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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Writing – research – Moroccan border trouble

My second novel in the ‘Avenging Cat’ series for Crooked Cat Publishing, to follow Catalyst (due for release probably this December), is entitled Catacomb. I’m working on it now. Quite a fair bit of the story takes place in Morocco.

Here are a couple of snippets of current news from that country.

There’s a continuing and unrelenting surge of migrants seeking access to Europe. One of the potential conduits is through the two Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in North Africa. Both enclaves have a border with Morocco.  Although Morocco gained its independence in 1956, Spain claims a historical right to these two enclaves. Oddly, Spain does not recognise any such historical British right to control Gibraltar.

Just over a week ago, migrants made seven attempts to rush the fence in the span of four days. After two months of relative calm, about 1,500 migrants tried to cross the border into Melilla; some eighty managed to make it past the six-metre (20ft) razor-wire border fence, but were later apprehended.

Moroccan authorities have raided makeshift camps, mostly while the ‘residents’ are sleeping. Everything was flattened or destroyed – plastic tents, food and spare clothing. Hundreds of migrants were put on buses to Fez and Rabat. Apparently, they are then abandoned in the street and end up begging for money to return to the border.

In another report, human rights individuals claim the Spanish police have beaten migrants and illegally forced them back into Morocco when they tried to climb over the border into Melilla. They’re called ‘illegal pushbacks’ and ‘illegal expulsions’ of ‘migrants’.

Migrants usually possess documentation, to prove identity, for example. Some potential immigrants go so far as to erase fingerprints or destroy ID documents. The pressure has been mounting for years in this area – people trying to reach Europe to escape war, oppression or hardship in the benighted continent; though latterly, there may be other less humanitarian reasons to infiltrate into Europe.

On the other side of the coin, Spanish government officials have praised the ‘exemplary and humanitarian conduct’ of the border guards and also admit there is ‘dramatic migratory pressure’ on Europe’s borders.

***

In the meantime, if you’d like to read one of my other books, these are available from Crooked Cat Publishing http://crookedcatpublishing.com/ - or a number of outlets, viz:

Spanish Eye
 
Amazon UK – 2 good reviews
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spanish-Eye-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00GXK5C6S/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1408896228&sr=1-3&keywords=nik+morton

Amazon COM – 6 good reviews
http://www.amazon.com/Spanish-Eye-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00GXK5C6S/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1408894106&sr=1-4&keywords=nik+morton

Blood of the Dragon Trees

Amazon  UK – 2 good reviews
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Dragon-Trees-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00E8NE1SW/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1408900805&sr=1-4&keywords=nik+morton

Sudden Vengeance

Amazon UK – 2 good reviews
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sudden-Vengeance-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00KE1GTPA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1401884936&sr=1-1&keywords=nik+morton

Amazon COM - what, no reviews?
http://www.amazon.com/Sudden-Vengeance-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00KE1GTPA/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1401884974&sr=1-5&keywords=nik+morton

Smashwords
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/439667

And paperback versions can be obtained post-free world-wide from http://www.bookdepository.com/

http://www.bookdepository.com/Spanish-Eye-Nik-Morton/9781909841314
 


 

 

 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

'A cracking good story...'

I've just seen the latest edition of a local weekly newspaper, The Coastrider and was very pleased to see a review of my book Sudden Vengeance (published by Crooked Cat).  Here is the full review, below (click on the image and the text should be legible).

I particularly liked the phrasing 'Sudden Vengeance is one of those books that is difficult to put down but is unsettling at the same time.'  Because the subject does tend to be a controversial issue, especially in recent times.

Amazon UK
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sudden-Vengeance-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00KE1GTPA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1409051550&sr=1-1&keywords=nik+Morton

Amazon COM
http://www.amazon.com/Sudden-Vengeance-Nik-Morton-ebook/dp/B00KE1GTPA/ref=sr_1_6?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1409051553&sr=1-6&keywords=nik+Morton

Paperback post-free worldwide
http://www.bookdepository.com/Sudden-Vengeance-Nik-Morton/9781909841697

Monday, 25 August 2014

Coercion is the key

Crime, justice and vigilantism. Over on Catriona King's website this week, you'll find me talking about my novel, Sudden Vengeance.

http://www.catrionakingbooks.com/#!nik-morton/cy8b

Please drop by. Catriona's eighth Craig crime novel is out in November from Crooked Cat, and her ninth in the spring, 2015. The latest (7th) is The Coercion Key and readers don't need to be coerced to buy it, they're doing so in droves already. Join the queue of admirers!


