Archives for June 2009

Adventures in Russell-Land Part III

The continuing adventures of two faithful Friends of Russell, who recently followed that great lady’s footsteps through the south of England.


The lasting impression I have about that very wet day traipsing up and down the streets of Oxford was how close together all the colleges stood.  You would go past one doorway after another, and catch tantalizing glimpses of beautiful green lawns surrounded by impressive stone buildings, sometimes covered in ivy, all impressive and often showing intricate carvings and spires, each was unique.


It seemed no one wanted to construct a simple or unattractive building for his or her college. It was as if the aesthetics of the grounds and the distinctive architecture were a part of the learning process, the body taught within sturdy walls, and the soul nourished by the beauty without.  A fancy, perhaps, but Oxford is a remarkably beautiful town.

The rain had let up some as we walked up the curving High street that now glistened from the downpour. We knew our destination was ahead, yet it was still startling to see the Tower of Magdalen College looming in the distance.


The tower where each May 1st at dawn the choir sings and hundreds listen and revel in the beauty of the singing, and if the stories are true, the high spirits brought on by drink.  The Magdalen Bridge is almost at the base of the tower and each year overly enthusiastic participants jump into the Cherwell from the bridge, and they come to grief because the river is rather shallow.


We walked through Magdalen College and found ourselves at the back in a garden dominated by an ornate blue gate that opens to the river.


From this vantage point we could view the bridge and the punts, although on this rainy day no one was enjoying the joys of the river.


Retracing our steps we re-entered Magdalen College and viewed the magnificent chapel and the equally impressive dining hall.  Being invited to dine at high table here would make the pulse of just about anyone quicken.



Then we strolled outside and along the wall that separates the college from a deer park, and spied a white deer in the distance.


Foot-sore and wet, we finally ducked into a small teashop and ordered a cuppa and a scone, letting the warm liquid revive us and the confection fill our stomachs.  We had walked a great deal of Oxford that wet day. We were grateful for our beds that evening.

The next morning greeted us with the first bright sunshine we had experienced since landing in England, and we determined to enjoy a few hours of it before climbing back into our auto for the drive Southwest toward Devon.

Having visited one of the bridges Russell has mentioned the day before, we decided to walk down to Folly Bridge, mentioned in the postcard sent to Ms. King, with the enticing words, “More to follow,” written on it. The day was bright with a cool breeze, and we enjoyed our walk, passing a bookstore with a sign stating that it sold books on Theology, and wondering if Russell perused the shelves.  The sign was Oxford Blue, a very distinctive color used throughout the town.


We passed Christ Church College, and admired its beautiful War Memorial Garden, then crossed over Folly Bridge and took some pictures of the river and the punts.


On our way back to the center of town, we stopped and captured a shot of the Martyrs’ Monument and the impressive Randolph Hotel that takes up most of a city block.

Satisfied we had done all we could in the time we had, we climbed into our car, programmed Phillida to take us to Lew Down, as that was as close as the Nav system for this car would accept for our next stop – Lewtrenchard Manor House – and we set out, once again, into the congested streets of Oxford to drive out of town.  We only made one wrong turn, but it was a doozy.  Merrily had to negotiate a very narrow lane, clogged with lorries, that deposited us into a dead-end, with very little room to turn around and retrace your path.  She managed, with admirable skill, and we were soon on the correct road and heading away from Oxford. Our last impression of the town of spires and dreams was that it was glowing golden in the morning sun.

Next, Lewtrenchard Manor House and Dartmoor.

Indies and other busy beez

It’s Indie Week–spread the word, and let me know if your favorite Indie bookstore is doing something fun.  Send us pictures, and we’ll post them!

As for other Good Causes, I apologize again for the delays and problems some of you have had with the Heifer International prizes that came (or, should have come) with your donations during the Fifteen Weeks.  If you have not yet received them, please let me know in a comment here, and I’ll see what I can do.  Those of you who donated more recently for the Holmes booklet, if you live in the US, you should have them, although overseas addresses are somewhat delayed.

holmes-booklet0011This is the booklet, a very pretty publication from Heifer International collecting Sherlock Holmes’ remarks about beekeeping that appear in The Language of Bees.  (signed, not by Holmes alas, but by me.)  It’s a fundraiser for the Heifer beehive project, and if you want one (or several) you can donate online, or send me $10 per booklet (checks are fine) at PO Box 1152, Freedom, CA, 95019.

