Cruising For Insight

Just back from the latest cruise lecture series, this time on the Holland America Line’s ms Noordam.   We joined the ship in Honolulu, Hawaii and left it in Sydney, Australia. On the way the stops were at Lahaina in Maui, Hilo on the Big Island, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Suva and Dravuni Island in Fiji, Port Vila in Vanuatu then Lifou Island and Noumea in New Caledonia.

For everyone else it was a twenty day cruise, for me it was a nine lecture one. I am billed as a “location” speaker so that means I talk on destination-related subjects. This time it was a regional Pacific approach that dealt with adventurers, travellers, explorers, writers, artists and covered history, international relations, anthropology, culture, tradition and change.


It was great fun and because it was a big ship, some of the crowds were standing room only, about 700 or so. No pressure, then. But the people were great as always, lots of interest and questions and follow up. There were Americans, Dutch, Australians, Brits, others from Europe, and New Zealanders among others. So there was lots of good banter about yet another All Black victory over the Wallabies, my Dodgers falling to the Cubs in the National League, plenty of incredulous discussion about the American elections and the state of world politics. This was a good crowd.

And some of these terrific people became friends, as always on these cruises. (Plenty of emails about the baseball and about travel respectively from people like Lyn Griffiths and Marily and Clint Sampson met on earlier cruises). Among these new people: Sandy Aloisi to whom you can listen from 5.30 am onwards on ABC Radio News in Australia; her husband and politics guru Mark Spurway who heads Transmission Network Services at the ABC and so makes it all possible; the legendary Iain Macintosh who was a long time foreign correspondent for the ABC before joining CNN where he became a senior vice-president, and Ian’s wife Denise who has so many wonderful stories about the expat life. Many, many great stories told and heard about the Australian and international media over drinks before and during dinner!

For me there was also the chance to read a bit on the way to, during and coming back from the assignment.

It started with crime fiction, of course. M.J. Lee’s Death in Shanghai is the first in a series that features Inspector Danilov, a Russian working in the international force in Shanghai in the 1920s.    It gets the place and the period very well. Slaughter Park is the final book in Barry Maitland’s Belltree Trilogy set in New South Wales but with some of its characters escaping to places like Vanuatu and elsewhere.   Maitland writes as well as anyone but for me, the conclusion to the series strained belief a touch. Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country is a rightly acclaimed international spy thriller.   Maurice Gee’s Crime Story is an older New Zealand work that I never got around to reading.   Gee is one of New Zealand’s great writers and this one is good but possibly not the best in genre even if he catches Wellington wonderfully and some of the major Kiwi social concerns. Then there was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Man Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project, a curious and compelling historical crime work set in remote rural Scotland.

The non-fiction included David Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to be Born, a first memoir.   Lodge remains among my most favourite campus novel writers, along with his great friend Malcolm Bradbury. This memoir reads well and has some deep moments as well as outlining some of his major breakthroughs and setbacks. It is perhaps a little rushed, though, and I look forward to the next instalment that will cover his later academic period.

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business has been one of my best recent reads.    It is the definitive account of changes to the publishing industry: the concentration of power in a few hands, the importance of the rise of the literary agent, and the rise of the web, and all the interrelated significant matters. For a writer it is fascinating and, I suggest, a must read because it explains why so many now are trying and why so few succeed.

But as always, the travel also gave me the chance to observe and learn, and think. There is something odd about fifteen hundred or so passengers getting onto an island like Dravuni that has a total population of about one hundred and fifty. And there is always the closeness of global impact when the woman there who gave Sandi a massage has a son working as a chef at the Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki/Mount Cook in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

There is the chance to see some great natural wonders. We left Hilo on the Big Island in the early evening and at about nine that night the captain had us holding no more than seven hundred yards away from the lava flow of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. That was truly spectacular, and memorable.


In Honolulu, a bike tour along the North Shore with its famous surf beaches was a highlight, thanks to guide Kelly. Sunset, Waimea, Pipeline were all flat ahead of the huge winter surf, but the turtles were at Turtle Beach. Lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was a highlight.

Coming into Sydney through the heads at dawn was also memorable, especially having just delivered a lecture that began with Australia’s convict past. It was easy to imagine the First Fleet sailing in back then in 1788, though the convicts were unlikely to have been crowding the decks like the passengers on the Noordam.


Simple moments like a terrific lunch overlooking the Pacific in Lahaina were there as well, and in Port Vila and Noumea. One spectacular result of history came in Suva, at a south Indian food outlet up on the fourth floor food court of a new mall. It had the best south Indian food I have had outside of south India itself, despite a visiting Englishman suggesting that back in his country they had “real” curries.

Those simple moments included people. Like the fireman who came to talk with us as we sheltered from the rain at his station in Pago Pago. He has relatives in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. And like Albert in Pago Pago who invited us into his simple fish shop to have a look at the local catch that is getting depleted, as it is elsewhere in the Pacific. (I gave a lecture on the fishing industry and, of course, there were at least two professionals in the audience. Luckily they gave me a god mark along with some tips on changes in places like Tasmania and Western Australia.

