The Kindness of… Rich People

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Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?

No.

The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

Plotters and Pantsers

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They say writers fall into two camps: those who meticulously plan out every detail of their work with special attention to the plot and those who simply have a general idea of the story and write until they come to a conclusion. Personally, I think of it as a spectrum and every writer has their own unique point on it.

As in art, so too in life. Recently I watched this video of a woman who continued to figure skate, despite car accidents and strokes, until she was 90. Even in her 80s she was entering competitions and regularly won medals for her class—which included everyone over 50. In the interview, she talked about how some people plan their lives while she simply let life happen to her. That expression “Letting life happen to you” is often used a bit derisively but, frankly, she seemed a lot happier than many of my tightly wound friends who need to control every aspect of their life.

I mostly followed a pantser lifestyle even though, as a writer, I’m pretty focused on plot. When I was 12, I was pretty sure I was going to be a scientist, working in a lab somewhere and I even got a degree in chemistry. But before I left school I had switched to political science. I worked at related things for quite a while but most of my decisions were of the nature of “that looks interesting” rather than “that is the next stage in my plan” and I finally gave up on the concept of “career path” when I was about 32.

Because I never had a destination in mind, I was always pretty happy with wherever I wound up, knowing full well there was always another opportunity waiting over the horizon. I drifted from the public service to the arts to education and then to Parliament Hill. I read physics for fun and performed for money, became a writer and publisher and an advisor to politicians.

Could I have reached higher levels in any of those fields if I had just settled down and made a plan? Probably, but I wouldn’t necessarily have been happier. And, in the end, we all die anyway no matter how carefully we plan to avoid it.

As in life, so too in art. When I sat down to write In the Shadow of Versailles, I meticulously plotted the story, the character arcs, even the settings I would explore. I researched politics and food and fashion and technology to create a seamless web. Then, I plunked my poor detective, WWI veteran, Max Anderson, into the middle of it to live life as best he could. Did he plan to become a detective? Far from it; all he wanted was a quiet life. But interesting things kept happening and before he knew it, he was solving a crime no one else would admit happened. To see how he does, pick up a copy of In the Shadow of Versailles, wherever ebooks are sold.

I’ve got my eye on you

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Do you ever get the feeling Big Brother is watching you? It’s not paranoia, it’s just clear thinking. It’s estimated there are over 25 million CCTV cameras world-wide, operated by governments, businesses and your neighbours. There could be more, as not everyone is completely upfront about it.

Of course, these cameras are not evenly distributed. There are roughly 500,000 in the City of London (UK version) alone which means that the average Londoner is caught on camera 300 times a day. With that many cameras, the question is: who the hell is watching all that footage? The simple answer is no-one but most cameras retain images for one to three weeks so if a crime is being investigated, the police can always go back to look.

Mostly, governments and businesses are required to tell you that video surveillance is present. My own condo, which has 28 cameras, has signs to that effect posted in all the common areas. The same laws that require signage usually limit where and at whom the cameras can be pointed. Not so for private homeowners or folks who mount dashcams in their cars. It’s a free-for-all out there and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. More and more cameras will be attached to police officers’ vests (and probably those of other first responders, as well) and they are coming into widespread use in nursing homes and hospitals not only to protect residents from abuse but to protect staff from false claims of the same.

Robert J. Sawyer in his Neanderthal Parallax series postulated a society where every single thing every person did was recorded and stored for their entire life. The intention was to prevent crime or, if it did happen, solve it quickly and authoritatively. We haven’t gone that far but, in many countries, house arrest comes with a movement tracker to make sure you are where you are supposed to be.

The desire to keep an eye on people has been of interest to governments and property owners for as long as there have been people to keep an eye on. Sometimes it is quite legitimate as those who have things want to make sure nefarious (or hungry) people don’t walk off with them. One of the first roles assigned to dogs when they wandered out of the woods to lie around campfires was to make sure strangers were barked at.

Nowadays, we are constantly being watched by people who mostly want to sell us things. Who hasn’t bought a pair of shoes only to see an ad for the selfsame shoes show up on Facebook? In that case, Big Brother is watching, he just doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. But the algorithms are getting better and soon will actually be able to guess, not just what we bought but what we are thinking of buying. We’re chatting on the phone with a friend about going on vacation and, bingo, an ad for a cruise ship shows up. Creepy, right?