They sent me a whole box of these lovely things, and I’d really appreciate the chance to transfer some of them from my house to yours.

Adventures in Russell-land – Part II

The Bodelian Library is a must for anyone who is devoted to the Mary Russell mysteries, and traveling with Merrily, the former head librarian at Brown University, opens doors that might otherwise be barred. She knew the current librarian of the Bodley back in the day, and it only took an email to arrange a private tour. Although Merrily’s friend was out of town she had kindly arranged for one of her staff to show us the beautiful exterior, and the impressive interior of the buildings that make up the old and new libraries. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
Everything in Oxford seems to have been there forever, but new somehow, certainly not dated or simply old. There is a feeling of vitality on the streets – this town, inhabited and driven by its thousands of students and dons, virtually hums with life. Oxford is known as the town of spires and dreams and one can see why, even in the rain. Most of the major buildings are constructed of local stone that has a yellow cast, and it seems to glow even on a rainy day. One can only imagine what it would look like on a sunny day. Seeing it in the rain was impressive enough.
We walked out of our hotel in a drizzly rain, and dodging the somber, pinch-faced students as they hurried off to their exams, we set out for Broad St. to meet our guide for the arranged for tour. Many of the streets in the center of Oxford have been closed off to traffic and made into promenades, which is a good thing for all the walkers and cyclists, but it forces the other streets to carry more car traffic than they might have otherwise, and leads to some pretty severe congestion. As I stated before, walking in Oxford is a far superior way to see the city, and, one must add, to keep one from tearing your hair out trying to negotiate the narrow roads, one way and dead end streets that provide no way to turn around.

A few short blocks and a turn or two, and we were on Broad Street strolling past Balliol (Lord Peter’s college) on our left, and then Trinity College. Frankly you can’t walk more than a block without seeing one famous college or another.

The Bodleian is made up of the Old and the New Buildings and separated by Broad Street, but joined by underground tunnels that pass under the street. Standing in front of the new library looking toward the old you see the Sheldonian, an odd almost u-shaped building with a small cupola topped by a green roof that seems oddly out of place by its diminutive scale next to the imposing buildings around it.

Our guide took us first into the Old Schools quadrangle to view the statue of Duke Humfrey, whose books made up the first library, and prompted the building of Duke Humfrey’s Library above the Divinity School. It is an impressive space in the shape of a T with hand-painted and carved, wooden vaulted ceilings and wooden shelves and reading benches, where once the books were chained to metal rods where they could be taken down and moved along the rod to a space for the reader to sit down and open the book on the reading table. They removed the chains long ago, but keep one to show the visitors. Everything is hushed tones and no photography in Duke Humfrey’s Library, with a stern faced guard on duty, who glowers if you even look like you might try to snap a shot.


Down several flights of stairs, and out the back and we were ushered into the Convocation house, where Charles I held Parliament during the English civil war. It is quite an impressive space. Sir Christopher Wren put a door in on the side facing the Sheldonian so the procession from one building to the other would be less cumbersome.


We were eventually taken down into the lower stacks where millions of books are shelved, and we were shown how they are retrieved and sent to the various reading rooms. It is still a very labor-intensive procedure, using people and a very old continuous chain system, no computerized method at the Bodelian, except for the ordering of the books. Even this is not complete throughout the library as slips ordering books and manuscripts to the Humfrey’s Library are still handwritten and conveyed by pneumatic tubes. At the end of our tour we found we were near the Radcliffe Camera, a quite distinctive building that resembles a domed cathedral. It was built through the bequest of a physician and named in his honor, and now functions as one of the Bodleian’s many reading rooms. Although it was pouring rain by now we couldn’t help but gawk at the Bridge of Sighs, and the quad of the Radcliffe Camera. Getting wet is nothing when surrounded by such impressive buildings.


The only way to really “see” Oxford is to take to the heights, so we paid a small fee to climb up to the cupola on top the Sheldonian where you have a 360 degree view of the city.


We climbed down with sore legs and an appreciation for Oxford that will be with us forever.

