After failing high school, the Major-General suggested (!) that André join the police.

In a surprising turnabout, André was selected as the Best Recruit in 1964.  After graduating he rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1977 and headed the Criminal Investigation Department at the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park, near Johannesburg’s international airport.

Apparently his success in the police force didn’t meet all his needs, probably both emotional and financial.  So he took up robbing banks as a hobby.  On his days off from his police job, he would fly to Durban, don a disguise, rent or steal a car at the airport, and go and rob a bank or building society.  When he finished he would drive back to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and become a policeman again.

He did this for three years, leaving his colleagues in the police force bewildered, with no clues as to who was pulling off the audacious jobs.  As is so often the case, he became overconfident and boasted to one of his close friends about what he was doing.  The friend worked for the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) – one of the draconian arms of the apartheid government.  The friend reported the comments, and the police set up surveillance. 

Sure enough, after flying into Johannesburg from a heist in Durban, he was apprehended with money, disguises, and a firearm in his luggage.  He was found guilty on 15 of 28 charges of bank robbery and sentenced to an effective 17 years in a maximum-security prison.

At this stage in his career, he enjoyed only minor celebrity status, which included rumours that he would rob a bank during his lunch hour, then return to it later to investigate the crime.


However, it’s what happened next that catapulted him to the spotlight and fame.

While in prison, Stander met and befriended two other bank robbers, Patrick Lee McCall and Allan Heyl.  In August 1983, Stander and McCall, with several other prisoners, were scheduled to meet with a physiotherapist.  While in the waiting room, Stander and McCall overpowered their guards and the poor physiotherapist and escaped.

About two moths later, Stander and McCall returned to the prison and sprung Heyl from the maximum-security facility.  Then the fun began. 

Over the next three months, what became called the Stander Gang, robbed at will.  They raided a gun shop and took an arsenal of weapons.  Stander took a yellow Porsche Targa for a test drive at a dealership and left the salesman gawping as the Porsche sped into the distance.  Far from coy, Stander used the Porsche to go to nightclubs and to transport girls from an escort agency to and from the gang’s three safe house in the affluent suburb of Houghton.

In the two months from mid-November 1983 to mid-January 1984, the gang robbed twenty banks, sometimes four in a day.  Each time they robbed a bank, the newspapers splashed their deeds all over the front page, and the public cheered.  They saw Stander as a modern day Robin Hood, a gentleman robber – although there is no evidence he did anything charitable with his money, and in fact the police were pretty sure he was a rapist.  The more the gang robbed, the more support the gang garnered from the public.

Again over-confidence took hold.  Stander robbed a bank, in disguise, but without his sun glasses.  A camera caught him in action, and the police at last had a clear image of his face – which they gave to every newspaper in the country, as well as to TV.  Stander realized that time was running short and arranged to buy a yacht in Cape Town in which the three could sail to the United States.  Stander flew to the States on a false passport  to finalize details.

The day after he left, apparently based on information offered by some of the escort agency girls, the police surrounded one of the safe houses.  After a mighty gun battle, McCall was killed.  Heyl, who was elsewhere that evening, then fled the country and went to ground in Greece, on the island of Hydra.

Mugshots of Stander by Florida police
Stander meanwhile assumed the guise of an Australian writer in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida.  He bought an old Ford Mustang, but was stopped by the police shortly afterwards for driving an unregistered vehicle.  They photographed and fingerprinted Stander (or Peter Harris, as he was known) and impounded the car.  Undaunted, Stander broke into the police impound lot and stole his car back.  Then he did something that boggles the mind – something that if any of us tried to use in one of our books, the editor would delete it immediately, rolling her eyes, thinking how stupid some writers can be.  Stander took the Mustang back to the second-hand dealer from whom he had bought it and asked for it to be sprayed a different color.

As luck would have it, the dealer had read in the local newspaper about the Stander Gang and recognised Stander when he walked in.  He called the police.  That evening the police surrounded Stander’s apartment, and when he showed up around 10:30 PM, they confronted him.  He tried to wrestle with one of the policemen, whose shotgun went off, fatally wounding Stander.

As for Allan Heyl, he left Hydra for England, where he pulled a small heist.  Eventually a confidence trickster he had befriended, turned him into the police.  He was arrested at a house in Surrey.  In May 1985, he was sentenced to nine years imprison.  When he was released, he was extradited to South Africa where he received an additional sentence from which he was paroled in 2005.  And guess what?  He is now a motivational speaker!