Not all surveillance is so benign (in case, any of the above seems harmless to you). Governments, especially, have had a long history of spying on their citizens, certainly long before Snowden and Assange blew the whistle. Ancient Rome kept elaborate census lists, not only for purposes of voting or dishing out the corn dole, but to allow periodic purges of illegal residents. At various places and times, governments have recruited elderly women to spy on their neighbours and report suspicious, or more often, seditious behavior. And you thought they did it for fun.

In the 1920s, the Prefecture of Police in Paris required every immigrant (including those from other parts of France) to list their details and address and to report every time they moved. Get caught living anywhere other than your official residence and you could be fined or, even, expelled from the city. I learned all about that researching my mystery novel, In the Shadow of Versailles. To learn more about surveillance in 1919 Paris (and read a rousing adventure), you can pick up a copy here.

Get the Jab

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One of the deadliest scourges in history was smallpox. Wickedly contagious and deadly in 30% of cases, this disease wiped out millions around the world and was particularly pernicious in the Americas where there was no natural immunity.

Smallpox was also the first disease that science developed a vaccine against when Edward Jenner discovered that a related disease, cowpox, provided protection against infection. The first smallpox vaccination occurred in 1798 (although the technique of variolation predates it). It took 180 years but successive campaigns eradicated the disease in 1979.

Of course, nothing comes easy. Protests over vaccination appeared almost as soon as vaccines did and arguments over enforced vaccination raged. Most countries did require soldiers to take the jab, since living and fighting in close and unsanitary quarters made them particularly vulnerable. Can’t have soldiers dying before they are killed, can we?

The first national vaccine agency was created in the USA in 1813 to encourage Americans to get inoculated against small pox, then cholera (1817). The arrival of Louis Pasteur (who also gave us pasteurization of milk and beer, saving both industries in Europe at the time) led to vaccines for anthrax and rabies. Science marched on and by 1924, the first tetanus shots were administered.

Then science sped up—as science is wont to do. The first flu shots appeared in the 1940s and a vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough) was developed in 1948. Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine for polio in 1950, thus beginning the end of a disease that killed or disabled tens of thousands of children every year. We came close to achieving the same success with polio as we did with smallpox but a combination of religious fundamentalism, distrust of Western medicine and, ironically, the Western based anti-vax movement has meant this disease persists in about a dozen countries.

Measles and mumps were next on the list and again efforts to eliminate these diseases were thwarted by misinformation, fear and… well, who can really explain it? Measles not only wasn’t eliminated but continues to spring up in areas where it had previously been under control. I’ll be blunt: anti-vaxxers kill children and all their counter-factual arguments or outright lies won’t change that.

Now we come to the highly effective vaccines against COVID-19, which offer the best hope of getting the current pandemic under control. Some have questioned how these vaccines could have been developed and tested so quickly. Well, as I said above, science speeds up and 21st Century biology is undergoing the same revolutionary changes in knowledge and pace of discovery as computers did in the late 20th Century. As for testing, the answer lies in large numbers. Previously, medicines were tested with small sample groups over a number of years. But statistically, you can get the same information out of large groups over a shorter time frame—and that’s exactly what happened.

Canada is doing very well on the vaccine front and we now lead the world (not counting a few small countries with less than a million people) in first shots and are rapidly rising in the ranks of the fully vaccinated. Not so in the USA where vaccination rates are lagging, especially in so-called red (or Republican) states, where case rates and deaths have started to rise again. One can only hope that this madness will not spread (though I saw today that there were riots in Greece over plans to vaccinate teenagers) but rather that the developed world can get its act together to make sure the rest of the world is protected, too. None of us are safe until we are all safe.

The first flu vaccines appeared in the 1940s which meant that previous waves of this frequently deadly disease went unchecked. Most notable was the Spanish flu of 1918-20 which may have killed as many as 50 million people. Doctors tried every trick that current science then held but to no avail. While it wasn’t a major part of my mystery novel, In the Shadow of Versailles, set in 1919 Paris, the flu did play a role. If you would like to see what a world without vaccines might look like, you can buy a copy here.