Friends of Russell, on the road

Two of the long-time Friends of Russell are on a tour of the British Isles, and have sent messages and photos (and, I admit, have assisted Russell herself in the posting of Twitter photos.) Please click on each photo below to enlarge. Here’s Alice:


Two Devoted Fans Russellian Pilgrimage
The Adventures of Alice and Merrily — Part I

Being asked to contribute a “fan” blog piece…or your favorite author is a bit daunting, but who can turn down the opportunity? If I didn’t “give it a go” as the Brits say, I would be kicking myself from one side of England to another, as I am currently in the U.K. doing a sort of Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes tour with my good friend Merrily.

We flew to London on June 6th and spent a few days and a few pounds in London. Staying at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel just a few blocks from the Sherlock Holmes Museum and shop can put a dent in your pocketbook. We were just trying to spur on the economy – honestly.


This trip (we were here in 2007 and spent most of our time in London) we have focused on places and towns that have significance in the Russell Books. London is lovely, but Oxford, and Sussex are more what the Russellian craves and of course Dartmoor has the double pleasure of being in Canon and Kanon (the Doyle stories and the Russell books).

It rained the entire time we were in London, no big surprise there, if you have ever traveled to the U.K. you know it will rain. Imagine our surprise when we picked up the rental car and it was not raining, just threatening. In fact the entire drive was dry all the way to Blenheim Palace, not far from Oxford and a must see if only for the reason it was the birthplace of Winston Churchill.


It was, of course, now raining as we pointed the nose of the car toward Oxford, and it was getting late in the day. My first impression of Oxford was how small it was, a compact city with many streets, more impressive buildings than any city has a right to, and students, lots and lots of students on foot and on bicycles. There were bicycles darting every which way, making it quite the adventure to try to follow the directions of our navigation system (affectionately called Phillida by us, for her upper crust accent), watch the road, remembering to drive on the left and not crash into the Martyrs Monument conveniently located where several streets come together and just where we needed to turn right across several lanes of heavy traffic to pull in front of our hotel. It took our going around the block, which isn’t actually around the block, as none of the streets go straight, they curve, dead end, and even loop back on themselves, before we could try that turn and gratefully surrender the automobile over to the door man. You do not want to drive in Oxford, walk, even if it is pouring rain as it did the next day the entire time we were out experiencing the town, walk. After negotiating the wet and student filled streets we had to reward ourselves with a drink in the bar (aptly named The Morse Bar).


One sight that fascinated us, as Americans, was all the students walking about in short black gowns, which are worn for examinations; the ones in white tie were, we were told, taking their first exams. We saw them scurrying on the streets in the early morning, obviously on their way to exams, and then coming back, carrying or wearing flowers and often, bottles of champagne. Clearly in Oxford they know how to do final examinations “right”!

Oh, and if you are a fan of the Inspector Morse series, Oxford is a double treat, it is not only Russell’s second home, but the site of many, many locations for the TV series starring John Thaw. As we were walking through a quad at the back of the Sheldonian our guide, one of the librarians from the Bodelian, casually said, “Yes, there was a body in one of the Morse episodes just there, shot from one of the upper windows of the Bodley. Quite exciting.” (And yes, it was the episode with the obnoxious opera singer.)


Next, a walk through the Bodley.

Russell tweets; Laurie talks; Dad reads

A trio of tidbits.  First, Mary Russell has learned how to post photographs on Twitter.  That lady, 109 years old and she’s ahead of me.

Next, there is a new LRK interview for your ears to enjoy, with the delightful Barbara Gray in Cincinnati, here.

And last, if you have yet to buy that man in your life a Father’s Day present, I will mention that Barnes and Noble has put The Language of Bees on their Father’s Day display table.  Which I thought seemed a little odd until I realized the book is, indeed, about fathers and sons.  Other stuff, too, of course.

British invasion

Hey Brits, on the first of September, you’ll have your very own Language of Bees–and shortly thereafter, a tour:


That’s right, the pub date is 1 September, and although we’re setting up events now, I can say that I’ll be at the Reading Festival of Crime on Sept 12, talking about Murder in Mind with Sophie Hannah, Steven Booth, Jane Hill and R J Ellory.

If you are a librarian, or you would like to suggest a library for me to do an event, post a comment with their information and we’ll have the publishers add them to the list being considered.

