Crime Scene

My new crime thriller Oracle is set in Delphi, Greece, close to the ancient Temple of Apollo half way up Mount Parnassus.  The crimes happen during an international conference taking place at the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside the town of Delphi. The ECCD is a real place, which I visited at the end of last century when I attended a conference there.

The Centre was founded in the 1970s, as a way of taking forward the modern Festivals held at Delphi in the 20s and 30s which were, in turn, a revival of the Festivals and Games held here in classical times.  Now the Centre is home to the Delphi Academy of European Studies which hosts symposia on European subjects, puts on performances of Greek drama ( in the ancient Theatre as well as the new, purpose built one ) and has an excellent collection of modern art. You can read more about it here.

It has a stunning and scenic position, high up and looking down to Itea on the Gulf of Corinth.  The Conference Centre and Guesthouse nestle among the cypress trees on the mountainside and there are private suites (one of which is occupied, in the novel, by a government Minister and his party).

Aside from the view and the nearby ancient Temple, I remember its fine, confident modern architecture, using local stone as well as concrete and lots of glass – making the most of those spectacular views.  My heroine, Cassandra, occupies one of the rooms in the Guesthouse (left) above the restaurant on the ground floor.

It was November when I was there and the weather wasn’t kind – it was mostly raining, but the mountain peaks were snow covered.  As I sat in that same restaurant with a storm raging outside and the lights flickering, briefly, a fellow conference goer suggested that it would be a tremendous place for a murder mystery. Over twenty years later, when Claret Press suggested that I write one, the ECCD and the beautiful ancient temple nearby immediately sprang to mind.

So it was Delphi, not London, which was the setting which I thought of first, but it soon became apparent to me that my first book, introducing the recurring character of my detective and her associates, should be set where most of the books would be taking place and that was London.  From there on it had to be Westminster and Thorney Island, places which I knew very well, having trodden the streets there for years.  Thus was Plague born. At the end of Oracle it is where Cassie returns to for the third book in the series, Opera, although I confess that I do have a yen to take her off to Rome at some point in the future, another city which I know very well.

I should point out that the title of this article is misleading, however. The ECCD is not, in fact, the scene of the crime, although it is there that both murderer and victim(s) meet.  And that, I’m afraid, is all you will get out of me about the plot.

Oracle (Claret Press) will be published on 5th May 2021.  It will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon and via the Claret Press website.

Adieu to Delphi

Sad as I am to leave beautiful Delphi (though it’s under deep snow at the moment I am told) I have, at least temporarily, waved goodbye to Oracle, which is now in the hands of the publishers and their book and cover designers. The manuscript has been proofed, the front cover tag-line and back cover blurb have been agreed and the internal design created, again by Petya Tsankova, so it’s consistent with that of Plague, which Petya also designed.

Like the earlier book, Oracle takes place over a few days, so that is how the book is divided up. My sketch of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi ( see below ) is featured on the named ‘day’ pages as the sketch of the Palace of Westminster was in Plague.  It looks good.  This time, however, the book has a ‘Praise for’ section at the front, ( squirm – it’s what is done ). At the moment this contains endorsements and complimentary review remarks about Plague.  As we approach publication day these will be augmented by what I hope will be complimentary reviews and endorsements of Oracle.  I also get an ‘About the Author’ at the back, so Claret Press must be pleased with me.

Already the promotional schedule of events is being formulated ( there are two events in place already, with the UK Crime Book Club and Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, see the Events page ).  The manuscript will go up on NetGalley during March, for a limited period only, to attract reviews and test reader reaction.  Any revisions will follow and Advanced Review Copies will be produced and despatched to various ‘experts’ and to reviewers for newspapers, magazines and blogs. Quite a lot of the publications which reviewed Plague are anxious to follow up with a review of Oracle and, I’m pleased to say, there are plenty of readers out there who tell me that they re anxious to read it too. Publication day will be 5th May.

I’m very pleased to have the help of a number of ‘experts’ with Oracle, as I had on Plague.  These include Maro Nicolopolou, Head of Conferences and Artistic Programmes at the European Cultural Centre at Delphi, below (and a lover of detective fiction) and Sharon Hartles, zemiologist, of Strathclyde University and the Open University.  Maro has already been of inestimable help in directing me to all the changes at the Centre since I visited it back at the turn of the millenium and to the changes in the town.  This is so important given that the trip to Delphi I had planned for last year had to be abandoned because of COVID.  I’ll be writing about the amazing Centre and its conferences and performances later. Sharon has introduced me to the new discipline of zemiology and Oracle is probably the first time it has featured in a novel (see earlier post here).  She’ll be sure to put me right if I have erred.