Writing for the Joy of It

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Samuel Johnson once said: None but a fool writes except for money. It proved a useful quote as I incorporated it in a 1000-word essay I had to write as part of an application for a scholarship. I got the money. It was enough that my entire four years at university was covered. While going to school was cheap back then ($1500 paid for tuition, room and board, and most of my books) but that $6 a word was the most I’ve ever been paid for writing.

Of course, there were other factors in play. I’m sure finishing first in my high school while being active in student affairs had some influence on the decision but still, without the 1000 words, I wouldn’t have got that particular scholarship—the richest my university gave out at the time.

Writing for money. One way or another, it’s what a lot of people do. Whether you are a lawyer writing briefs, a bureaucrat formulating policy, a teacher putting together a lesson plan or a contractor putting together a statement of work for a quote, it’s all writing for money. The only people who seem to be expected to write for no money are, well, writers.

Because, as everyone knows, we do it for the joy of it.

Let me let you in on a little secret. We do write for the joy of it. Or, at least, we should.

This is not to say that writers don’t want and need to get paid. Getting paid for writing is how full-time writers pay for groceries, rent, taxes, or home renovations. It’s how they pay for their kid’s dental work, there internet connection, their eventual retirement (Ha, ha, I hear some of my friends laughing).

But what if you don’t need the money?

As it happens, I don’t. Not really. I had a good job; I saved some money and earned a good pension. Mostly by writing (policy papers, speeches, letters) though there were always other duties as assigned. Creative writing was only a full-time job for a few (lean) years but it did provide a little gravy for most of my working life.

Writing and editing still makes me a little extra which I am more than happy to spend on the finer things in life. I like money and I believe in the principle that creatives should be paid (which is why I don’t give away my work for free), but need it? <SUBLIMINAL MESSAGE: SEND CASH NOW> Not me.

Yet, I still find myself writing, but only when a story promises to give me joy in the writing of it. Don’t get me wrong; writing is still hard work. Every story requires you to do a little research and a lot of thinking. Getting it right, often through re-writes, can be tough. Still, the sheer pleasure of finding the right word or crafting a good sentence cannot be denied. Losing yourself in a world of your own creation is (almost) better than going someplace you’ve never been. Stories don’t have to be happy to give joy to the writer; they can be so sad you have to wipe your eyes to finish the paragraph. Horror or laughter or sense of wonder—they can all bring a writer joy. And learning new skills is a wonderful thing, too, which is why I’ve started to study the craft of poetry.

These days I’m spending most of my writing time in 1920s Paris because it fascinates me and challenges my intellect and emotional range. It pushes me the way a long hard walk pushes me, leaving me tired but exhilarated. But I’m also having a lot of fun working on a science fiction noir detective story for an upcoming anthology. In fact, I’m having so much fun the editors may decide not to buy it. And I’m okay with that.

In the meantime, you can see all the joy I’m finding in writing the Max Anderson mysteries. In The Shadow of Versailles is now available here and the second book will appear around the beginning of October. But you will have to pay for it because… baby needs a new pair of shoes!

The Inciting Incident

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Every story begins with an inciting incident, the event that drives the main character out of the ordinary course of his life on to the path of his best true destiny. Ideally, that’s where they end up though, as Robbie Burns tells us things “gang aft agley.” The inciting incident of In the Shadow of Versailles comes early. After four paragraphs to establish the ordinary course of Max Anderson’s life, this happens:

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He was passing a stone church opposite Square St. Bernard when he heard the cry. It was faint and echoed against the stone walls of the old buildings so that, at first, he couldn’t tell where it had come from or even if it was a man or a woman.

The cry came again, clearer and more desperate.

“Aux secours! On me tue.”

They are killing me. The voice was coming from the far side of the church. The streets were now deserted. Max was weaponless save for a small pocketknife and his cane. He thought of the Webley service revolver he had kept for reasons he did not understand, hidden in a box at the bottom of his suitcase. He might as well wish for the moon.

A third cry, a harsh inchoate groan of pain. A familiar tremor ran along his legs and he had to force himself to turn toward the sound. After the first step it was easier and Max hurried along the wrought iron fence that surrounded the church, each painful stride threatening to tumble him to the ground. His only asset was surprise. He stepped through a narrow gate, bellowing with his best parade ground voice. Three men, their faces covered in scarves, were punching and kicking a fourth, who was slumped in an archway against a blue door trying to shield his face with his upraised arms. At Max’s shout the gang froze in a violent tableau, lit by a single dim streetlight opposite the church’s rear entrance.