See you then!

California Writin’

The California Crime Writers Conference began life as “No Crime Unpublished,” a writing conference run by the Southern California chapter of Sisters in Crime.  Which excellent organization you should join instantly, by the way, if you haven’t already, for their general helpfulness, intelligence, and positive energy.  And no, you don’t have to be published to join, or even have two X chromosomes–guys are just fraternal sisters.

Over the past couple of years, SinC has been getting together with the local Mystery Writers of America chapter, for holiday parties and special events, and when they decided to join forces and build a 2-day conference jointly, the CCWC was born. 

This is a very well run conference, and well attended, considering the economy.  The planners figured that if they got 80 attendees, they wouldn’t actually lose money.  They started yesterday’s first panel with 147, and have had walk-ins.  More today, with Robert Crais speaking at lunch instead of that King woman.

Particularly effective is the way they have organized the tracks of panels.  There are four panels at every slot, each lasting an hour and a quarter (time enough to be thorough, unlike the 50 minute hours of some conferences I’ve been to) and they’re clearly divided in four categories: The Writing Business; The Science, the Experts; Learning the Craft; Getting Published.  Inevitably, there’s a certain amount of overlap, and I doubt anyone sticks to one track both days, but it divides up the interest, and clarifies the intent of the panel. 

The overall success of the conference means they’ll probably do it again in two years, so put the CCWC on your mental calendar for 2011.  And if I’m good today, maybe they’ll invite me back…

Off now to help myself to the gorgeous fruit platter and muffin breakfast, then to listen to Gayle Lynds talk about craft: “You, Too, Can Plot.”

I sure hope so.

A dreadful Choice

Sometimes, life is hard and all you can do is bleed. My friend Ayelet Waldman has a new book out that fills me with awe, that a person can feel so free about showing her wounds to the world. The title of her book, Bad Mother, embraces a criticism and turns it on its head, so that all you can say when you finish the book is, if only all mothers were so bad.

I mention her book now because one of the chapters is about abortion. And being Ayelet, there is nothing theoretical or once-removed about what she writes. “Moving” doesn’t begin to describe it. Raw, powerful, terrifying, yes; I can’t imagine a person reading it without tears. (She’s posted a much-abridged version of her story here.)

Abortion is terrible. Ayelet would agree. Yet the unavoidable hard fact is that sometimes, life requires terrible choices. Sometimes babies die. And sometimes their life is so dreadful, death is a blessing.

No one wants an abortion. Any woman who has an abortion lives with that knowledge the rest of her life. No one should ever have to choose to kill their baby. All children should be healthy, and wanted, and the result of a loving relationship.

An ideal world, and we do not live there. Until we do, until all women have the ability to say that they don’t want an egg fertilized this month, thanks; that they don’t want to bring a hugely damaged, pain-ridden infant into the world; that if they do, there is a chance that damaged life will not utterly devastate the lives of the family it is born into—until that sweet and utopian day, we need doctors who are willing to help women out of impossible, agonizing situations.

I was lucky. I never faced that devastating choice. Lucky: not clever or cautious or virginal. (You do know that even The Pill only claims a 99 percent rate of contraception, don’t you?)

Like the bumper sticker says: If you can’t trust me to make a Choice, how can you trust me to be a mother? Sometimes, a mother’s choice is that the life she carries is not meant to be.

In memory of Dr. George Tiller, please send some money to one of the agencies struggling to help desperate women. These are dedicated and caring people whose jobs are hard enough without having to feel a lot of powerful and rage-filled individuals breathing down their backs, and wondering which of those maniacs has a gun.

Heifer International


I still can’t believe you guys contributed $10,000 to Heifer through the Team LRK page, and wanted to say, Thank you, again, for your support of this great organization.

And for those of you who found $60 a bit steep but would still really like one of those booklets on beekeeping by Sherlock Holmes, we’re now opening it up for you. Send Heifer a $10 donation through the Team LRK page (or $20 for two, and so on) and we’ll send you a copy of the booklet, signed–well, sorry, not by Holmes himself, but by yours truly. The quotes come out of the book with my name on it, after all.

I have a few hundred of these great little booklets, but when they’re gone, that’s all. A great cause, a unique little gift for any Sherlockian on your list…