So, a break from the actual writing then, until I begin on Opera, but not a break from work, with lots of activity around getting Oracle absolutely ready for publication and for its promotion and still doing lots of events for Plague.  I’ll be writing more about Oracle in the coming weeks, but here’s a photo of what Athens looked like earlier this week.

For articles on Oracle so far          Art and life – again!                Myths and Legends

Politics & Prose

Question – which of the following is true?

  • Stories which deal with political ideas need not be stories about politics.
  • Stories which show the struggles, jealousies and rivalries, or alliances and betrayals of politicians, may not be about political ideas.
  • Most fiction is about power and its balance, so all fiction is about the political.

All three, as far as I’m concerned. It depends, of course, on how you define politics and the political. The dictionary definition is ‘the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation; and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs. ‘

While that encompasses an awful lot, it is actually quite a narrow definition.

Yet, as Orwell said in Politics and the English Language his essay of 1946, ‘There is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’ Since 2019 the UK has had a prize, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.

I will be addressing these questions and lots of similar, related ones in Politics & Prose, a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Libraries on Monday 25th January at 18.30 GMT. It’s a FREE event, but you have to register with Eventbrite if you want to attend ( you can do so HERE ).

My novel Plague (Claret Press, 2020) has been described as a ‘Westminster novel’, and, I am proud to say, a page-turning read, but is it political fiction?  It’s commercial, not literary fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent it dealing with ideas. It  deals with crime, with torture and murder, but also, something of very topical moment,  crony capitalism. As my hero says to the villain, ‘you’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies.’ (P246) There are real legal cases underway claiming that the current government is using the COVID emergency to indulge in exactly that.

As the pandemic began early last year I believed that Plague had lots of resonance with reality and, of course, its title attracted attention. Yet, as time has gone on, it has been the politics, not the pandemic, which resonates more. The crony capitalism, the link between political policy and making money on the financial markets and manipulating the media to influence the public that seems more apposite. Plague‘s successor, Oracle, is much more of a ‘classic murder mystery’, though I hope it has the same page-turning quality. Yet it too has the political at its heart and, already, some of its themes are hitting the real-life headlines, like questions about the politicisation  of the police, something which surfaced again after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  I suspect that this issue is something crime writers will be incorporating in their stories for the next few years.

I’d also like to answer the following question;  in an age in which the novel is arguably no longer the dominant force in story telling and when social media allows us all to be citizen journalists and political commentators, what place does political fiction have? An important and relevant one, in my view. And I’m not alone – see this piece of graffiti, found in London, NW7 earlier this week ( thank you John Johnston for the photo ).  Is the political image of our age the age of the boot on the face, or the pill and the palliative? Orwell or Huxley?

I hope some readers of this piece might come along and contribute on Monday.  Here’s a book list of books which will be mentioned.

Politics & Prose Book List

Enforcing the law

On Wednesday the world watched as an enraged mob, whipped into action by their leaders, including the outgoing President of the United States, stormed the U.S. Capitol in order to derail the process of endorsing the recent and overwhelming Presidential election results. As the attempted overthrow of legitimate government took place, elected representatives were removed to or found places of safety and thugs ransacked offices, stole Capitol ‘souvenirs’ and took selfies.  Pipe bombs, molotov cocktails and guns were found and a policeman, a female insurrectionist and three others died.

There are many questions to be answered; will Trump be removed, by the 25th Amendment powers or by impeachment; why was there such a lack of preparedness among those whose job was to protect the Capitol ( the Capitol Serjeant at Arms has already resigned and the Chief of Capitol Police is going ). Many of the questions relate to events which lead up to the insurrection, which didn’t occur spontaneously ( a quick look at QAnon substantiates that ) and the attitudes and beliefs  of the people involved. Mistaken and sometimes reprehensible beliefs which have been encouraged by lies in social and mainstream media and by Republicans. There were plenty of Damascene conversions and, as someone on Twitter pointed out, a ‘traffic jam on the Damascus road’ in both Houses, so keen were Republicans to condemn what happened.

It has not gone unnoticed that the protection given to public buildings during the Black Lives Matter march was hugely different to that given to legislators on Wednesday ( see photo, left, of the Lincoln Memorial steps on the earlier occasion ). As I write this there have been 82 arrests. There were 14,000 at BLM marches and there were no pipe bombs found at any of the latter.  Reports that off-duty policemen were with the insurrectionists have yet to be proved correct, but there certainly appeared to be a reluctance, for whatever reason, among some police to prevent the mob from entering the building.

That the US police are not impartial is one conclusion. As if more convincing of this was needed, given the regularity with which unarmed black men and women are killed by police, without the killers suffering any penalty. Hence the calls to ‘defund the police’ ( though I recognise that, in certain respects, this relates to very specific types of police ). Impartial law enforcement is crucial to justice, which, together with the legal system which sustains it, is crucial to democracy.  Without the rule of law and real equality provided under that law only the strong and powerful will thrive, reducing any voting system to a sham and paving the way to authoritarian tyranny. This is basic level Civics, but something which seems to need restating. These are also ideas which I explore in Oracle.