That was just another aspect of being able to observe the impact of history because the Pacific, of course, has been in the eye of international ambition and annexation for centuries. It is amazing to think that a place like American Samoa has the highest representation into the military proportionate to population of any American state or territory.    That is one result of a long term American presence in the Pacific since the nineteenth century. The French centres in Vanuatu and New Caledonia simply reflect the results of a long term French interest in the region, too, one that reached its low point with the nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll and the later bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents in Auckland Harbour.. Then there is the high Indian presence in Fiji that dates from the indentured labour schemes that began back in the 1870s and in recent years have sparked much international controversy and tension.

Now it is back to reality and the writing projects, but I remain hugely grateful for the privilege of doing these cruises, seeing these fascinating places and meeting so many marvellous people.

Out and About In The World



Sandi and I have just returned from an extended visit to the USA that was full of interest and incident, and that confirmed just how small the world is now.

The main purpose target was ThrillerfestXI, the annual convention of the International Thriller Writers.

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What a gathering. Along the way I met the legendary Walter Mosley, a standout speaker in a star host. I spent time with Peter James, one of the UK’s best and most successful writers and the international coordinator for ITW. And not to forget meeting that other legend, Lawrence Block who has been writing forever. Among those heard during the 8 am to 8 pm days: Steve Berry, Gillian Flynn, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child (also got to meet him), Linwood Barclay, David Morrell (another former academic), the amazing R.L. (Bob) Stine, Heather Graham, Tess Gerritsen, Jeff Deaver, Meg Gardiner and many more.

There was the fun of being on a panel chaired by Simon Toyne and sitting alongside Valentina Giambanco whose first book I had read and admired. The others included Douglas Stewart, an English lawyer who has worked in Vegas; Ward Larsen, a commercial airline pilot; Bill Shweigart, formerly in the US Coast Guard; and Leonardo Wild, based in Ecuador and script writer as well as thriller merchant.

The first two days were for Craftfest, a series of panels and workshops on the writing life, techniques, strategies, skills and ideas. People like Steve Berry turn out to be skilled teachers, and Walter Mosley to be a really seriously good thinker.

As always, the benefits were in just being around people with ideas and who are so encouraging. Stars like Child, James and Mosley et. al. see themselves as writers like everyone else, and act accordingly. It was a terrific opportunity to get added energy for and commitment to writing.

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And then there was New York in the spare time: fireworks on 4 July; a great night at Birdland with Sandi and Kirsten listening to Stacey Kent; “Oslo”, a wonderful play at the Kennedy Centre about the 1993 peace accords; an excellent Italian meal at Sam’s Place in midtown; bookshops; diners; the B&H camera shop; and all the rest.

Around that New York gig we built visits to friends. First stop was in Phoenix with great and generous pals Lyn and Chris Griffiths who arranged for me to talk about Le Fanu and Madras to their local community. That was a great night. We also went out to Chase Field to cheer on the Diamondbacks against the San Francisco Giants (because for me the Giants are ahead of the Dodgers in the National League West), but to no avail.

After the ITW dinner at the end of Thrillerfest , Michigan we got up at 3 am to catch a flight out to Traverse City to meet up with Marily and Clint Sampson and to stay at their place overlooking Cathead Bay on Lake Michigan, up from TC. It is a fabulous place and we had a fabulous few days travelling Leelanau County.

The bizarre moment while there was catching up opportunistically with Mike Sinclair, another Kiwi and a friend of my pal Alan Cumming, and who lives these days in Northport near Cathead Bay. The world is weird.

Sandi and I then drove from Traverse City, Michigan to Frankenmuth, a German-settled town, to meet Christine and Richard Stark, another couple of friends met on the Holland America Line ships where I do lectures. That was terrific and they gave me a book by a writer who I now really like, Tony Hillerman.

As I keep saying, I am a “crime and place” person for whom the setting is as important as the stories and the characters. Hillerman writes about the American west, a really atmospheric setting now captured in the Longmire television series starring yet another Australian, Robert Taylor. Another writer in that vein, C.J. “Chuck” Box, was a Thrillerfest featured writer.

Coincidentally, near Frankenmuth is the excellent Birch Run “outlet centre” so we spent several acquisitive hours there before heading off towards Kingston in Ontario, a marvellous town.


Then it was back into America towards Stowe, Vermont and the Trapp Family Lodge where we spent a week to celebrate 35 years of marriage. (Where the hell did that time go?). The Trapps lobbed up in Stowe after they walked out of Austria in that film, you remember? By chance, though, there was another connection for me in the town. Joe Kirkwood was one of the first Australian golfers to go to America. A “choker” who never won a major, he was still a huge star travelling the world with Walter Hagen and playing trick shots. One of his twin sons became a Hollywood actor in the Joe Palooka series, and Joe himself ended up as the first professional at the Stowe Country Club.

Having a beer in the Kirkwood Bar and visiting his grave was moving. Like us, he was a long way from home.

