You can download it here for free – provided you aren’t in the UK. An Evil Eye comes out in Britain on July 7th, so there’s some sort of embargo. Don’t blame me.
If you enjoy it, do pass it along so that everyone can have a go!
You can download it here for free – provided you aren’t in the UK. An Evil Eye comes out in Britain on July 7th, so there’s some sort of embargo. Don’t blame me.
If you enjoy it, do pass it along so that everyone can have a go!
Scott Montgomery is the crime supremo at Book People in Austin. After the gig, he suggests eating Texan. Will it be TexMex or BBQ? We opt for the meat, and good it is.
Scott’s organizing this year’s bumper crime fest in the US, known as Bouchercon, in St Louis. The Western Hemisphere’s only Ottoman garden is in St Louis.
Lonnie and Sandy, two fabulous Austinites who have travelled the world (I mean, the world: Lonnie had his nose broken in a storm off the Antarctic, and they have lived in France), are determined to break our resistance to Tex Mex, and invite us to lunch. Bill Clinton ate here, as president, so there’s no question that this is the best of its breed.
I wish I could say that the scales fell from my eyes and I let Tacos into my heart. It isn’t the flavour. It is, I think, the texture. The crackly corn chips, the runny sauces, the chewy wraps. But we had a great lunch and then L and S took us on a whirlwind tour of Austin, culminating in a trip to the University to see a Gutenburg Bible and the world’s first photo. It’s not a very clear photo after all this time, but it was taken in France in 1829, seven years before my first historical detective story, The Janissary Tree, opens. It’s hard to imagine.
We stayed in a rockstar hotel in Austin. The St Cecilia has a sister motel just around the corner, on the achingly cool strip of Congress where the vintage stores and the food caravans are; both hotels are funky – but St Cecilia is for grown-ups, sort of. The word SOUL is reflected in the pool in neon lights. There’s a main house and around the house are these groovy Ottoman kiosks with wide spreading eaves and cunningly devised suites which you can stay in. The floors are covered in huge turquoise tiles, the shower is a wet room, and you can borrow records from the library. You can pretend you’re the only people there or you can go and hang out by the pool.
The babes checked in the day we checked out, but never mind – the hotel got us a reservation to eat at Uchi, said to be the best sushi in the South – and don’t even mention California. Yashim would not have approved, but the belly pork in a cornmeal crust was, as they say, melting.
St Cecilia melted us. Izzy said it was the coolest hotel he’d ever stayed in and I, veteran of those particular wars, could only agree.
We took 290 out of Austin, after popping into Wholefoods to buy a picnic. Actually you don’t pop into Wholefoods. It’s like the Food Halls at Harrods, but redone as a chromium ’63 Pontiac by the cast of Holiday on Ice. It sparkles, it twinkles, it stacks and it fillets and chops and roasts and grills; choose a bread, take the brisket, mustard with that? Wanna juice, have a grill, chat back, pick up some chocolate…
It’s like being a greedy little silver ball in a gingerbread pinball machine.
Grazing on our dripping roasts, like goats nibbling low branches, we rolled down 290 towards Houston, stopping to buy pecans, pronounced here perkahns, and admiring the ranch entrances, the cattle in the grass, and the beautiful oaks. Rolling country makes the heart ache.
In Houston, my gig was at Murder by the Book, a phenomenal store run by a glamorous girl with a name to match – McKenna Jordan, who also happens to be a virtuoso violinist. She is also responsible for republishing Crossroad Blues. Out of the Texan glare it is cool and comfortable, and the store is crammed with books, a few of them mine.
After the gig, we are treated to a magnificent dinner at Haven. Without making eye contact, Izzy and I go for the steak. It’s Texas, after all. But not Joe Lansdale’s Texas: this is the swanky Texas that belongs to the nation’s fourth largest city, and our host, Ken Tekell Sr, is a notable lawyer and my neighbour at table a world-class neurologist.
The steak is pretty good too.
I’ve had some terrific suggestions for crime writers you need to know before you travel.