Before they could react, Max took two quick steps and struck the closest gangster, a short thick-set man in a striped shirt, across the neck with the head of his cane. The man staggered and almost fell. The second, taller but as heavily built, leapt toward Max, hands outstretched. He recoiled in pain as Max’s small blade cut a gash across the back of his hand and up his arm.

The victim was not helpless, either. He took quick advantage of Max’s interruption, stepped close to his third assailant and shot a hard right into the man’s broad belly. He followed with a short chopping left to the man’s ear. The gangster turned and fled, the other two fast behind.

They had barely disappeared in the darkness before a policeman came flying around the corner, his white stick raised and his cape billowing behind him.

“Almost when we needed one,” muttered the short dark man Max had rescued, picking up his hat.

The gendarme, puffing and red faced, looked from Max to the other man, who was now dabbing at the blood on his face with a white silk handkerchief. He said something fast that Max didn’t catch. He shook his head. “Pardon, ne comprend pas.”

“Is this wog bothering you, monsieur?” he repeated in barely comprehensible English.

Max shook his head more emphatically and switched back to French. “No, he was being attacked by three men. They went that way.” Max gestured with his cane along the street. The officer, a sergeant by the markings on his sleeve, nodded but gave no indication that he intended a pursuit. He took out a notebook and took their names, addresses and the few bits of description they could provide.

“Monsieur Barzani,” he said at last, “Do you know why you were attacked?”

“Perhaps they wanted to rob me of my wallet,” Barzani shrugged, speaking such precise French that Max felt envious. “Or perhaps it is because I’m a wog.”

The gendarme glared and snapped his notebook shut. With a promise to find them should he require anything further, he turned on his heel and strode into the gathering gloom.

“We have heard each other’s names but we have not formally met,” said Barzani, in English as flawless as his French. He extended his hand. “Hevel Mohammed Barzani, late of Tehran, freelance diplomat and currently a man about town.”

Max took the hand and shook it warmly, slightly embarrassed by the policeman’s words and behaviour. He tried to match the precision of Barzani’s French. “Maxwell Michael Anderson, late of Truro and the Nova Scotia Highlanders. Currently between drinks.”

“Then we must remedy that. Drinks and a cigar, too. I have some imported directly from Cuba that you simply must try.”

“I wasn’t trying to cadge…”

“Of course not, my friend” said Barzani, taking Max by the arm. “I owe you a great debt. I think those men intended more than a simple beating. I would be a poor son of Allah if I did not offer some token of my gratitude. Now come. I know a charming little bistro a few blocks from here where we can be refreshed and build upon what I am sure will become a great friendship.”

***

If you would like to read more, you can purchase In the Shadow of Versailles in your favorite on-line store.

Photo: Reinhardhauke (Wikipedia Commons)

Dining Out on Paris

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When my friend, Matt Moore, read an early draft of In the Shadow of Versailles, he found himself constantly hungry. While he enjoyed the mystery, the scenes of café and restaurant life whet his appetite for a return to the City of Light and its fabulous food.

Paris is known for a lot of things: light, love, modern art, the lost generation and the Eiffel Tower. It is also known for its food. While French dining was revolutionized by the appearance of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, when meals became lighter and simpler, the Classique or haute cuisine that Max enjoyed in 1919 continues to be served in many Parisian restaurants to this day.

When Max dines out with friends (or suspects), he is likely to encounter such delights as lamb stew spiced with cinnamon, fresh trout cooked in white wine and garlic or perhaps a rock hen, stuffed with dates and walnuts and served with a hard orange sauce, each served with a cream soup and fresh bread to start and followed by some confection of chocolate and fruit and all served with suitable matching wines. On another night he might have a nice cassoulet, duck stewed with spicy sausages and white beans and served with potatoes.

If he wasn’t too hungry (or had already eaten), he might settle for a green salad and an herbed grilled trout while bribing an informant with a foie gras appetizer followed by a filet of beef in pepper sauce plus trimmings, each served with a suitable wine, say, a Chablis to start followed by a rich Burgundy. Finish it off with a cheese plate and a pastis or espresso and you’re set for the night.