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It was a week of bike riding (wondering when the bears would emerge from the woods), eating at great restaurants (try Harrisons and The Bistro at Ten Acres), finding lovely spots and shops.

One of those shops was Ebenezer, a marvellous independent bookshop in the nearby small town of Johnson. A terrific find – we bought a few books!

After Stowe we headed for Bristol, Connecticut (home of ESPN) to catch up with Bob and Sandra Utterback.

On the way there we made one of those great stops, off the freeway between Hartland and Windsor, Vermont. We needed petrol so stopped at a station where the guy came out to fill up the car for us, a rare experience these days. We needed breakfast so he suggested Frazer’s Place, just along the road. The classic diner in what had started life as a mobile home. Sit at the counter. A huge plate of eggs, sausage, toast. Endless coffee. Lots of chat with the locals. The local cop and a detective come in for breakfast. The real America.


Bob Utterback was my great golfing pal when we all lived in Penang, Malaysia during the 1990s, and he makes the world’s best margarita. These days, he and Sandra spend the summers at an amazing campground complex where the houses all started out as summer camps for religious organisations. Now the houses have all been refurbished and the community is an engaged and fun one drawing people from all over the States and Canada.


Without discussion, Bob got us to two massive antique centres, and I managed to find a piece of the Straits Chinese porcelain that I began collecting while in Penang. (There was more waiting when we got home to Queenstown).

Amidst all this we watched all of the Democratic and Republican conventions on television, and discussed it with our friends and their friends who are all keen to talk, mostly in frustration. Their dilemma is this: how does a country like America end up with a choice between the two most detested Presidential candidates in a very long time, perhaps ever? A decision not to vote is effectively a vote for one or other of them, while a determination to vote is driven by the thought about which of them is the least worst. For perhaps millions of voters, it is a terrible choice.

The USA is not alone in this pain, of course.  The UK voted to leave the European Union just as we were about to leave for the States, then we voted in the mad Australian election called by Malcolm Turnbull and that just about threw him out. Politically, the world is now a strange place, and much of the anger is driven by an alienation from the professional politicians who seem more focused on themselves than on either their constituents or their countries. That is certainly the case in America where, as I write, Trump seems to be alienating everyone, but he has tapped a deep despair with the “establishment” and, whether he wins or loses, has shaken up American politics for ever.

Then it was on to NYC and JFK to round out 2,000 miles of driving and a great experience.

And then we fly back into Queenstown.


Life is OK.

Reading the Writer: Andrea Camilleri

An unexpected bonus of starting to write crime fiction is the opportunity to go back to some favourite authors and not only rediscover the fun but also start to work out what they are doing. That is especially the case where the writers run a long series, and as a ‘crime and place” aficionado one of my absolute favourites is the marvellous Andrea Camilleri.

Camilleri, of course, writes that wonderful lot of books set in Sicily and featuring the irascible Commisario Salvo Montalbano.   The television series based on the books have been shown around the world and made Luca Zingaretti a global star. Perhaps predictably for Italy, Zingaretti’s brother Nicola is currently the President of the Lazio region that includes Rome, is a former member of the European Parliament and a Democratic Party leader. Camilleri himself could not have done that better.


The first point to make is that the books and the series are set very specifically in just one area of Sicily, the southeast corner effectively running from Syracuse around to Porto Empedocle and Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. Across that area Camilleri captures the marvellous seaside towns and villages, the stark and rugged uplands and hamlets, the variety of people and, of course, the huge range of food. He was one of the first to make food a central part of the story.

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At the heart of this lies the now 90 years old Camilleri’s personal roots in the region. He was born in Porto Empedocle, the tiny harbour down the road from Agrigento and now the doorway to the Scala dei Turchi, the unusual white marl cliffs that have become a recent tourist attraction. The real importance of Porto Empedocle, however, is that Vigata in the books is based on the town with the nearby Agrigento forming Montelusa, the regional centre where Montalbano often has to go for a periodic dressing down. In fact, the small port is now known officially as Porto Empedocle Vigata.

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This regional richness that Camilleri brings to the books is one of the prime ingredients in their success. He is able to paint quick and incisive pen pictures of people and places that make them immediately distinctive. The folk tales, superstitions, local gossip mills, the unusual, the bizarre, the mundane, all reflect what is essentially a small community mindset where histories go back generations and inform current actions. Bars, cafes, restaurants and all the rest provide the stage for this, the avenues for interaction.

In this there is a much stronger than normal connection between books and television series. Yes, the filming takes place in these places, principally in and around the old sections of Ragusa that clings to the sides of some steep hills and provides the opening aerial shots in the original series. Towns like Scicli and Modica provide many of the principal settings for offices and houses, while Montalbano’s own house by the sea is in the small town of Donnalucata.

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But the real connection here lies with the fact that Camilleri did not start writing fiction until he was 53, and the first Montalbano, The Shape of Water appeared 1994 when he was 69. It came out in English first in 2002, starting the craze outside Italy. So what had Camilleri been doing? He was a television script editor and producer by profession, and once we realise that it makes immediate sense of the books. On top of their strong sense of locale, they are informed by a strong cinematic presence. That amplifies the locations, and heightens the characters.