I mentioned Ace Atkins: Spencer fans will be pleased or outraged to know that AA is going to continue the Robert P Parker series (the way Jeffery Deaver will write the next Bond, or Dirk Cussler is co-writing with his dad Clive).
In Austin, Texas, I find myself sharing a panel with Joe Landsdale in front of 200 librarians from the American Library Association. Joe brings down the house with his impressions of weird people in East Texas – ‘beyond the Pine Curtain’, as he puts it in his Texan twang. I’d recommend his stuff – Mucho Mojo is a hoot, and kept Izzy so engrossed I had to shift places with him on the plane to Phoenix, Arizona, because he was wasting the view out of the window. It has the flavour of Texas.
Others we haven’t had time to acquaint ourselves with yet include Rick Riordan for San Antonio and Austin; Jeff Abbott for Texas; Robert Crais for LA; Julie Smith for New Orleans, and also David Fulmer; T Jefferson Parker for southern California – he’s very popular and well-liked over there; JR Ripley wrote a book called Lost In Austin.
(To which, quick as a flash, I said it was better than Goosed in Houston).
Some of these, I think, are historical. All the better.
Here’s Jon Talton and the opening of Cactus Heart:
Throughout history, the desert has been a place of trial, penance and hard-won revelation. God lives in the desert. But Satan does, too. In the American West, conquistadors and cowboys were tested, and often broken, by the desert. Its vastness hid no cities of gold. Its implacable heat and drought were hostile to the white man’s crops and cattle. Even as the frontier disappeared, the Sonoran Desert remained a wild and unknown place, the home of strange gods, a waterless world of danger and mystery.
But now it is the turn of the third miullenium, and the desert in this far corner of the Far West is air conditioned, irrigated, and comfortably crisscrossed by interstate highways and transcontinental air routes. It is the prosperous, high-tech engine of the New Economy. Even the Indians are in business…
I’ve just been handed a book of this title, edited by Patrick Millikin. In his superb introduction, Patrick writes that Phoenix ‘is a city founded on shady development deals, good ol’ boy politics, police corruption, organized crime and exploitation of natural resources.’ He also points out that ‘the city recently overtook Philadelphia to become the fifth largest in the country, and the Phoenix metro area now rivals Los Angeles County in size.’
The speed and scale of Phoenix’s growth is stupefying: this is, after all, the desert. And the cracking stories Patrick has selected for the anthology are all, in their way, commentary on that phenomenal explosion which only occurred, as Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen tells me, after the invention of refrigerated air.
Air conditioning, introduced in the 1950s, made the desert liveable. Before that, Phoenix was a farm town for ranchers, and citrus trees.
It seems awfully precarious. I can’t help noticing that there are some unusual ways to die in Phoenix: you can be felled by a gum-tree (they were brought in from Australia, and spread like weeds; but they have very shallow roots). You can die climbing an itty-bitty mountain like Camel Hump. It should take 45 minutes but it’s hot up there. You can be swept away in a flash flood – believe me, it happens: the subsoil here is a natural concrete called caliche, and when it rains there’s nowhere for the water to run.
You can presumably die in some of the ways explored by the authors in Phoenix Noir, who include Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott, Diana Gabaldon, Jon Talton and Kurt Reichenbaugh, to name a few.
At the Central Grocery we queued for a muffaletta the size of a cowpat, and bought Slap Yo’ Mama hot sauce for the home team. A muffaletta is a typically restrained New Orleans ham and cheese sandwich, with added olives, in a bun that could double for the Superbowl. We staggered with the muffaletta over to the banks of the Mississippi, where our uneaten crusts created a tidal wave that threatened to burst the levee and flood the French Quarter.
Here matters were decided by superstitious gestures, by almanacs and eggs broken into a bowl of oil, by imprecations and talismans. Here people sought out propitious days, avoided dark corners, waggled their fingers behind their backs, resorted to nostrums, prayers, and the prognostications of wise women. These were the ordinary calculations of the everyday world…
That’s a passage from An Evil Eye, about Istanbul – but it could just as well apply to New Orleans, with its mojo and voodoo and ghosts and palmists. It is country superstition, bred up out of Africa and France, with more than a dash of seafaring juju thrown in, and to see where it was forged, before it got all dressed up for town, we took the winding river road to Laura, an old plantation house.