DI Craig crime series:
A Limited Justice
The Grass Tattoo
The Visitor
The Waiting Room
The Broken Shore
The Slowest Cut
The Coercion Key

The Careless Word (coming November 2014)
The History Suite (coming 2015)

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Trafficking in humans

Illegal immigrants are never far from the news reports these days. The conflict in the Middle East and North Africa contribute to the vast numbers of stateless persons, but there are those who have travelled from as far off as Afghanistan. The tide, it seems, barely can be stemmed. The perceived attractions of Europe beckon. The tragedy is that so many individuals are duped into taking the risk of entering another country illegally – and the risk is great. They part with large sums of money, believing the traffickers will settle them incognito in another land where financial benefits can be obtained. The stark truth is different, of course: the illegals will end up dead in transit, or as virtual slaves on arrival.

For a few years now, Spain has deployed a sophisticated radar system that tracks illegal boat people. As recent as last week, some 1,219 crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 125 boats – and that was in just 72 hours. Of this number, 98 were women and 30 were children. They were taken to the Tarifa sports centre for Red Cross medical checks; this venue is being used as the local immigration temporary holding centre is already full.

There is a build-up along the coast of Tangier of people seeking a means to cross the Straits – despite Morocco’s attempts at seizing them; it was even reported that the numbers were so great that the authorities turned a blind eye for 48 hours in order to reduce the numbers!

Here on the Costa Blanca last week three boats were intercepted, holding 13 adults and six children, Moroccans or Algerians. Usually, after medical checks – the main problem is dehydration – they are sent to centres for internment of foreigners in Murcia or Valencia. The children are sent to a child protection centre.

Of course, besides the increased load on receiving countries’ infrastructure – hospitals, schools, police – there is the very real concern that among these illegal immigrants may be individuals intent on doing great harm; and latterly, there is now the concern over the spread of the dreaded Ebola disease.

My short story ‘Adopted Country’ touches on this subject:

It was a motley collection of humanity: pregnant women with hypothermia, children whose ribcages were visible through the taut skin, and once-strong lithe men with exhausted faces and wary eyes. A short distance, but often a treacherous journey. Even though they were staring down the barrels of guns, these were the lucky ones. Countless people died making the crossing every year. Desperation does that.

Since my country’s agreement with Morocco and the erection of barbed wire along the common border, it is now virtually impossible to enter Spain through the Ceuta route. So thousands go further along the North African coast and pay their entire savings to board any old boat that will sail for Tarifa or some other beach along the southern coast of Spain. Thousands even attempt the seven hundred mile crossing to the Canary Islands, and many more perish in the attempt.
- Spanish Eye, p27.

And the beginning of my novel Blood of the Dragon Trees shows the arrival of a boat-load of illegal immigrants – and later reveals the consequences they face:

His face shaded by a Norfolk hat, Andrew Kirby studied the crowd of holidaymakers and locals gathered on the edge of the Los Cristianos dockside, opposite the many expensive yachts and luxury cruisers. A few tourists pointed digital cameras and camcorders.

Beside him – on the official side of an area cordoned-off by police tape – stood Lieutenant Vargas. Beneath his olive green cap, Vargas’s dark eyes scanned the area from behind designer sunglasses.

Vargas gestured at the beach. ‘As you can see, Mr Kirby, I have my hands full these days.’ He spoke in English as Kirby had confessed his Spanish wasn’t too good.

‘Yes, I can see only too well,’ Kirby replied. Tall, blond, tanned and dressed in khaki shirt and shorts, Kirby felt rather unkempt next to Vargas, who was immaculate in his avocado green uniform with its two gold star shoulder-flashes. Vargas had thick lips, a prominent chin and slightly protruding ears. He exuded competence and authority.

Kirby looked out to sea. Offshore, the twin diesels of the Guardia Civil boat Rio Palma purred, perhaps reflecting the satisfaction of its crew.

Forty-four African illegal immigrants were being helped ashore from their dilapidated 30ft-long open boat. The immigrants struggled to stand, their legs unused to firm ground after a seven hundred mile sea journey. Policemen wore protective facemasks and paper bodysuits and, with practiced ease, they stripped the Africans of their filthy clothing and dressed them in garish shell-suits and flip-flops. A mobile field hospital was drawn up on the dockside. Ambulances started ferrying the few who were being brought ashore on stretchers.

A handful of onlookers moved closer then hastily backed off, their faces revealing disgust and shock.

‘They’ve just seen and smelled death,’ Vargas said, eyeing Kirby. ‘Coastguard radioed there were two dead still onboard – five had been thrown into the sea two days ago. Already this year, we’ve handled over two thousand of these boat people – though perhaps that same number perished at sea also.’

'A terrible waste.’