In that sense Montalbano was made for television precise because he was based in a cinematic tradition. So are all the others: Livia the long suffering girlfriend; Ingrid the Swedish femme fatale;”Mimi” Augello the Lothario cop; “Cat” Catarella the bumbling assistant; Fazio the efficient and dogged cop; Nicolo the newsman. These are all characters verging on caricature, but that’s what makes them so memorable, especially when placed so knowingly into the landscape.

It has to be said that all this makes even more sense when seeing it on the ground because, yes, Sandi and I have done the pilgrimage, a couple of times. Staying in the lovely town of Pozzallo was like being on a film set, especially at night when the local populace comes out to promenade and during the day in the markets and shops. Go early to the house at Donnalucata, because soon there will be a legion of tour buses bringing in thousands to see the sites. Driving between the sites is an education in Camilleri Country because you see houses and fields and outlooks that all immediately provide scenes for a murder or some other sort of trickery. And you can also see why Montalbano hates to drive along the narrow lanes and on the high speed freeways.

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But you can always escape to the wonderful La Rusticana in Ragusa, the restaurant that doubles in the films as Montalbano’s local fallback, even if it is a longish distance away from the after lunch stroll he takes along the water.

For a writer, then, Camilleri underlines the significance of setting and its interconnection to action, the significance of difference in character, the fine line between fun and farce, and the fact that drama often proceeds from the simplest slight rather than the most dramatic of affronts.

Camilleri works strongly to a format, about 180 pages over a set number of chapters and that, too, reflects his cinematic background.  Alexandra Sokoloff must love his work given her approach.  It should be said here, too, that Stephen Sartarelli’s translations play a big role in getting all that Sicilian sense through in the English versions. The American poet and translator who now lives in France is an essential part of the success.

We can all learn from this, as well as enjoy the marvelous books and the places and people that they capture.

Biking Birthday

As another birthday approached it seemed like a good idea to mark it in style and do something memorable. The question, of course, was what?

Having now taken to mountain biking that became an immediate option, and finding the memorable or even spectacular was not that hard.

So, a few nights ago Sandi and I and Laura booked into the Hermitage at Mount Cook/Aoraki, but only after an adventurous day on which the car broke down. As usual Sandi fixed all that. Kirsten could not be with us because she had a PhD conference in the UK, but was on the phone.

On the birthday morning it was cold, below freezing – well, it is that time of the year here in the southern hemisphere and especially so in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At breakfast we got a good look out to Cook, the training ground for Sir Edmund Hilary before he went off to summit Everest. There is now a Hilary Heritage Centre attached to the hotel.

I was soon outside, in the gear and on the bike because I was setting off for the first two sections of the Alps2Ocean bike trail.  New Zealand is fast becoming a world centre for bike touring and much of that is centred in Otago and South Canterbury. The government has just announced another tranche of funding to build and link even more trails in the area. At the heart of it is the famous Rail Trail that runs from Clyde to Middlemarch and, indeed, follows the line set out in the now abandoned rail system that opened up the region.

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As I free wheeled down from the Hermitage and joined the start of the A2O, it seemed that the warm weather gear was not designed for the NZ high country. The thick gloves seemed only to intensify the freeze. But the trail itself was inspiring. The first several kilometres run from near the village down the valley to the grandly named Mt Cook Airport from where sight seers set off all over the area including to the West Coast and into Milford Sound as well as onto and around glaciers and snow slopes. The Mt Cook heli skiing season starts soon – that is for the intrepid.

So why, exactly, am I riding to an airport? Because in order to continue along section 1 of the trail, I have to be choppered (helicoptered) across the Tasman River that runs out of the huge Tasman Glacier and down into Lake Pukaki.  So Sandi and I pitch up at Heliworks, get checked in and meet the marvellous Mark Hayes, today’s pilot.  These people are phenomenal, because as you see from their bios they are deeply involved in rescue work and all sorts of other activities. Mark’s brother Richard has been knighted for his efforts, but all the rest are right up there as well.


Mark gets the bike in the back seat and Sandi and I in the front, and sweeps us off in a turn out across the braided strands of the Tasman River. Mts Cook and Tasman are off to one side, as is Sefton and all the other peaks now just getting the early sun on what is looking like being a stunning day. There are 29 peaks over 3,000 metres in here, so it is spectacular with Cook at 3, 700 metres. And Mark spots a stag that runs off into the tree line. This is the NZ high country at its best, and a reminder of why it is just such an attraction for visitors from all over the world. The hotel was packed, largely with Japanese and Chinese tourists who all seem to have bought Kathmandu or Macpac gear especially for the trip!


We see, too, that the river is now high in water after some heavy rainfall. So heavy, in fact, that as we fly in over the bike trail we note that some areas at the start are under water. Mark puts me down in the nearest available dry spot, we get the bike out, and I crouch low as Mark heads the chopper back to return Sandi to the airport. I am on my own, beside a roaring Tasman River and in the shadow of Cook, with a bike, and I can see already that there are deep pools in some of the closer parts of the trail. The air is magnificent, the sky clear, the sun now up, but I am in the shadow of the mountains still and freezing.