Looking for lighter fare? Well, it can be done but people will stare or wonder if you have a wasting disease. At lunch you might settle for a hearty tomato broth filled with chunks of root vegetables and shreds of roast chicken, served with a hunk of dark rye bread, chewy with a delicate nutty flavour, washed down with a crisp pale ale. And of course, charcuterie is always an option, four or five smoked or spiced meats with a range of cheese from runny camembert to a firm Emmental plus wedges of baguette and plenty of olives in great variety.

Only breakfast might be considered a dieter’s choice, if croissants with fresh butter and fruit compote is your idea of diet food. At one point, Ginger Buchan, an American diplomat, complains of the French habit of eating sweet pastries at breakfast before stuffing three of them down his gullet. He later remarks that Paris is where good Americans go when they die.

French boulangeries and patisseries are a world unto themselves with brioche and vol au vents and, oh, roughly a hundred types of breads and pastries on display and I could spend a lot more words to describe them, but frankly, I’m starving.

If you hunger for more of the good life of dining in Paris, hop on a plane, or, much cheaper, pick up an ebook of In the Shadow of Versailles from your favorite on-line store.

The Great Pandemic

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Mandatory masks. Shuttered restaurants. Cancelled sporting events. Quarantines. Disease and death.

Sounds gruesomely familiar. But instead of 4 to 8 million dead worldwide, the figure was at least 17 million and maybe as much as 100 million. Unlike most flus, the victims were not confined to the very old and very young but hit adults in the prime of life particularly. Coming on the heels of the Great War, the Spanish Flu was the worst disease to strike the world since the Black Plague (which killed at least one out of three Europeans over a seven-year period).

Despite the name, the flu did not originate in Spain but possibly in Kansas in the United States where the first cases were reported in March 1918 (the exact origin is unknown but North America is the favorite candidate). By April it had spread to England, France and soon after Germany, almost certainly carried by American troops. The crowded trenches of Europe made a perfect breeding ground and the shifting lines meant everyone got a shot at infection. By the end of the war, the flu was probably killing as many soldiers as combat.

Like many pandemics, this one came in waves – four between March 1918 and the late spring of 1920. The first was fairly mild but the second, which started in August 1918 and ran until December, was by far the deadliest, killing millions around the globe. A third wave was nearly as bad, starting in Australia in January 1919 but soon sweeping across the planet.

Though not a central part of In the Shadow of Versailles, the Spanish flu does have a role to play in the novel, impacting characters directly or by the losses of friends and family and placing a damper on the desire to celebrate the end of war. The economy was flattened and even fashion was impacted.

Of course, the long-term effects of four years of war followed by two years of deadly disease were enormous, not the least of which was the explosion of cultural, economic and scientific innovation that marked the 1920s. But it also played a role in the flirtation with nihilistic philosophies and authoritarian politics that took hold in the 1930s. One wonders what the aftermath of our own little (a relative term – COVID-19 is one of the top ten diseases in history) pandemic will bring.

To discover more about the tumultuous times of post-war Paris and enjoy a ripping yarn while you do so, pick up a copy of In the Shadow of Versailles at your favorite on-line store right here.

Entering Paris

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My first trip to Paris took place in the 1920s. Well, after reading “A Moveable Feast,” I certainly felt I had been there, much more so than I did from reading Victor Hugo or other French writers of the 19th and 20th century. That might seem odd but there is a rational explanation. Hemingway was a visitor to Paris, albeit one with a keen eye for details. Hugo et. al. saw Paris from the inside out while Hemingway and Stein and others saw it from the outside in, which is exactly the way I and, subsequently my hero, Max Anderson, would come to see Paris.

Of course, there is only so much one can understand about a place through books (with apologies to armchair tourists who are sure the world can be conveyed through words on a page). My first actual visit to the City of Light came in 2010, when I persuaded my wife and her daughter to accompany me on a brief 2-day jaunt across the Channel. We were already in London and a high-speed train could deliver us to Paris in a few hours, so off we went.

One thing I really remember was the heat. It was July and well over 30C the whole time we were there. Personally, the heat doesn’t trouble me but Liz finds it a bit difficult. So, I left them to do some leisurely sightseeing and shopping (Paris, right?) and took off on a death march that took me by foot and Metro (as the subway, much of which was built in the first two decades of the 20th century, is called) around the city. I was travelling too fast for the local conmen to get me in their sights—I saved that for a later visit—as I traversed 7 of the 20 arrondissements (or districts) of Paris.