‘They seek a better life. Instead, they die at sea or end up for weeks in our internment center at Las RaĆ­ces, which is already over-subscribed.’
- pp10/11

Spanish Eye - published by Crooked Cat Publishing
 
Amazon UK – 2 good reviews


Amazon COM – 6 good reviews


Blood of the Dragon Trees - published by Crooked Cat Publishing
 
Amazon  UK – 2 good reviews


Amazon COM – 6 good reviews


 
Both also available as paperbacks.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Saturday Story - 'The Petitioner'


 
THE PETITIONER

 
Nik Morton

 
David Clement, the Transport Minister, offered his best politician's smile – a bit toothy yet still attractive. Sympathetic, but strictly provisional. He stepped out to face the protesters, staff, press and curious guests in the hotel lobby. A dark-haired bearded man in a red anorak launched into an angry tirade and David overheard Mason from The Mirror comment about ‘red rags and bull’ but he bit back a retort and kept calm this time. David’s outburst about speeding in built-up areas last week had made the front pages. His tenuous lead in the pre-election polls suggested he should be more prudent as the majority of voters drove cars and were disenchanted with the law-abiding majority being tarred with the same brush as the reckless minority. So instead he made mollifying sounds and absently took the offered bulging document wallet off the man. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said. His eyes hardly lingered on the irate petitioner but peered over the man’s shoulder, drawn to the blonde woman carrying another bundle of petitions.

            She was saying something about the need to curb speeding on the road that passed her house. The road's name rang a vague bell, but he wasn't listening properly because he was mesmerised by her startling light blue eyes.

            There was an earnestness in her gentle voice, with none of the usual rude shrill of self-interest groups he normally faced. She was luminous. There was no other word to describe her. Classic oval face, high cheek-bones, an alabaster complexion, and those glorious big eyes - emphasised by her smart ivory-white jacket and long pleated skirt. She didn’t seem to be the standard bimbo some groups wheeled out to draw the attention of the television cameras to grab extra sound-bites for their cause.

            Amidst the hubbub, the shouts of "Over here, Mr. Clement!" and flash-cameras firing, he whispered, "What did you say your name was?"

            She hadn't, but now she said, "Sade Revenant," pronouncing it sh-ar-day reven-awn.

            "What, like the singer? What was the song?"

            He missed her answer as they were jostled apart but he caught her charming smile, cheeks dimpling.

            A few minutes later after fielding further questions on the sorry state of the railways, he pushed through the crowd towards Sade. "I'll talk about your petition," he whispered, "but it's too public here - meet me at the Trattoria - 4pm."

            Strangely elated at this rash decision, he offered the usual bromides to everybody else then strode off with his secretary Joan trailing behind with his bulging leather briefcases.

            David was pleased with himself. At this morning's Party Conference he roundly castigated every transport minister since the invention of the car, bemoaning the lack of political will over increased traffic pollution, fast cars and over-weight juggernauts. He condemned the easy-option money-grabbing speed-traps, arguing for sensible policing instead. The public loved it, which was more than could be said of his fellow MPs, who were probably jealous of his current popularity. Yet his rational side kept reminding himself: you'll be a ten-minute-wonder, then forgotten.

 ***

Sade sat in a corner booth. Beside her he felt positively dowdy in his cavalry twill suit.

            "Have you ordered?"

            "No."  She eyed the pile of petitions beside her on the bench seat. "I'm not hungry."

            "Oh."  He tried to hide the crestfallen look on his face. On the way he had fantasised that she might be attracted to him. Few women were, he reminded himself, so why should she be any different? He was considerably older than her and now at that vulnerable age where his paunch threatened to shorten his life if he didn’t cut down on the alcohol and fast-food.

Her glance at the petitions reminded him of her purpose. She’d make a good politician, he thought. Single-minded.

            "Do you want to arrange a photographer?" he asked.

            "Pardon?" She looked askance at him.

            "For the papers - you handing me the petition?" He smiled. "I won't mind..." he ended feebly.

            "No, thank you. Just take them when you go, if that's all right, Mr. Clement."

            "Fine.” Clearly, I was being too cynical. She just wants me to take the petitions. No ulterior motive... “I won't forget them, Miss Revenant. Is that a French name?"

            "Could be. Call me Sade. Please."

            His pulse suddenly raced. "Sade," he repeated stupidly. Then, after faltering for a second, he managed, "You can call me Dave."

            "No," she said, shaking her head.

His heart sank.

"I rather like David. It suits you." 

            He grinned from ear to ear. "Can I tempt you with a coffee, some dessert? It's awfully good, their Death by Chocolate!" So much for the paunch...

            At his words she lowered her eyes and for a fleeting second colour suffused her alabaster cheeks. "No, thank you. Adam's ale will be fine."