For the first 5 ks there are huge pools of water across and near the trail, some of them up to the hubs on the wheels. By way of compensation there are views to the mountains and the company of hundreds of paradise ducks and Canada geese as well as the usual startled sheep, this is merino country. I have the track and the place to myself. All day I see one other person, two hay trucks, and right near the end of the ride a four wheel drive taking some riders into where I had just been.


The fragility of the landscape and the pioneering nature of the trail kicks in at about 6 ks. The track spears off into the torrent that is the Tasman River. About 300 metres of the track is now, well, river. The bypass is to climb over a fence, skirt along the edge, then rejoin the track which swings off towards the Jollie River car park on the edge of Mt. Cook Station that has just changed hands after being held by the Burnett family for over 150 years. Andrew Burnett, a Highlands Scot, took the land in 1864. His son, Thomas, inherited it but also became a politician between the wars. Thomas Burnett was also responsible for the statue to James McKenzie, of the “McKenzie Country” that stands near Burke’s Pass.

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These stations all have great stories, as now recorded in May Hobbs new book.   The Hayman family, for example, has run Tasman Downs Station since 1914, and the place has become famous most recently as the site for “Lake Town” in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

From the Jollie car park the trail goes out onto the Braemar-Mt Cook Station road and begins the long wind along Lake Pukaki which is New Zealand’s seventh largest and among the most spectacular with the water fed from the glacier. Today that water is a greenish blue, making a mockery of the muddy stuff coming down the tributary streams.

Some parts of the gravel road are hugely corrugated so the dual suspension on the bike and the advanced shocks (there is a lot of technology in MTBs!) is welcome but even that is not enough some times. Luckily the scenery is hugely distracting. On the other side of the lake the Ben Ohau range provides snow capped images being reflected in water pools and in secluded bays. Here and there some natural stopping points provide rare opportunities to just sit and admire the view, and to reflect on just what a magic place we have in this part of the world.

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I hit the end of the first stage of the A2O, at the intersection of the Hayman and Braemar roads. The latter is named after the huge Braemar Station, 63,000 acres of it and the road runs across to Lake Tekapo. It is isolated, but dangerous.  New Zealand media these days are full of stories about tourist driving problems and vigilante responses that amount to road rage.

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From that point there is another 18 ks to reach the Lake Pukaki power-generating station, another in the massive chain of hydro electric power plants that transformed this area from the 1950s onwards. The day is now even more magical, especially so for this time of the year on the eve of the ski season. Along the way there is beauty, history, and irony. On a large pond there are hundreds of ducks and geese. Besides the pond there is a sign: No Shooting. The duck shooting season here started on 7 May and is taken so seriously that many Central Otago rugby competitions suspend games for a week or two when the shooting starts. These ducks are smart.

As I ride into the power station and meet the tarseal road, Sandi and Laura arrive to pick me up. Brilliant timing, as always.

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It has been a truly memorable and fantastic day.

I can’t believe I have done it.

Now that was a birthday.

Continue reading

A New Book

Le Fanu 3, A Straits Settlement, is released on 24 May and will be available in all the usual e-formats like Kindle and iBooks as well as in Print on Demand form via Amazon.  The big news this time, however, is that Kodansha Europe is distributing the book in the UK where it will be available in bookshops.

On this adventure, Le Fanu is sent from Madras across the Bay of Bengal to investigate the case of a missing Indian Civil Service officer that somehow ties into another case. Really, though, it is an excuse to get Le Fanu “out of town”. He is frustrated at being Acting Inspector-General of Police, unhappy in his personal life, faces the prospect of his few influential supporters moving on in their careers, and the grim possibility that his bete noire boss might just return. So Le Fanu goes off to the Straits Settlements and, as usual, things become complicated, not least because he meets an intriguing Straits Chinese woman.

Writing this book allowed me to connect one of my favourite places with another. Le Fanu appeared because of my fascination for Madras now Chennai, a fascination that began a long time ago when I went there to research my PhD and that has continued in the years since.Madras University

I first encountered Penang way back then when I was on my way to India for the first time.

It was the quintessential Asian “place”, well named as “The Pearl of the Orient” and, a year later, I spent a month writing on the beach at Batu Ferringhi. There was just one hotel there, where I stayed, but the new ones were on the way and now, of course, it is hard to find the beach because of the buildings. Then, years later, along with Sandi, Kirsten and Laura I got to live there for three years working on a higher education project.Penang Chinatown

It remains one of my very favourite places and it sparked one of my great obsessions, collecting Straits Chinese porcelain.   (Here is a recent purchase). Straits Chinese kamcheng

My porcelain preoccupation gets a run in A Straits Settlement, so look out for that.

As usual, though, the new book seems “so long ago” even though it was finished just a few short months ago. I am already onto the next one, have two other non-fiction works (including a true crime) well advanced and a couple of film and television scripts in the works all along with trying to keep up my reading, taking photographs, having a life and finding time to fit in my new mania for mountain bike riding. Well, what else was I going to do in Queenstown, New Zealand?