As I was researching this blog, I spoke to one of my friends about the Stander Gang.  Twenty-five years after the events, she remembered much of what the gang had done.  She said she still wished it had got away with its exploits.  Stander’s audacity and the number of successful robberies he pulled off endeared him to large numbers of the public.  They admired his cool and daring, and probably fantasized that they too could do what he did. 

He became a people’s hero.  And of course a movie was made about him – Stander starring Tom Jane (who’s he?).  And BBC Masterminds devoted an episode to the gang.  And there are several books also.

PS.  I also discovered that one of the reasons Heyl gave to his parole hearing in South Africa was that he needed to collect his share of the royalties from the movie!  The world is a strange place.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Third Man's Noir to me

Every year I re-watch The Third Man film made in the late 40's. Many of you know it, no doubt watched this black and white classic several times. If you haven't, treat yourself, it's on Netflix US right now.
I always discover something new.  What I took away from this viewing was the Noir aspect.
Maybe I've been so seduced by the zither music, visuals and camera shots, the atmosphere of cobbled streets,  the sewer chase, war torn Vienna and the stellar actors that this hadn't registered in quite the way it had before.
The opening and ending shots take place in the cematary - in essence - sorry, it's a spoiler but The Third Man came out in 1948, so I figure a spoiler for a sixty nine year old movie is ok.
You could look at it this way - guy meets girl, girls grieving over dead boyfriend, will he succeed to win her over? The opening shot is a mirror of the last - guy doesn't get girl, he's up the creek and more disillusioned than when he arrived in Vienna. The girl has 'spoiler' lost Harry Lime twice.
When I do a workshop on setting, usually I start with the opening minute of this film.
There's narration over shots of pre-War Vienna, the Hapsburg palaces, the mention of the post-war black market and furtive men with a sleeve of watches, the four armed Allied presence - France, UK, Russia and US and the not so lucky black marketeer shown floating upside down in the Danube.
Bang. All in a minute, with the zither playing the theme, we see/hear the former glory, view the rubble strewn detritus of war, see the refugees scraping by for a living, or not,  the black market, the danger of the Allied Occupation dividing the city into four zones. To me, it's a brilliant introduction; the scene is set, danger is foreshadowed, and conflict introduced. Graham Greene, the story goes, was sent to postwar Vienna to write a screenplay which turned into this story.
That, he did. He used Vienna as a character as much as Harry Lime, who is probably in the movie about fifteen minutes, but his presence is what this film is about. Harry Lime, spoiler alert, is and here comes the twist, the Third Man. The first time I ever saw this movie, my jaw dropped. I never saw it coming. It still gives me shivers when the cat nestles on his shoes and headlights illuminate the face of undead Harry Lime.

Orson Welles, who played Lime, was two weeks late for filming and didn't want to film in the sewers. The producer Carol Reed was on a deadline and couldn't twiddle his or the crew's thumbs so he spent a lot of his waiting time, filming at night and experimenting with camera angles and shots.
Thanks to a late Welles, we have a much richer film. He contributed the famous line about the Swiss and the Cuckoo Clock but the rest was pure Graham Greene. Watch it today and it's still seamless. Tight. Dialogue, I for one, wish I could write. There's comedic touches, and nothing gets in the way of pacing and tension and each shot with Vienna a masterpiece.
Graham Greene gives Holly Martins, Lime's friend who has come to Vienna for a promised job,  a profession like his own. A writer. In this case, Holly writes Westerns and is referred to a 'scribbler with too much drink in him' and later by the British policeman here as a 'writer of cheap novelettes.' And of course, broke.
What Welles as Lime doesn't give in actual screen time - awesomeness itself - is the villain who his friend Holly cares about and a girlfriend who still loves him. We kind of do, too. Harry Lime hasn't grown up, life is a game and should be well played. His referring to the common people as ants in a charming way can't mask the the real horror of what he's done - diluting penicillin for profit which kills children and others. He's a charming cad, and a seducer. And, like the characters, I couldn't hate him. Rooted for him in the end to escape and crawl out of that sewer. That, to me, is what a brilliant writer does, get your empathy even for a villain. At least understand why he does what he does. 
The secondary characters, many of them trained Vienesse and British actors who you've seen in many films and with a long career, almost stole the scenes they were in...vivid and immersing. I think this film is one of the reasons I took a chance on a little idea I had and started writing.
Cara - Tuesday

Cara - Tuesday