            "Adam's-? Oh, yes - water." He ordered a Perrier and a glass of orange and tonic, reluctantly forgoing the gin.  Must lose weight, he chided himself and tried not to pull a face when he tasted the non-alcoholic drink. No gain without pain.

            No Ordinary Love,” she said out of the blue.

            “Pardon?”

            “The song. By Sade.”

            “Oh, yes, of course. I didn’t know if you’d heard.”

            “I listen, David. Do you, though?”

            He felt himself flushing under her direct scrutiny. “I try, but sometimes... well, you know how it is...”

            “I can sympathise, David. Truly.”

            “Truly?”

            “Yes, truly. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

            David warmed to her. She got a divorce five years ago when her daughter Rachel was two. She really seemed to enjoy his few anecdotes about the Corridors of Power. She'd read many of the books he'd enjoyed – including C P Snow’s monumental series - and disliked the same violent, foul-mouthed films he detested.

            Her petition was to reduce the speeding throughout the county, she explained, not just her road.

Guiltily he recalled Sade's first letter - some six months back. He'd asked Joan to spike it with the others, all doubtless well-intentioned but too demanding on his precious time. He’d wanted to steer clear of controversy – until today’s Party Conference, when it seemed as though he was inspired, perhaps subconsciously recalling those spiked pleas.

She talked about her daughter – a friend was watching over her tonight, she explained.

The place was closing when he said he wanted to see her again.

Only too aware how intrusive the press could be, he suggested meeting Sade in a quiet restaurant but she turned him down. “Oh,” he said.

            “No, let’s go to the park.”

            A bit public, he thought, but shook hands on it – hers was cool and light.

            As he waved her off in the taxi, David suddenly realised that for the first time in his life he was in love. The fact that at fifty-two he was at least fifteen years her senior didn't matter. Amazingly, the attraction seemed mutual.

 ***

She was waiting for him by the lake, kneeling beside a girl of about seven with the same hair and complexion. He hailed Sade.

            “Hello, David!” she stood, hand on the girl’s shoulder. “This is Rachel.”

            He knelt on one knee and shook the girl’s cool gentle hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.

            “Likewise, Mr. Clement. Would you like to feed the ducks with me?” she asked, offering him a paper bag filled with pieces of bread.

            “Yes, I’d love to!”

            They spent an idyllic hour strolling by the lake, watching the ducks, geese and pelicans. They were walking along Birdcage Walk when Rachel surprised him by saying, “I’m glad they let all the birds go.”

            Seeing his confusion, Sade laughed.  “Rachel’s talking about Charles II putting an aviary along the edge here.”

            “Of course. Hence the street’s name. Silly of me,” he allowed. “I agree, Rachel, it’s much better to see the birds flying free...”

            “Free to fly into the sky!” Rachel giggled.

            “And what would you like to do when you grow up, then? Be an airline pilot, flying like the birds?”

            “Academic,” she mumbled, turning serious.

            “Good for you. An honourable profession, teaching.” He ignored the little girl’s puzzled look and left them in the park to get back to work.

***

David discovered how empty his life seemed before he met Sade and her daughter.  Although he was attracted to Sade, it wasn’t merely sexual chemistry. He’d had plenty of dalliances – discreet but short-lived, but this was something quite different.

            His secretary Joan found him at his desk one morning, pleased with himself. "I think this'll make a perfectly smooth and hopefully speedy journey through the House." He handed her the scribbled Private Member's Bill.

            "You've done the poor lady proud, sir." Sitting at her computer desk, Joan smiled sadly. "A fitting memorial to them."

            His heart lurched. "What are you talking about?"

            The truth came tumbling out. About six months ago, a week after writing her plea to him, Sade and her daughter Rachel were hit by a speeding car and killed in her road.

            "But - but that's not possible!"  He clutched at a straw. “What did you say her name was?”

            “Reveley. Sade Reveley.”

            He breathed a sigh of relief and felt his heart start again. “That’s not her, then. Same first name, I grant you, but my Sade is called Revenant.”

            “Your Sade?”

            “A petitioner I met.”  Who also happened to have a daughter called Rachel.

            “Revenant is a strange name, isn’t it?  It sounds French to me,” Joan observed while accessing an Internet search engine.

            “Yes, I said that too.”

            “Most odd,” she said.

            “What?”

            “Revenant isn’t French...”

            “Oh?” A chilly sensation skittered down his spine. He glanced over her shoulder. The definition was quite clear: A person who has returned, esp. supposedly from the dead.

            Somehow he joked his way out of the discussion. Must be a mistake.

            Days passed but Sade never kept any of their usual appointments.