The appearance of a new book, however, is always cause for pause. The most immediate reason is the fear that no-one will like the new book. That never goes away and I doubt there is an author going around who does not suffer from the anxiety. Then, as the industrial part of the process (editing, production, distribution, promotion, social media, selling) kicks in to overtake the creative (the mere writing of the book), for me at least there raises the question of why I am doing this.

Why write?

Just about everyone gets asked that at some point or other and usually way more than once. Perhaps almost as many times as the one where people discover you are a writer (of sorts) and say “Oh, I’m thinking of writing a book!”

Part of the answer to the question, of course, lies right there. There is an innate part of us that has a desire to be a story teller. If you are or were lucky enough, it starts growing up having stories read to you before you have the ability to read. I think that is where I first encountered Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. Once you can read, stories carry you off to other places. But stories are also part of the common community currency. For a long time the ABC in Australia carried a weekend broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”, the stories from the wonderfully named if fictional Lake Wobegon in Minnesota  that breathed life into everyday characters. It was mandatory listening for us.  (One highlight of recent years for Sandi and me was hearing Keillor live in London, a marvellous performance.)

Maori culture in New Zealand has a great tradition of storytelling and oratory as do many others, of course. Somewhere in among the mountain of things I’ve collected over the years is a “talking stick” produced by a craftsman from the Kwakiutl First nation in Canada. In gatherings, the talking stick was used to ensure as many voices as possible were heard. Only the person holding the stick could speak at that time, and the stick was passed around to ensure inclusivity.

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There were many, many times in the interminable round of university meetings when I wished that we used the talking stick!

The point, then, is that story telling is a part of us, and the writer goes one step or several beyond that to extend the process. That is why once one book is done we put aside the industrial drudgery and the fear of rejection, the fear of finding publishers and the approval of reviewers and all the rest to do yet another one.

It is because there are a lot more stories to be told.

Believable Creativity

Netflix and all those other outlets encourage binge-watching of television series, we know. The plus is that you can track momentum and development, the negative is that there is no time left for writing. Among other things, though, this watching raises questions about all the rules of writing to be found in all those manuals about writing fiction and writing for TV and film. Rules are there to be followed or broken as the creative process desires, of course, but watching series like this highlights both good and bad.

River is one of those English programs that shows creativity at its best.  Stellan Skarsgard plays a detective whose “hearing voices” condition is aggravated by the shooting of his partner played by Nicola Walker, who these days is in just about everything. That leads to some strange behaviours on his part as he unravels her complex life that was ended courtesy of an unlikely source.

The show is a tightly run six part affair, well paced, neatly written, well cast, off beat but strangely believable. It was written by Abi Morgan whose earlier work includes The Hour, another neat series set in a British television newsroom in the 50s, and whose latest showing is the film, Suffragette that has gained some mixed reviews.

There is a chemistry that makes things like River work, but it does start with the writing and Morgan exercised a tight rein over it, with great results. That allows a great cast and a great production team full scope to produce a winner.

The Fall is something else altogether.  It stars Gillian Anderson of X Files fame, and works to her English-American background, probably in order to give the series a more international profile. It has so far gone through two seasons with a third and final due mid-2016.

Anderson plays an English senior detective brought into Northern Ireland to deal with a murder case where the victim was the estranged wife of the “connected” son of a local “player”. Anderson’s character soon determines that this is part of a serial killing spree, and the chase is on. Along the way there are interpersonal issues that have her selecting members of her team (of both varieties) for casual sex; excursions into domestic violence; the inevitable sectarian and political struggles; crooked cops and corrupt politicians; and the suppressed nature of Belfast life.

It is slow in an attempt to be atmospheric, and Anderson’s ice cold, efficient character frequently strays into melodrama, it must be said – the strong jaw sometimes looks more like lock jaw. Some of the best moments in the series, it must be said, come from Stuart Graham who plays a senior detective brought into “shadow” if not watch Anderson.

The series was written by Allan Cubitt who has a pedigree going back to Prime Suspect, and there is an obvious attempt here to play off long running shows like The Killing and its knock-offs like The Bridge. It has won awards, including for writing, but for me it is way too slow and raises serious issues of credibility. Anderson stalks around abandoned buildings and the countryside in high heels and designer clothes, for example, and there are big moments of doubt as to whether things would really have happened, like police officers going into dangerous sites unaccompanied.

That immediately raises the question of why something so unlikely as River works and, for me, The Fall does not. It goes to believability, I think, and that is a combination of writing and acting with a clear interaction between the two. Skarsgard and Walker make the unlikely seem possible, Anderson and Jamie Dornan do not.

Much the same principle applies to crime writing, in all likelihood, and might explain why a few books I have started reading lately have been problematic. Part of it is repetition – many UK books now reference child abuse and illegal immigration automatically. That is part of the “crime as social commentary” move that is in general a good thing, but it places a premium on the writer’s skill. Ian Rankin makes it work in his latest, some others do not.