The 20 arrondissements form the core of Paris and are surrounded by the suburbs or banlieues where most immigrants and many working-class people lived and continue to live. Historically, the two parts of Paris were separated by numerous parks and the remains of the medieval city wall. Later, an ugly and still contentious ring road was constructed that serves as an unofficial border.

The arrondissements spiral out from the city centre with the 1st one including the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Jardins de Tuileries and half of the Ile de la Cite (the palace of Justice but not the Prefecture de Police). The arrondissements get bigger as you go, so covering the first seven is easier than visiting the last three. By the end of my whirlwind tour, I had realized one key fact. Everything in Paris was closer together and smaller than I had imagined from reading books, watching movies and looking at maps.

Since I’d already written most of the first draft of In the Shadow of Versailles (yes, this book has been ten years in the making, though I did a lot of other things in that time, too), that meant I had a lot more research to do. A year later, I was a back in Paris for a week, this time by myself and in the fall, when the weather was much more agreeable. I found a little place in 10th arrondissement not far from Gare Nord, the train station where Max Anderson arrives when he first comes to Paris. When I say little, I’m not kidding. There was room for a single bed, a miniscule night table and a spot on the floor for my luggage. The bathroom was so small that I literally had to take off my pants to sit on the toilet and had to turn off the shower and open the door to turn around in the cubicle. But it was cheap!

Still, it was a great time, walking the streets, some of which turned into staircases part way up the hill, and visiting restaurants both famous and infamous. I even found a bar to serve as a model for Le Coq Bleu, Max’s hang-out, run by his friend, Yesim. Churches, museums (many of which had been houses), government buildings, bridges and cemeteries – I roamed the city taking pictures and writing new sections of In the Shadow of Versailles. I also began to take notes for By Dawn’s Early Light, the second Max Anderson mystery, which will appear in October. A subsequent trip with my wife in 2012 wound up focusing on the 8th arrondissement, the old Russian quarter of Paris, which features heavily in the second novel. A final trip took place in 2014 when we spent 10 days in a nice apartment at the foot of Montmartre. It was mostly a pleasure trip—but some of the places we visited feature heavily in the third Max novel, currently being written. Sounds like time for another trip!

On of the nicest things about Paris is that so little of it has changed in the last hundred years. Many of the old buildings and streets are almost unchanged, at least on the surface and, while facilities have improved and some station names have changed, the Metro routes are largely what they were in the days after WWI. Once you understand the basic plan and character of Paris, all the rest of the gaps can be filled in with research. I have two shelves of a bookcase devoted strictly to Paris (plus another 30 on my KOBO). Among my favorites: One Thousand Buildings of Paris (photos and descriptions from across the arrondissements), Paris Underground, which shows the year-by-year development of the Metro, with plenty of illustrations and a 1922 catalogue from the Galleries Lafayette, which I found in the massive flea market beyond the ring road just past the 18th arrondissement.

For a chance to see Paris from the eyes of soldier fresh from the trenches, you can pick up a copy of In the Shadow of Versailles, wherever e-books are sold. This link will take you to a central site where you can pick your favorite vendor.

O! Politics

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I served on my first constituency association executive when I was 14, more years ago than I care to count. I attended my first provincial party convention at 17 and ran for federal office when I was 24. I served on provincial party executives, managed finances for federal campaigns and eventually spent most of my working life advising politicians and formulating public policy.

I guess you could say politics matter to me. You shouldn’t be surprised that politics play a significant role in my new mystery novel, In the Shadow of Versailles. Set in Paris during the negotiation of the treaty to end World War I, the book is populated by characters—both real and fictional—embroiled in the complex and often treacherous schemes and dreams that filled Paris during those critical six months.

Oddly, enough, the main character is far from political. Max Anderson saw more than enough of what bad politics would forge in the trenches of France and now just wants to get well and find some personal peace. He knows he can’t find it at home, not when he suspects his father was murdered and the crime covered up, so he tries to blend into the background of the City of Light, just an ordinary man doing ordinary things.

Unfortunately for Max, he had a strong moral sense, a need to defend and protect the underdog and to do the right thing, the just thing. With no political agenda of his own, he strives to forge a path that takes no sides except justice.