            At night, by himself in the lonely apartment, in his heart he knew the truth of it. The cool touch of her hand. Always dressed in white. Her open-eyed innocence, her tinkling laugh, her loving smile... And Rachel’s behaviour made weird sense too. She hadn’t wanted to teach. She meant her future was academic now, because she didn’t have one...

            By some eerie force of will Sade had shown him, ever so eloquently, what she and her daughter had missed through being killed by a thoughtless driver - love, laughter, tenderness, the enriching of other people's lives by their very presence. All swept away. But, he vowed, not forgotten.

            Because he loved her and would strive to his dying day to make the roads safer.

            His mouth curved in the ghost of a smile. Like the song said, this was no ordinary love.

 
***

 Previously published in The New Coastal Press, 2010.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

 If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

FFB - The Siege of Krishnapur

Of Irish descent, the author, J G Farrell (James Gordon) Farrell was born in Liverpool in. His career ended abruptly in 1979, when he drowned in Ireland at the age of 44, swept to his death in a storm. He is primarily known for a series of novels labelled the Empire Trilogy (Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip), which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule.

Krishnapur is a fictional town; the book is based on events at Lucknow and Cawnpore. It’s 1857, the time of the Indian Mutiny and sepoys lay siege to the British governed town of Krishnapur. Mr Hopkins, the Collector and Tom Willoughby, the Magistrate, are the senior figures among the panoply of other intriguing characters who undergo three months of privation and threat.
Farrell employs the omniscient point of view, much in the manner of Victorian narrative, where the author intrudes on occasion; this, and the abrupt switching of character point of view in mid-scene, I found to be the least liked aspects of the book. Its attractions are many, however. The characters grow and change during the siege and gain our sympathy. Despite the external enemy taking its bloody toll, there’s plenty of conflict within the fortification, for example between the two doctors, the two clergymen and the Collector and the Magistrate.
Lives are transformed in this crucible of warfare, not least the newly arrived poetry loving George Fleury, who seems totally inadequate to the task, quite content to daydream rather than seriously soldier, yet when he’s blooded in battle he discovers his true self. The womenfolk appear slight and of no consequence to begin with, but as time and lack of adequate rations strip away the veneer of ‘polite behaviour’, they show their mettle in a variety of ways. The scene with the invasion of tiny black cockchafers will linger in my memory for quite some time: horrendous, sensual and hilarious in turns!
Throughout, Farrell provides superb imagery and assaults the senses. The mixture of bravery and pathos, tinged with irony and black humour, works well. The final sepoy attack is highly dramatic, graphic and laced with lashings of ironic humour – the roses ‘pruned this year by musket fire’.
This novel won the Booker Prize in 1973.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Book Choice!

The weekly magazine TV Choice is printed here in Spain. Besides the multifarious TV channels, it features articles and puzzles, a book review and a short story.

The latest edition, #214 (23-29 August) promotes my crime novel Sudden Vengeance and also mentions two other books, Blind Justice at Wedlock and Blood of the Dragon Trees. (The choice of the western was a surprise, I’d have thought they’d have selected Spanish Eye, since that’s set in Spain as well, but I’m not complaining!)

The editor kindly printed my prize-winning story ‘Nourish a Blind Life’, too.

To read either of these images, please click on them. (If you can't read the story here, you can read it on an earlier blog - here
 
 
 
The title 'Nourish a blind life' is taken from a poem:

For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain
If, knowing God, they lift not hand of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?


- The Passing of Arthur, Tennyson

The story evolved in a day after I’d read about a man stricken blind as a child and abandoned by family and the system, yet he was saved by a kindly carer. This is my attempt to put myself in his shoes. 

"I read a lot and like to think that I’m fairly hardened to the human experience. Your story, Nourish a blind life, however, moved me enormously. With a powerful understanding you avoided any mawkish melodrama. The ending, although sad, gave satisfaction knowing the narrator was soon to be free! Thank you." – Eve Blizzard, dramatist and author
 
 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Writing – research – Toxicology-01

No self-respecting crime writer would be without their guide to poisons – the so-called coward’s weapon.

The ancient Greeks called the herb monkshood or wolfsbane “stepmother’s poison”. The citizens of Imperial Rome were forbidden to grow it in their gardens. Yet poison usage was so common that the rich employed food tasters.

There are many known natural poisons, mostly of plant origin. Their attraction – besides their efficacy – was that they were undetectable in a dead body.

More recently the mineral arsenious oxide – arsenic – became readily available for poisoning rats and other vermin. It was the most common substance employed for murder, its faintly sweet taste not noticeable in food; the lethal effects were attributed to acute gastric disease.