That was why I read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings that won the recent Booker Prize. At heart it is a crime novel, based in the chaos of Kingston, Jamaica from the 1960s to the 1980s when economic collapse, political violence and the rising drug trade all intersected to make suburban slums like Trench Town among the worst in the world.

James’ writes the book in several “voices”, and cuts between the patois of the slums and the white American world and a lot in between. It is a “literary” rather than a “crime” novel per se, though, and at times I wish there had been a tougher edit. That said, it is a brilliant piece of writing and for me, having spent a little time in Kingston in the 80s (and it remains one of the scariest places I have been), it is believable.

That is a good reminder as I return to two non-fiction books I am trying to complete, and think about writing the fourth in the Le Fanu crime fiction series.

Alert: A Straits Settlement is Le Fanu number 3 and will be released May 19th, including to bookshops in the UK.

Much of this reflection has been the result of the latest round of lecturing on the high seas, this time for a month aboard the ms Rotterdam of the Holland America Line, sailing from Piraeus in Greece through to Singapore. Once again, that demonstrated that there is a lot of unbelievability in the actual world.

One highlight for me, for example, was visiting the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi. These birds are magnificent, and pampered. Many spend the malting season in the hospital, at considerable cost. Most have passports so that they can travel with their owners during the hunting season, and many travel alongside their owners on commercial airline flights. That simply underlines the centrality of falconry in the local culture, and seems scarcely believable to the outside world.


That was matched by the opulence of the new mosque in Abu Dhabi. It cost north of $US1.5 billion but, to me, lacks both a soul and the essential humility of Islam. Then there is Dubai and Dubai Mall with its ice rink that featured ice hockey while we were there, along with the massive aquarium that hosts sharks and rays and much more.

It just goes to show: there is much in the world already that we struggle to “believe”, and that should make us think much more when writing a creative or imaginary one.



“Curiouser and Curiouser”

DoucaiA couple of nights ago I sat in the dark way, way after midnight, staring at the laptop screen as dollar numbers clicked over on an item being auctioned in Belgium. It was in Bruges, to be precise, the city of that wonderful film starring Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell, a far more successful outing for the latter than in the recent disaster that was True Detective.

The internet has spawned many things, not least a highly globalised online antique trade that was impossible just a few years ago. Way back in the last millennium during my first visit to London, I haunted the auction rooms looking for first editions in the Winnie the Pooh series. Whenever the books came up I never had enough money to buy them, even though that was almost the only opportunity to do so. They might have been on sale somewhere else in the world but it was impossible to find out. Over the past few years, however, I have compiled a set thanks to the web, through online auctions rather than something like ABE books which is in itself a web consequence. Sites like Invaluable, The-Saleroom, LiveAuctioneers and all the rest provide a truly global marketplace.

This fascination with Bruges focused on a doucai plate. The term doucai refers essentially to a process of porcelain making. A blue and white pattern is underglazed on an object, then overglazed with other colours to complete the pattern. Some people, then, translate the term as to “compete with colour”. The practice began in fifteenth century China during the Chenghua period of the Ming dynasty. Chenghua pieces are the most prized, naturally enough. In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a piece at auction for $US 36 million.

The Bruges piece, described as “exceptional”, was in excellent condition and carried a series of Buddhist sacred symbols coloured into the blue and white background. The catalogue carried an estimated price of between €1,000 and €1,500. That was wiped out in seconds as a ferocious battle for possession broke out. With an odd lull here and there as the combatants regained their composure, the clicking numbers reached €5,000, then 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and kept going. Then came the magic €100,000. Things slowed a little as people reassessed their wallets. One bidder was left standing at €122,000 or $US 135,000. It was far beyond €1,500 and a lot of money for a plate, even if it was a Ming.

What does this have to do with writers and writing? Curiosity, mainly. What drives someone to pay that amount of money for a plate? The buyer of the $US 36 million piece provides a clue. When he bought the “Chicken Cup”, Liu Yiqian was said to be worth almost $US 2 billion and the 220th richest person in China. He and his wife built that fortune in chemicals, pharmaceuticals and financial investment. They are also among the leading Chinese art buyers who have stormed the world’s auction rooms to “take back” Chinese treasures that have travelled around the world over the past few hundred years.

The highlight of that reclamation campaign came in London during 2011. Six bidders in a small auction house and three more on phones took a Qianlong moon vase to £53 million, a hammer price of £43 million with commission and tax of a further £10 million. The Chinese buyer then baulked at the commission fee, a lengthy row ensued, with settlement reached finally along with a new rule for many auction houses: financial guarantees had to be assured in advance, especially for expensive Chinese pieces.

Fiction and non-fiction writers are always asking who, why, where, when and how? Stories like these porcelain sales, then, provide all of that, along with something else, passion and curiosity. These pieces tell a story both about themselves and their owners, as demonstrated nicely by Edmund de Waal. His The Hare With Amber Eyes tells the story of a netsuke collection begun by his forebears in the nineteenth century and inherited by him via a relative who lived most of his life in Japan and took the collection back home, as it were. The story, then, is of how objects take on a life and a meaning. His recent follow up, The White Road, investigates the passion and obsession that drive porcelain collectors.