Surprisingly small, and brightly painted in violets and yellows, Laura is not the classic plantation house of the Anglo-American southern dream. Before they built the levee, the house – built on brick pilings which form a cool and floodable cellar – had a big view of the Mississippi, but it’s not Tara, at all. The tour is available in French or English; both are excellent, funny and slightly different, the French tour placing more emphasis on the Creole story.
Laura was established and run by a succession of extremely tough Creole Frenchwomen who became tougher as they got older. The Creole world – the world of early Louisiana, before the 1803 Purchase bought it into the fledgling United States – was not especially hung up about race. What mattered was money, inheritance and self-sufficiency – family, in other words. And it was sustained by slavery. Dotted around the gardens are the huge iron cauldrons in which the cane was boiled down into molasses. In the 1830s, the lady president of the plantation went down to New Orleans and bought slaves, mostly women, to breed on the farm; descendants were still living in the old slave cottages as recently as 1974.
As cottages go, they didn’t look too bad – clapboard shells raised off the ground, split into two with a verandha, a room about 14’ square with a fireplace, a kitchen at the back, and a fair bit of garden around. But at Laura it is the fact of slavery, more than the conditions in themselves, which still has the power to shock.
I listened to it all with a sense of recognition. If New Orleans has echoes of Venice, then Louisiana’s Creole Mississippi reminded me of another world I’ve plundered for the Yashim stories. For Aimee Dubucq du Riviery was a Creole, too. She came from a place much like this, on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. If the story is true – and I like it too much to find fault – Aimee wound up becoming Valide, mother of the sultan in Ottoman Istanbul. (Her childhood friend from the same island was Josephine, Napoleon’s Empress).
Of course the Valide is Yashim’s friend in the palace: and like the ladies of Laura she is elderly, tough, and rather terrible.
In the early 1830s Laura’s heir presumptive was a sixteen year old girl with all the graces, but terrible spots. Pooh-poohing the quacks and medicos of New Orleans, her mother took her to Paris for a series of injections. One shot killed the girl.
On her return, the mother closed the door of her room and swore never to leave it again, as long as she lived. She lived twenty years more, with a view of the unchanging river sliding past her window.
On a brighter note, some 14 babies were born in one of these bedrooms; nine lived to be over 100 years old.
‘Take a deep breath, everybody!’ Says the guide.
There is a diner just around the corner, where we order deep fried alligator because we can.
‘It’s just like chicken,’ says the waitress. ‘Only some parts are tougher.’
We are joined at the table by a couple of Vermonters winding up a Blues tour of the Mississippi. They are brothers-in-law, and one of them is a poet. His name is Baron Wormser, and he has sent me a poem he wrote about a book signing. It’s called My Last Borders, and ends this way:
Later in the evening when I have repaired
To the poetry section to gather my slender wits,
I consult the oracle Yeats.
He never drove on Interstates among convoys of 18-wheelers,
Never searched asphalt acres for a parking space
Around Christmas, never took a self-assertion seminar
Or credit management workshop in a fluorescent warehouse.
The chains of commerce never danced for him.
He stood for the soul’s exactions, the flawed
Avid beauty of conscience. I read his poems
And feel better, which is to say, sadder.
Baron lived for twenty years off the grid, with no electricity, like Thoreau.
Dusk. Izzy sits on the pontoon by the lake, where I sip a bourbon on ice. Drakes chase ducks, turtles paddle in the shallows, and birds whoop and caw in the woods that surround the lake. The mosquitoes rise in the still air.
We had brought up directions to Cajun Country Cottages on the laptop, snagging some wi-fi kindly provided by the clerk at a motel en route, but when we came off the interstate into Beaux Bridges the battery had wound down and we drove around rather hopelessly looking for a store where we could plug in and fire up the screen. Baron Wormser would not have approved.