In 1836 a simple and definite test for the presence of arsenic in a dead body finally became available, but to get to that point took several chemists several decades. In 1775 the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered that when arsenious oxide was treated with nitric acid and zinc  granules, it became a poisonous gas (subsequently named arsine). Later, German chemist Johann Metzger showed that if arsenious oxide were heated with charcoal a mirror-like deposit would condense on a cold plate held over it; the element arsenic. In 1810 in Berlin Dr Valentine Rose extracted the stomach contents of a suspected victim of poisoning, dried the liquid to a white powder, and heated it with charcoal to obtain the characteristic mirror; thus the Metzger test proved sufficient evidence against a domestic servant who had poisoned several of her employers.

Then in 1832 an elderly English farmer, George Bodle, was alleged to have been poisoned by his grandson John. James Marsh, a former assistant to the eminent scientist Michael Faraday, was asked to demonstrate at the trial that Bodle’s coffee had contained arsenic. He did so, but the jury were not convinced so found the grandson not guilty. Frustrated, Marsh went back to Scheele’s initial discovery and developed the Marsh test – treating the suspect matter with sulfuric acid and zinc, he passed the arsine that was evolved through a narrow glass tube, which was heated over a short distance. The arsenic mirror formed further along the tube; any undecomposed gas was burned at the end of the tube and formed a second mirror on a porcelain plate. As little as 0.02 milligrams of arsenic could be detected in this manner, and in 1836 Marsh was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts for his technique.
 
The first forensic use of the Marsh test was made by Mathieu Orfila (1787-1853), a Spaniard. In later years, he wrote, ‘The central fact that struck me, that had never been perceived by anyone else … was that toxicology does not yet exist.’

Mateu Josep Bonaventura Orfila - Wikipedia commons

 
He published his first Treatise of General Toxicology in 1813. In 1819 he was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence at Paris University.
 
In 1840 Marie Lafarge, a 22-year-old was accused of murdering her husband. Prosecution declared that arsenic was found in the food, but not in the organs of the body. Orfila used the Marsh test and proved conclusively that the previous tests were botched. Furthermore, he stated; ‘I shall prove, first, that there is arsenic in the body of Lafarge, second that this arsenic comes neither from the reagents with which we worked nor from the earth surrounding the coffin, also that the arsenic we found is not the arsenic component that is naturally found in every human body.’ He did and Marie Lafarge was found guilty and sentenced to prison with hard labour.
 
More to follow in due course.

 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Faceless rule-makers

Yesterday’s post about Facebook’s abysmal security algorithm prompts thoughts about the power of faceless rule-makers and how they deploy that power.  Lest we forget, computer applications are designed by humans, who are as prone as the next person to commit errors.

Whether it’s a computer, an in-car system or a game on a tablet, it cannot have been tested in every conceivable scenario. I recall some years back seeing the standard message on computers, along these lines – ‘You have committed an illegal action.’ Which definitely alarmed law-abiding new users, who worried about what they’d done… This is typical of some programmers – too lazy to program and test for all eventualities, they let the conditional options drop through a number of possible messages and then throw in a catch-all – ‘illegal alert!’ – to capture any other unforeseen route a user might go down.

It’s the English language being misused: illegal in my dictionary says it’s something that’s contrary to or for bidden by law. The last time I looked, computer programmers didn’t make law – they make rules. The same goes for android and robots used with regard to tablets and apps. Android is an automaton resembling a human being; robot was invented by Karel Capek in his story ‘R.U.R – Rossum’s Universal Robots’ and derives from the Polish, Ukrainian robota, forced labour, and Russian, robota, work. Early twentieth century definition now accepts that it can be a machine that carries out a variety of tasks automatically or with a minimum of external impulse (such as factory robots); that’s still a big leap from software applications.

Are the individuals who label these applications so devoid of imagination that they must steal an existing term for their jargon? Ask any sci-fi writer and he or she would probably come up with something appropriate. I realise that it’s academic my discussing this, when you consider that for the Windows operating system you have to click on ‘Start’ to log off (which was removed, sensibly, but the clamour from old users has demanded its return, a yearning for the familiar).

I digress. Consider two new ideas being bandied about of late – driverless cars and driverless lorry convoys!

We’re slowly blindly going down that path that was trodden decades before the Terminator movies were thought of, be assured.