It’s not easy. Everyone has an angle. Agents of minor powers are playing what cards they have, including violence in dark alleys, to achieve their own ambitions—whether it is a homeland for their people, the restoration of the French monarchy or ideologies, both left and right, that would tear down the established order to create their own version of utopia.

I had a lot of fun researching the history of Parisian (and world) politics of the period. The treaty negotiations themselves were fascinating, with world leaders gathering in the city to barter borders and create new orders not only in Europe but through related treaties across the world. The impacts of some of those deals continue to impact European, Middle Eastern and African politics to this day. But you can do the research yourself, maybe inspired by reading In the Shadow of Versailles, which you can find at your favourite eBook vendor, right here.

Ah, Paris!

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When most people think of Paris in the 1920s, if they think of it at all, they might think of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and the lost generation or, perhaps, Josephine Baker and the hot jazz scene (both of which played a role in the resistance during WWII). A few might recall the successive waves of modernism in art, sculpture and music, much of it driven by Russians and Spaniards and Germans but all of it grounded in Paris.

Paris was all of that and more. Even before the Great War, Paris had been the centre of Europe. While the other great cities of the continent shone in their own particular way, Paris sparkled, it dazzled, and its light became a beacon of civilization in a darkening world. While the city was well-known for its fashion, its art and music, its literary giants, it also excelled in science and technology (the first neon lights, the first moving sidewalk, early breakthroughs in aviation and automotive that equalled and even excelled what was happening in America) and in the complex social arrangements of a multi-ethnic city.

Of course, I didn’t know all that when I first got interested in Paris. I admit it; like a fair number of white male writers of my generation, I was attracted to Paris because I was a fan of Hemingway, an aficionado, if you will. Hemingway led me to Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who led me to Monet and Picasso and Stravinsky and…

But the pivotal influence that led me to Max Anderson, my displaced Canadian detective, was Margaret MacMillan and her book Paris 1919, the in-depth story of the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended world war one and presaged much of modern history (I’ll defend that statement in the next post). Once I began to think about the tumult caused by that process, especially for those around the edges, the small players from the Balkans, from the Levantine, from Indochina, the idea of a novel—a mystery novel—seemed obvious.

The deeper I delved into Paris (including a weekend visit across the Channel while I was travelling in England), the more fascinated I became. The Paris police long eschewed the use of fingerprints (possibly because they were invented by the British) because they had their own system of identification, called the Bertillon system, which had been used since 1879 to keep track of dangerous elements in France. Combined with an extensive pass system and laws requiring people entering Paris to keep the Prefecture informed of where they were living (and when the moved), Paris developed one of the first and most effective surveillance systems in the world, which police from all over (including England and the USA) came to study.

Despite this seemingly authoritarian control system, Paris had been before the war, and was, even more so, after it, the most welcoming place in Europe for refugees, artists, outcasts, entrepreneurs and dilettantes. People poured into the city from across Europe (and, later, from around the world), seeking respite from persecution or just a jolly good time. The Parisian French (unlike their more rural cousins) were tolerant of almost all comers, embracing the eccentric and turning a blind eye to behaviors that were technically immoral or even illegal. In the1920s, no city or country accepted more immigrants, with the exception of New York and the USA. Given their comparative size, perhaps France merits the gold medal on points.

Despite their interest in all kinds of technical advances and innovations (as displayed at the various Paris expositions) Parisians were surprisingly reluctant to adopt the telephone which they viewed as a warranted interference in their private life. (What goes around, comes around. Calling people unannounced is taboo with most people under forty these days.) Of course, despite the size of the population, the city itself was quite compact. Mail was delivered three times a day and you could always find a messenger to hand deliver a note across the twenty arrondissements. Anyone who wanted to stay on top of things could grab one of the twenty or so newspapers published each day, picking and choosing the political viewpoint that suited them best: anarchist, communist, socialist, liberal, conservative, reactionary, fascist, you could find them all on the pages of Paris broadsheets.

Which raised an interesting question for me: how, despite a large, and frequently violent, ultra-right movement and a strong, and equally aggressive, communist party, did France resist the siren call of authoritarianism that slowly swallowed all of its continental neighbours?

But that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, you can visit Paris and meet Max Anderson in “In the Shadow of Versailles,” available most places ebooks are sold.