Beaux Bridges seemed to have gone to sleep. The bank was shut, like the fishing tackle store and the café.
I did spot movement in the café, though.
‘We’re having a yoga class right now,’ the lady whispered, cracking the door.
‘We just need electricity, for a moment.’
‘Well, y’all come inside. I think there’s a socket in here.’
We crept in. The chairs and tables had been pushed aside, and a dozen people were folded up on their mats, meditating. Quiet as we tried to be we couldn’t find the socket.
‘I’m so sorry…’
‘Maybe there’s one here,’ the teacher mouthed.
We crashed over the chairs, past the yogis.
Later we headed out to Mulates, where there’s always music. We ate duck and fried alligator, listening to Joe Cormier with his accordion, singing Cajun songs.
There’s no water in the streets, not at the moment, at least (for Katrina drove the water waist-high through the Quarter). No Tiepolo ever painted a Gulf sky. New Orleans has gumbo and jambalaya, bayous and levees, and the people are bigger and blacker than they are in Venice. But it is still Venice. There’s a settlement further south called Venice, indeed.
Venice is sinking. But New Orleans is receding. It was founded on the swamp created as the river deposited the Midwest into the Gulf. To secure the city against flooding, and to drive the Mississippi cleanly into the sea, they threw up the levees. As the levees funnel the river out to sea, the swamp recedes – it is disappearing at the rate of a football pitch every 45 minutes.
Only trouble is, the swamp used to absorb much of the brunt of the hurricanes. New Orleans is very exposed, and parts of it lie below sea level.
We learned this in the Katrina exhibition at the Museum, where the first sight that greets you is Fats Domino’s baby grand, dusty, flood-soaked and up-ended, just the way they found it after the hurricane passed through.
Venice became a party town in the 18th century, shortly before it lost its independence and its trade. N’Awlins has been a party town since the plantation owners started dropping downriver for the winter season; Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is still indecorous, in a beery, bland, contemporary way – no whiff, really, of the whorehouses of old, just fat men in baseball caps making a noise and holding drinks in paper cups. There are casinos – invented in Venice. For the Biennale, read the Jazz Fest; for Carnival, the month-long Mardi Gras; and we’ve turned up in the middle of the French Quarter Festival.
The city lives shamelessly on its past, just as Venice has done for years. Or, in Faulkner’s words, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. At Coquettes, you can have the world’s first cocktail, a Sazerac, made with rye whiskey and absinthe. You can take a ghost tour, a plantation tour, a Blues tour, a tour of the considerable architectural wonders of the French Quarter and the Garden District, full of shapely wooden and painted Victorian mansions. (Crazy the French may have been, but they knew where to build; it was the newer districts that took the force of the floods).
Is NO phoney? Well yes, when you encounter the hard unguarded stare of the bartender, the bonhomie can seem a little forced; and we walked a strip of Julia Street, one block, with a growing sense of wonder. There was a lovely old tinware store, and a grocery with piles of gleaming oranges and carrots outside, and a print-shop that seemed hardly to have changed since the beginning of the last century. Why, there were even handcarts out on the street! Even the posters looked old-fashioned.
I might have noticed the dirt on the sidewalk, obscuring the concrete and the yellow traffic lines, or the telescopic crane, parked just round the corner. Julia was set for a movie, empty for the weekend. Phoney on the outside: but movie-making is a business, too.
And one afternoon we stood to watch a band called the Vagabonds play at an intersection, white boys with matted hair and ferocious tattoos and naked torsos under their waistcoats (except for the trumpeters, who looked like escapees from a ‘60s boy band).’Raise your hand if you’re from n’Awlins!’ the guitarist cried, and a good two thirds of the audience responded.
The locals came out for the food, as much as for the music: all the town restaurants had stands, selling out po-boys (sandwiches) stuffed with pulled pork, or shrimp, and Abita beer, or frozen daiquiris in paper cups. It was an ugly crowd but a surprisingly good-natured one. Some of the people would have wedged themselves stuck had they attempted to navigate the narrower calle of Venice, and it was depressingly instructive to watch a sexless giant, in baseball cap and shorts, stacking tray after box after tray of pork ribs, cheeseburgers, po-boys in a teetering mass that climbed uncertainly from gut to chin. There’s no getting round it: in the South, some of people come with extra cheese.