If users become dependent on all these applications, then when they go wrong, as they do and will continue to do so, the resultant responses will be anger without management, frustration, and a tendency to rebel – whether as a hacker, a troll or in a more personal manner. It’s the stuff of science fiction. Harlan Ellison’s ‘ “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman’ was about nonconformity being a felony, as well as being a moral tale. Sci-fi authors extrapolate current trends to see where it might lead. Jim England’s story ‘The Globe’ (published in Auguries #6, 1987 is about, among other things, litter louts being zapped by a surveillance stun-gun. And the late Bob Jenkins published a short story ‘No Fire Without Smoke’ (published in Adlib, 1985, reprinted Portsmouth Post, 2007) that casts cigarette smokers as public enemies, liable to be incarcerated or even shot…
'The Globe', 1987
 
The point – faceless rule-makers, if allowed, can take us down a road of unintended and even unperceived consequences.

Back to normal tomorrow…

 

Monday, 18 August 2014

FB – Face Bully?

In the scheme of things, it’s no big deal. I can live without Face Book. I mean, there are children being slaughtered throughout the world, notably in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya. Why does the world’s media call the latest incarnation of deranged misfits, IS, the Islamic State? Because that’s what they call themselves? They’re not the true face of Islam. They should be labelled for what they are – Insane Scum, Insane Savages or something more truthful.

Still, I digress.

A couple of days ago, I posted an FB message to a friend on his birthday, and also sent an image of tapas – since he has lived in Spain, and would get the virtual party reference.
Tapas - Wikipedia commons
 
I immediately followed up this with another image, this time of glasses of Spanish wine, for his virtual party. (I wasn’t able to include more than one image per message). And to cap it off, I sent an image of some bottles of cava – Spanish equivalent of Champagne at a fraction of the price…
Cava - and glasses of wine - Wikipedia commons
 
And immediately I received a FB message telling me a security check was required to ensure I was who I was. Great, I thought. I only had one of those last week, and answered the question and received a clearance code on my mobile phone, no problem. So, here we go again. I duly read the capture code or whatever they call it – say, KsFgLi – and input this – and immediately I was informed that I’d failed the security check and would be temporarily blocked for 30 days. This means that I can post to my FB timeline, and share other posts on my timeline; I cannot send PMs and I cannot comment on my own posts or anyone else’s anywhere on FB. No court of appeal, no best of three attempts at the code. As far as they’re concerned, I’ve fallen foul of their rules. Yeah, right.

In retrospect, it’s obvious to me that I mis-read the code, which isn’t surprising since often they are quite indecipherable; the point is, I didn’t feel unsure about the code, so I input what I thought I read.

Why am I bothering to write this? I’ll just have to wait out the 30 days, surely. Yes, I suppose I will. I was going to attend some FB friends’ virtual book launches, but that’s not possible now. There were other FB contacts about blogs etc I was involved in, regarding sharing information etc; I’ll find a way round that, eventually.

What bugs me is the Draconian approach to the blockage. FB in bullying mode.

Clearly, the algorithm system is programmed to identify any posts that originate from one source and consecutively aim at another source; the limit is probably three; it may be as little as two but I type fast…! It may be linked to images rather than simple text posts. The automatic response is a security check process. In effect, it’s a robot checking to ensure that I’m not a robot.
 
I take issue with the imposition of the blockage after I failed only once at the security check hurdle. Banks’ ATMs allow at least three attempts at getting the PIN code right.

I take issue with the imposition of 30 days’ blockage. Why 30 days? A nice round number. What does that achieve, exactly? If I had been a spammer, then I’d have learned my lesson after a month, is that it? I’d have thought spammers would have multiple accounts anyway. Does 30 days allow me to go to Specsavers so I can get my eyes tested and then better decipher their awful codes? There’s no reason why it should be 30 days instead of 24 hours; in effect this ‘grounding’ is tantamount to treating users as recalcitrant children.
 
We’ve all been there. Authorities impose constraints or new laws because of the irresponsible or even criminal few so that the majority suffer – whether that’s speed-bumps, traffic calming, the confiscating of nail clippers at airports, or a 30-day temporary blockage on FB. It isn’t rational, but they’re the rules we’ve made. Yeah, right. No, at best, it’s lazy programming, at worst, it’s bullying.

So, dear FB friends, if you don’t see my half-witticism comments on your pages for a while, that’s why. (You may even breathe a sigh of relief!)

Tomorrow, I'll look at some fiction that extrapolates on the 'punishment' meted out to rule-breakers...

[Later (26 August): while temp blocked you usually can't see a comment or like so you can't click on them. However, yesterday, on one post there was a like offered so I clicked on it. A message came up, saying I was blocked as I 'might' have violated the rules... but I could contact via help, which I did, and stated my case succinctly, and today I received a response to the effect that I am now unblocked, back to normal.]

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Writing – genre fiction - study the market

[The following is aimed at beginner novel writers and those who fancy switching genre.]

