Thursday, May 30

Peace by piece

Every individual has a role in ensuring peaceful communities - with no toleration for bullying. Before offering any critical comment, we could pause and strive for a tone that achieves support and compliance rather than resistance.

There is so much to be learned at school, it can be overwhelming for teachers and students alike. But how to treat fellow human beings should not be neglected. Most families teach these lessons at home, but we cannot count on that.  A culture of bullying can quickly develop and take hold of communities, as described in Fear of Beauty: "More often than not, we stood back and watched as fellow villagers were bullied, hoping to avoid such encounters. Ashamed, I didn't blame Mari and Leila for resenting the rest of us."

A Piece Full World offers eloquent reflection on the complexities of bullying and offers reminders that we can all do better, one individual at a time, one school at a time, one community at a time.

Drawing of the schoolhouse, courtesy of a Piece Full World.

Monday, May 27


A few blame many for a senseless crime, and perhaps that's one definition of extremism. Yasmin Albhai Brown writes for the Independent about receiving hate mail regarding the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby on a London street:

"What’s it got to do with me or the millions of other blameless British Muslims? We hate Islamicist brutes more than any outsiders ever could. They ruin our futures and hopes. And at moments of high tension, the most  liberal and democratic of us fantasise about transporting them all to a remote, cold island, their own dismal caliphate  where they could preach to each other  and die....

"Around the world one finds disaffected Muslims who are consumed with bloodlust,  who have lost the capacity for dialogue and  compromise, who seem to have given  up on the best of human virtues – compassion, tolerance, freedom, diversity –  and who are disconnected from enlightened, earlier Muslim civilizations. Grievances have mutated into generalised brutishness."  

The only way to defeat such extremism is for the tolerant, fragmented as we may be, to link with others who may not think exactly alike, but who do promote tolerance.  And of course, that's what happens in Fear of Beauty, when strangers find they have more in common, in an alliance against extremism, than they may with family and friends.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and AgnosticPreachersKid.

Sunday, May 19

Unreported crime

Reporting criminal acts combined with enforcement keeps crime at bay.

"Following a seven-year investigation, the Department of Education has fined Yale $165,000 for failing to report four incidents of forcible sex offenses in 2001 and 2002, according to an April 19 letter to the Yale administration," reports Cynthia Hua for the Yale Daily News.

The Clery Act is not new and has been in force in the United States since 1990.

Failure to report campus crimes - and how a ruthless staff member takes advantage of that - was the topic of my first book, Alaska Gray, published in 1994. Jane McBride arrived in Sitka, expecting to begin working as finance director. But she arrives and the job vanishes. She stays and asks questions and that results in the murder of a student on campus - a young native artist.

Hiding or downgrading reports of criminal activity do not protect an institution. The criminal acts will continue unimpeded, whether it's in Alaska, Afghanistan, or institutions of higher education like Penn State and Yale University.

Transparency is essential. If institutions cannot endure transparency, they do not deserve to last.

Sunday, May 12

Malice Domestic 2013

Invisible sleuths, whether hidden, inconspicuous, discounted or vulnerable for any number of reasons, have advantages with an investigation. As others disregard their presence, the invisible sleuth - so often women - can quietly observe a scene. If confident, the invisible sleuth can form her own independent analysis without undue influence from others.

James Lincoln Warren, far left, drew out these contradictory qualities  as moderator of the panel "The Invisible Woman: Sleuths Who Hide in Plain Sight" at Malice Domestic 2013.  Two of the sleuths yearn for literacy - and the other two are quite skilled but marginalized. Such sleuths often earn respect from those outside their immediate environment where their abilities are taken for granted.

In Fear of Beauty, Sofi has little choice but to be invisible. Her community depends on power, hierarchy, outspoken religious devotion and secrecy rather than the rule of law. Illiteracy compounds the horrific effects of bullying. In Afghanistan, women do not have equal standing to men, and Sofi must keep her ambitions, opinions and suspicions to herself. She is a progressive in a true sense - wanting to improve her community for her children - while others see power and safety in maintaining the status quo. But of course, she must work in secret or otherwise put her family at risk.

Lucy Campion in A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by Susanna Calkins (red sweater) is a chambermaid in a magistrate's household in 17th-century England. Like Sofi of Fear of Beauty, Lucy cannot forcefully protest the accepted assumptions about women, as voiced by a religious leader in her community: "Woman is a weak creature, not endued with the like strength and constancy of mind as men. They are prone to all manner of weak affectations and dispositions of mind..." Of course, Lucy's character and her own experiences defy such broad pronouncements.

Daniel Stashower's book, The Hour of Peril, is a nonfiction historical study and focuses on Allan Pinkerton, the methodical investigator who uncovers and disrupts a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln in February 1861.  The panel focused less on Pinkerton, himself a fascinating character of American history, and more on widow and assistant Kate Warne. Of all the invisible sleuths, Warne probably has the most choice and control, as well as respect from her peers. Joining the Pinkerton team in her early 20s, she became known as the first female detective - and as such was invisible to others during the course of the investigation, capable of passing herself off as woman from Alabama, collecting intelligence from Baltimore women who are Confederate sympathizers, and passing along secret correspondence between investigators and Lincoln's staff.