On Saturday Britten (hold the cheese), owner of the civilised Garden District Book Shop, tackled the crowds who showed up for my gig: after all, why would you go to listen to top bands playing for free in the Quarter when you could take a hard chair at a book store and listen to an author talk about eunuchs? Izzy, as usual, avoided all embarrassment by sloping off to the nearest café.
Bill Loehfelm was there: we share a publisher, and he’s about to bring his detective series south from NYC to NO – a city he moved to over a decade ago, and of which he is fiercely proud. Katrina was terrible, he recalls; everyone headed out on the evacuation routes, and quite a few have never made it back (we were to meet some NO refugees enjoying themselves in Austin). But he dates the city’s recovery to the night last year when the Saints won the Superbowl, first time in 43 years, and the town went wild with joy. The old image was of people streaming out of town – and for the first time in years, everyone was pouring in, instead, high-fiving on the interstate.
Here’s a link to the Telegraph piece which sets up the whole US trip… I wrote it before we set off – and a little bit after we arrived…
A book signing in Fairhope, Alabama, where I am tastefully tucked away behind a pot plant. A sign the size of a playing card in the window advertises my presence. A few readers drop by. One takes a look and admits that crime novels aren’t her thing. But her husband loves them. This exchange concludes without a sale.
Matrons of Fairhope, be good to your men!
Somehow this encounter prompts me to suggest we press on. We’ve done six hours down from Mississippi – what’s another few hours to New Orleans? So we book a room at a fancy hotel in the French Quarter and light out of Fairhope, crossing back over freeways that run on stilts across the sea, and vanish into the mist. Here and there huge clapboard road-houses offer shrimp and oysters, and an outsize langoustine waves its claws at us sadly through the fog.
Darkness falls quite suddenly, and we are sliding from the interstate down into the Big Easy. We take a calculated turn and discover the French Quarter, nosing the yuppie truck through the crowds wandering Jackson Square. Old as it is, the French Quarter is a grid like every American city, only tightly packed, the famous curling balconies leaning over the streets, the air humid, music and revellers spilling from the bars.
It is festival time. It is always festival time in New Orleans.
We pull into a diner on the interstate. Modern exterior, brick, neon, smoked glass door. Inside it is as dark as sin: blackened 4 by 8 rafters, black plank walls, little light coming through the windows. Though it looks to have been assembled in the 1970s, it reminds us of the old colonial inn reassembled in the American Museum in Bath, England, where Paul Revere maybe popped in for a pint. Dark as sin.
‘The country ham?’ The waitress slips a pen behind her ear. ‘It’s, like, saltier than the regular ham.’
Maybe: but it’s good.
Here’s Ace Atkins on driving the Mississippi Delta:
Mississippi Delta driving is about the white dots of cotton stretched forever flat like the tiny points of an impressionist painting. It’s about the crooked crosses of wooden electric poles that edge the two-lane highway lined with farm-supply stores, barbecue joints, squat cone-topped silos, and windowless burned-out 1930s gas stations. It’s the deep maroon of a rusted tin roof above a weathered clapboard shack and the skeleton of a sun-parched tree, dead rooted in stagnant water. Or fallen cotton caught in highway gravel.
This comes from a book called Crossroad Blues, which involves the death of Robert Johnson. This is Atkins on his home territory:
Early the next morning, Nick slept away the Highway 61 trip in a Greenwood motel room until a dull, yellow light leaked through the brittle curtains and onto the flowered bedspread. It was the kind of place they used to call a motor court before the superhighways destroyed the character of travel…
The blurb says that ‘the cast of characters includes a red-headed siren, an Elvis-worshipping hitman, Johnson’s ghost, and the Mississippi Delta itself.’
Like the country ham, it’s rather good. And happens to be about Izzy’s favourite subject.