These curious links inspire writers all the time. While researching nationalist politics in south India in the 1920s and 1930s I came across the name of a “British” member of the Indian Civil Service: Arthur Mario Agricola Collier Galletti di Cadhilhac. I had to follow that curiosity into several years of research around the world before I could write his life story. Now I am writing a “true crime” book based on a story from New Zealand’s nineteenth century that I stumbled on and just had to follow through the archives.

Obsession, curiosity and expression often go together. The third Superintendent Le Fanu crime novel is now with the publisher en route to joining its predecessors.

The new one references some other porcelain, the Straits Chinese variety that I happen to collect. That obsession began while living in Penang because the pieces carried a lot of the story about how a new community came into being.;dn=657012494959276;res=IELHSS Some among those pieces have marvellous provenance from Penang’s leading trade and commerce families. They have resonance far beyond being mere plates or bowls or vases, and are a great inspiration to learn more and write more.

Now, I wonder if a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might make me even more “curiouser and curiouser”?

One can always dream.

Round Up

Round Up

It has been a while because I’ve been a bit busy!

First news is that Le Fanu 3 is now with the publishers and will appear in the coming months sometime. There will likely be some new avenues for availability that I will keep you informed about.

In this one, Le Fanu finds that being the boss is tougher than anticipated, so seizes on the disappearance of a senior Indian Civil Service officer and the apparently unrelated murder of a visiting Englishman to give him some diversions. However, the dreaded Jepson threatens to return to his position so the Raj sends Le Fanu out of India to pursue the cases. Along the way he meets a woman who complicates the Ro McPhedren situation that is already confused by her reluctance to join him.

Stay tuned!

A Madras Miasma and The Pallampur Predicament had a great run through the Madras Week celebrations recently in Chennai, thanks to marvellous support from S. Muthiah and Sriram V., both great writers on the city’s history and heritage. Muthu arranged some special readings to focus on the locations in the books, and both he and Sriram have done nice reviews. Thank you, gentlemen, and I look forward to being back in Chennai soon.

Over the past few months Sandi and I spent some time in Osaka, Japan before joining the Holland America cruise lines’ Volendam on which I delivered lectures as we sailed around Japan, into the north Pacific then across the Bering Sea and onto Alaska then down the coast to Vancouver. Following that we had a week chasing bears and eagles and whales on Vancouver Island. We are fortunate, indeed, to have these opportunities.

My memoir of being in Syria, A House In Damascus: Before the Fall, will soon be in Print On Demand form as well as in e-form, so I’m looking forward to that even if the Syrian situation just becomes increasingly sad. I think a lot about my friends who are either still there or dispersed across the world.

In a small world Hans Kemp, one of the publishers at Crime Wave Press has been volunteering with refugees in Greece as the European crisis deepens, and many of those whom he has been helping are from Syria.

Back in New Zealand I have started writing a true crime book that examines a nineteenth century case. The archival search has turned up some marvellous material and stories and I have written about 20,000 words so far. Being an archive rat as a result of training as an historian has many benefits.

In addition I have been working on some television and/or film scripts, of which more later, I think.

While there are so many great books coming out these days, two have stood out for me in recent months.

Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt’s The Whites is just outstanding crime fiction: great story, terrific plotting and wonderful writing. A must-read in the genre, I think.

Greg McGee is one of New Zealand’s most versatile and successful writers and his latest novel, The Antipodeans, is a stylish and compelling three generational study of one family’s interactions between New Zealand and the Italian region of the Veneto near Venice. It is simply a marvellous book.

McGee pops up everywhere. He has written an episode in the new series of the excellnt Kiwi crime show, The Brokenwood Mysteries filmed around Warkworth north of Auckland. And he was the collaborating writer on All Black captain Richie McCaw’s autobiography, The Real McCaw.

Yes, McGee is one of those annoyingly accomplished people: he played junior All Black rugby in his earlier days.

Like everyone else in New Zealand I am consumed by the World Cup, worrying about All Black lapses and being thrilled when they get it right, as against France in the quarter final. A real mystery, still, is how a country this small continues to provide such world class rugby players – the answer is a complex mix of cultural evolution, national expression through a relatively simple game, and the power of rivalry as against South Africa and Australia.

As a Kiwi and a passport holding Australian I am fascinated by the current brouhaha over Australia deporting convicted Kiwis back home. No one yet has commented on the oddity of the convict-founded Australia transporting convicts out of Australia. But there has been much talk of special bonds, mateship and all the rest of it.

There was not much of that as my brothers and I endured vitriolic abuse from rabid Ocker fans in the Sydney stands as the Wobblies had a rare win over the ABs. Special bonds? I don’t think so.

Go the ABs!

Asian Books Blog Book of the Year Competition

Asian Books Blog is running its first Book of the Year competition

I am delighted that A Madras Miasma is in the running for the title, among some great contenders

Please add your votes for Miasma

The easiest way is simply to email them

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