While the book is, I hope, a fast paced mystery tale, somewhat in the same mold as Plague and involving the same central character, pursuing the murder case in it is fraught with difficulty because the police, the law enforcers, have become politicised.  So who can one trust? Even the police do not trust each other, fearful that their colleagues are members of a banned and criminal organisation, the former extreme right-wing political party Golden Dawn.

Oracle doesn’t offer any answers, I don’t know what those are, other than a thorough and committed programme for change. That is likely to take years but has been done in the past.  Perhaps this is one of the things high on the list of problems to tackle which the new Biden-Harris administration is going to have to undertake in the US. I wish them luck.

N.B. This article has been amended. The photograph of heavily armed National Guardsmen above left was taken during the BLM protest, but the Guardsmen are standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not the Capitol.  I apologise for the error. The point however, remains good. There was a huge discrepancy between how BLM and MAGA were treated.

Zemiology

No, I didn’t know either. At least I knew nothing of it until I looked it up.

Zemiology is the study of social harms, from the Greek zemia, or harm. It’s a relatively new academic discipline, which grew out of critical criminology and it seeks to generate real world action in pursuit of justice.

That’s where I come in, as justice is the theme of Oracle. I found out more when I had a chat with Sharon Hartles, of the Open University’s  Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HER​C).  She is also a member of the British Society of Criminology (BSC) and a researcher and postgraduate with the University of Strathclyde. A published critical criminologist, Sharon is currently conducting research on Primodos.

As I understand it, too often the crimes of the powerful are difficult to address under our current law and legal system, referred to as ‘black letter law’.  Actions which have a harmful impact on  others in society, like ignoring safety regulations ( or watering them down ) in pursuit of profit, or despoiling the planet, are not ‘crimes’ in law ( though they may breach certain regulations ). As an example, even after the appalling events at Grenfell Tower there are still no prosecutions and, indeed, it is becoming difficult to find a ‘crime’ with which to prosecute anyone, individually or as representing an institution or corporation. Yet facts were known, the wishes of the residents were ignored and the likelihood of fire foreseen.

Thus, events like Grenfell become referred to as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘tragic accident’, yet they were foreseeable and avoidable and these events and others like them will continue to occur until the law adapts to make punishment of those who enable such events both possible and direct. Zemiology presupposes that isn’t likely to happen, as the powerful have co-opted the law and the legal system to protect their power and interests. An idea not unfamiliar to readers of Plague.

Sharon was a mine of information about this new discipline. I think it’s going to have to feature somewhere in Oracle, probably among the young idealists protesting against environmental damage who Cassie encounters at Delphi. Perhaps the charismatic protest leader is a zemiologist? We shall see.

I await the return of the final edit of Oracle, which has to be fully revised and returned to Claret Press by 31st January, complete with drawn image. I sketched the Palace of Westminster for the pages showing the start of each ‘daily’ section in Plague and I have undertaken to do something similar for Oracle, as that too is organised over a small number of days. Something I’ll be thinking about over the Christmas period.

Good news from elsewhere, however, as I learn that the recording of the audiobook of Plague has begun. I will write separately about this as it nears completion, suffice to say for now that Essential Audiobooks of New York are producing the audio book which is being read by actress, voice coach and associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Alison Bomber.  Alison has just moved to the Czech Republic, but is already working on the recording.  More on this later.

For now, may I wish everyone reading this a happy and peaceful Christmastide, where ever and with whomever, you are managing to keep it. Here’s hoping for a much better 2021.

 

Myths and Legends

Oracle, the next book in the series following the adventures of Cassandra Fortune, is set in Delphi, Greece near the Temple of Apollo. When revising it recently  I revisited some old favourites, the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece.

Like many children of my era, I absorbed details about Zeus and Hera, Athena and Apollo fairly early in life, along with the heroes, Heracles, Jason (with fleece) and all those at Troy ( thank you, Roger Lancelyn Green and, later, Ray Harryhausen ). I was briefly confused by the Roman equivalents, Venus usurping Aphrodite in my mind (mainly because I didn’t understand what both really signified i.e. sex, and Venus was an easier name ). Yet Jupiter and Juno remained in distinct second place to the Olympians, as being too pinkly domestic and toga-clad. Gods were supposed to be wild and strange. Narnia cemented my early classical training, with its fauns and dryads, satyrs and Bacchus, and it was the Greek version which remained forever dominant.