The Loser series by Peg Herring (turquoise), including Killing Silence and Killing Memories, features a homeless woman who barely speaks and does odd jobs in exchange for food, while watching the world pass her by on the streets of Richmond, Virginia.  "People have rules different from mine, and they make judgments based on those rules." Escaping what must be a troubled past, the woman tries to keep her mind clear of thoughts, but of course that is not easy. "Thinking of nothing worked for a while, but the mind has a mind of its own." By shedding personal possessions and attachments, Loser can determine who appreciates her for what she is willing to share.

The invisible sleuths in each of these books offer comment on social problems of each time period and location. Each woman has her own way of handling the very old process of globalization and the spread of new ideas and ways of thinking. With every century and technological innovation, globalization gains greater speed, followed by the outpouring of praise and condemnation. Individuals, especially the curious and aware, are open to new ideas and immediately decide which may work best for them. Others who fear change and shifting power resist these protagonists' observations.

Four very different protagonists and stories, yet James Lincoln Warren tied them together with his thoughtful questions in remarkable ways. Malice Domestic ranks high among my favorite mystery conferences.

Photo by D Olsen.

Wednesday, May 1

Under construction

A Tweet from one of the great teachers in my past, Bob Reich: "Laws not backed by sufficient enforcement resources are aspirations, not laws. Cutbacks at OSHA, SEC are repeals."

Restoring rule of law is an uphill climb after a reduction in enforcement. A breakdown in enforcement in one area spreads to other areas, as government employees and citizens cut corners and rationalize wrongdoing. Inconsistencies build, and citizens quickly lose faith in the system. Restoring the rule of law and citizen trust is more time consuming than destroying these systems.

And so it is with the Constitution of Afghanistan. 

Article Seven maintains, "The state shall prevent all kinds of terrorist activities, cultivation and smuggling of narcotics." Article Seventeen suggests the country "shall adopt necessary measures to foster education all levels, develop religious teachings, regulate and improve the conditions of mosques, religious schools as well as religious centers." Article Twenty-Two forbids "any kind of discrimination" and "The citizens of Afghanistan, men and woman [sic], have equal rights and duties before this law."

Article Twenty-Three:: "Life is the gift of God.... No one shall be deprived of this except by legal provision."  Twenty-Four: "Liberty is the natural right of human beings. This right has no limits unless affecting others [sic] freedoms as well as the public interest, which shall be regulated by law."

Article Twenty-Five maintains that "Innocence is the original state," that the accused are innocent until proven guilty by an authoritative court."

Torture is illegal. Persecution is forbidden.  Freedom of expression is inviolable.  There is a right to privacy around correspondence.  Personal residences are immune from trespassing without official court orders. Forced labor is forbidden. "Education is the right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be offered up to the B.A. level in the state educational institutes free of charge by the state," according to Article Forty-Three, and Forty-Four encourages programs to "foster balanced education for women, improve education of nomads as well as eliminate illiteracy in the country." 

Those who would over-ride any of these articles can point to Article Two, which enshrines Islam as the state religion and prohibits any law that may contradict those beliefs. Even though Islam might endorse all the other articles of the constitution, the extremists develop their own interpretations to defy the rule of law. Stability in Afghanistan will depend on imams with the courage to speak out against manipulative, partial use of the religion to defend criminal acts.

Yes, laws that go unenforced are no longer laws.

And the difficulty of obtaining an online photo of the Afghan capitol building is notable, apparently a security measure. 

Photo of Kabul's largest mosque, Abdul Rahman Mosque, from Joe Burger and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 26


An interview is only as good as the questions asked - and Kristen Elise delves into the writing process, research, how a plot can unwind from our life experiences, interactions with others and observations of our local communities.

The interview touches on the mystery of daily routines, under constant threat from globalization's constant march of change. We take these for granted - until one day they are snatched away - and the memories are haunting reminders of loss and our own mortality.

The routines we adopt from day to day are our research for future books, and as mentioned during the interview, my "best research was going about daily routines, thinking deliberately about every modern item we enjoy and stripping such details from my writing."

Murder Lab is a must-read blog for writers.

Photo of an Afghan family on routine stroll, courtesy of DVIDSHUB and Wikimedia Commons.  

The Onion

Satire in The Onion, as typical, hones in on the big picture - that terrorism is not cool, not smart, not useful in gathering support for one's religious or political beliefs.

"Sayed told reporters that instructing the 27-year-old in the goals of global jihad and providing philosophical justification for carrying out terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in the West is 'pretty much a lost cause at this point,'" notes the article Islamic Extremist Gives Up on Radicalizing Dim-Witted Friend. "At press time, Sayed had zeroed in on another individual, a lost, highly impressionable 19-year-old boy with no moral center and a broken family who the extremist said would be 'absolutely perfect.'"

And such are the antagonists in Fear of Beauty, brutal and ignorant bumblers who contribute only chaos and pain for the communities they visit. The book offers insight into the courage and unity required to stand up to these bullies.