If you’re aiming on going the traditional publishing route, then, whether you like it or not, your writing is aimed at a market – not the genre readership, but the publisher or acquisitions editor. Obviously, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, your market is the reader. Even so, if you go that route, you still need to do market research, for you must aim to give the readers what they want – yes, with your particular slant, of course.

There are several companies who publish genre fiction, but not as many as there used to be. There are fewer publishing houses thanks to mergers, amalgamations and takeovers. The traditional genre fiction market has shrunk. So, you don’t have that much choice.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Publishing is in a transition stage. New independent publishers are cropping up regularly – some are e-book only, others publish e-book and print on demand (POD) books. The chances of a new author finding a publisher are better than ever, providing the author does his or her homework.

In the old days, if you failed at the first hurdle (publisher), there were quite a few others available to send your rejected ms on to. Now, you have to hone that ms almost to the requirements of a particular publisher. If it fails there, you may have to consider rewriting for another publisher before sending out the book again. Whatever you do, if it fails, don’t ditch it; try all avenues and if it fails, sit on it until a later date, when either the market might be more receptive or you’re able to review the book with fresh critical eyes. Another alternative is to self-publish, but you still need to address the editing (which is normally done by the publisher).

A good writer can get published in almost any field. They’ve studied their craft of storytelling and know the requirements implicit in each particular form.

Less accomplished writers might contemplate trying, say, a western, as it seems ‘easier than a contemporary detective novel.’ That approach is unlikely to work. To write a western, you need to have a strong affection for the genre. You don’t have to be a fan, but you should respect its roots. If you don’t, then it will show in the prose and storyline – and it will get rejected pronto. And that applies to sci-fi, fantasy, crime and romance too. Those Mills & Boon books are not as easy to write as it might seem, either

First priority, then, is to identify a publisher who is currently publishing your chosen genre. Select a handful of books in that genre from that publisher – ideally, not reprints of older works, but new fiction. The selection can be from your local library or from an online book outlet, such as Amazon or the book depository (the latter mails books post-free anywhere in the world). And, to provide variety and broaden your scope, select a number of authors rather than one.
 
Once you have those three or four books in front of you, approach the reading in a businesslike manner. Analyse each book as you read it. Make many notes. This is not to slavishly copy but to get a feel for the structure, vocabulary, pace, number of characters in the book.

For example, what is the author’s approach to the readers? Do the books from this publisher possess an ethos? There are Christian publishers around, for instance, which is a good market if it suits you. Is the message open and obvious or subtle?

Even though it’s fiction, what kind of topics and facts are used in the book? And to what depth are they treated?

Are there any subjects that appear to be taboo?

What kind of title does the publisher/author favour? A word, a phrase, a sentence? A question, a statement, an exclamation? A play on words or simply serious? How many words are usually in the title? Chapter titles can be helpful clues, too.

The following questions to pose don’t have to be applied to the whole book, that would be tedious, but study several pages to get a feel for the style, presentation and variety in the prose. For example: How many lines of dialogue per page? What age and status are the characters? How many paragraphs to each chapter? What is the usual number of words in the paragraphs? Are the sentences all a similar length or do they vary? What marks of punctuation are used? What kind of vocabulary is used? Simple, or moderately educated or really literary?
 
Study the first paragraph. How does it appeal to the reader? Is there any special emphasis on topicality, conflict or emotion? Remember, it is the first five words that attract the casual reader’s eye; so these should be especially striking. Try to avoid opening with ‘A’, ‘The’, ‘It’ or ‘There’.

In the final paragraph, how is the book wound up? Is it satisfactory? Mickey Spillane said, ‘The beginning sells this book, the ending sells the next book.’

Some book blurbs use quotations from the novel as teasers. Study these snippets – they’re like sound bites, there to suck in the browsing reader. Does your work contain similar phrases or sentences that could be gainfully used to ‘sell’ your story? (I know, you haven’t written the book yet – but consider identifying appropriate sound bites as your writing approaches the end of the book).

How many chapters does each book contain? Picked at random, four books I’m now looking at have, respectively, 15, 10, 16 and 20 chapters. Many beginning writers worry about the number of chapters, but there’s no need. A chapter break can be made almost anywhere – to signify the passing of time, to leave the reader wanting more after a cliff-hanger situation, to foreshadow worse to come. In fact, deciding on chapter breaks can wait until the self-edit stage.

Genre fiction is invariably about action – but not exclusively so. One of these four novels has a fight (fist or gun) in seven of the fifteen chapters. Another has seven fights in twenty-one chapters.

So, study the pacing and the relevant vocabulary…
 
- extracted and adapted from Write a Western in 30 Days.
 
E-book from Amazon com bought from here

E-book from Amazon co uk bought from here

or paperback post-free world-wide from here