I subsequently went on to Odin and Thor, Osiris and Anubis and the Irish heroes ( courtesy of Rosemary Sutcliff ) like Cuchulain and Finn MacCool.  Other characters from Celtic folklore, Beddgelert of Wales,  the Scottish Kelpie and St Piran of Cornwall supplemented but didn’t detract from my own existing pantheon, which was further nourished by Mary Renault. I never lost the love of them and they led to Homer, Hesiod, Beowolf, the Icelandic Sagas and the Mabinogion.

Yet there are older gods of Greece – Gaia, Uranus and the Titans, twelve male and twelve female, including Chronos, Rhea and Oceanus. Votive offerings to Gaia, the primordial mother, have been found in Delphi, in the Corycian Cave above the Temple to Apollo from the Neolithic period (about 12,000 years ago). Gaia and her daughter, Themis, ruled at Delphi and there was a chapel to her there, though it was long ago absorbed into the larger Temple complex. As Nico, the museum employee in the novel, explains, in legend, the god Apollo arrived at Delphi to wrestle with the Python, the giant snake belonging to Gaia, and won; so he became the ruler of Delphi.  It is thought that this represents a change of dominant culture as migrants, whom we now know as the Hellenes, came into Greece from the north. They eventually settled all of Greece and their gods were the Olympians. 

Nonetheless the older gods continued to exist along side the new, as did their off-spring (unless they were thrown into the pit of Tartarus). These included some groups, or sets, of minor deities, like the Fates and the Furies. The latter trio, called the Erinye, were three women, often, especially in more modern times, portrayed with snakes for hair and flashing eyes, their hands dripping blood. The image, right, is of Clytemnestra attempting to wake the slumbering Furies to chase down Orestes in the Orestaia on a vase dating c.350 BCE. Delphi, it was believed, was the centre of the world and it is to the Temple of Apollo there that Orestes flees, calling upon the god to save him from the Furies. 

I don’t know if the books which I read are still read today, I hope so, even as new games and films bring the ancient heroes and deities to life for another generation. This Pantheon is firmly anchored within western sensibilities.  So much so that we even replicate the old jokes in new ways ( see image left ). 

Oracle will be published in Spring 2021.

Art and life – again

Life is imitating art again. This time in regard to the, aptly named, ‘Oracle’. The second book in the series which ‘Plague’ began is set in Delphi, Greece and takes justice as its theme, in the way that the theme of ‘Plague’ is power. So it explores the idea of justice and how it is achieved, including concepts like vengeance, retribution, legal codes and punishment and law enforcement.

This is particularly relevant in societies where the law, as a means of achieving justice for everyone, is becoming out of reach for many, thereby diluting justice for all. Either because of cost  (and the vast reduction in legal aid available to those who don’t have the money to seek justice) or because of right wing populist, media-amplified  ideas that people belonging to certain groups do not deserve access to justice. Asylum seekers, for example, or refugees. Demonising the ‘other’ is a standard populist tactic, so are attacks on the concept of human rights, which are, by their nature, applicable to all human beings, regardless.

If this makes ‘Oracle’ sound dull, I would like to reassure you that it’s only as dull as ‘Plague’ was and a quick glance at reader reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, or its critical reception, shows that ‘Plague’ was pretty exciting.

I was prompted towards justice as a theme by recent events, particularly the Supreme Court preventing the executive from shutting down Parliament, the UK’s sovereign body.  The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests at the treatment by the police of specific groups of people, those who happen not to be white, in the States and here also played a part. More recently the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the scramble to replace her with someone partisan towards a specific political position also highlighted the link between justice and politics.

In ‘Oracle’ a senior politician doesn’t trust that the officers being sent to investigate murky goings on are truly impartial, because of the politicisation of the police.  In Greece there are close historic ties between the police and the military, which ruled the country as a junta until 1974.  I began writing ‘Oracle’ in early 2019, however, some time before the legal trial of a whole political party, Golden Dawn.

On 7 October 2020, Athens Appeals Court ruled that Golden Dawn operated as a criminal organization, systematically attacking migrants and leftists. The court also announced verdicts for sixty-eight defendants including the party’s political leadership. Nikolaos Michaloliakos and six other prominent members and former MPs, charged with running a criminal organization, were found guilty. Verdicts of murder, attempted murder, and violent attacks on immigrants and left-wing political opponents were also delivered. Golden Dawn held 17 seats in the Hellenic Parliament only five years ago. An independent investigation by the Council of Europe found disturbing links between Golden Dawn and the police.

The politicisation of elements of the justice system which already feature in ‘Oracle’ have a real life corollary. Just as elements of the governing system in ‘Plague’, like the awarding of large sums of taxpayers’ money to companies without any track record, or assets, avoiding due diligence and accountability, have a similar echo in real life. It’s encouraging and dis-spiriting at the same time.

If you’re interested in reading about the coincidences between the plot of Plague and real life try            Plague – Stranger than Fiction               The Plague Story Continues             Stranger than Fiction II