20 July 2009


You can't prove it by me. I love the place.

Got up this morning and went to I Love A Mystery, a truly great mystery bookstore in Mission, KS (a suburb of Kansas City.) I was pretty sure there weren't going to be many people there. I was scheduled for a 10:30am "coffee with the author."

I counted 19 people over the course of my showing my slides and talking about my books. That is an excellent turnout. They asked good questions, were great to talk with. They bought plenty of books. What more could an author want?

After that, I hit Stroud's for lunch on my way out of town. The fried chicken's as good as ever. It ought to be, after all, their slogan is, "We choke our own chickens."

Then I lit out west across Kansas, across the Great Plains. A lot of people, when they hear I'm going to drive across Kansas and eastern Colorado, say they feel sorry for me. They make jokes about putting a brick on the gas, tying the wheel straight and napping. They seem to think it is a featureless, dull drive.

They're wrong.

In the Plains, the weather and the light become geographic features of the landscape. The feel of the air is remarkable. Snapping with electricity as storms approach, fresh like nothing else after the storms pass by.

I love driving across the plains. It's one of the things I most look forward to on my Drive-By Book Tours.

Here's the photographic evidence. All shot this afternoon and evening around Oakley, KS - as a storm front passed through. (I did not manipulate any of the color.)

19 July 2009


It is, almost certainly, a good thing that I do not live in Kansas City. I love the food here. My cardiovascular system doesn't. But I'm not here often.

So today, for lunch I went to Arthur Bryant's.Combo plate of burnt ends and pulled pork. I couldn't make up my mind if I liked the "rich and spicy sauce" or the "original" better. The burnt ends are the best I've ever had anywhere. The pork, well, I do prefer the vinegary North Carolina style, but it's still awfully good.

After lunch I went to Lawrence, Kansas, to The Raven bookstore where I sat around having a good conversation with Julie, who was working there, while I signed some books.

After that, it was off to see the KC T-Bones play ball against the Joliet Jackhammers. The T-Bones mascot is, of course, a beef steer named Sizzle.I was prepared to eat the mascot, if they offered t-bone steaks at the ballpark. Alas, they don't. (So far, the only ballpark I've been to where you can eat the mascot is in Zebulon, North Carolina where the Mudcats play and the concessions specialize in catfish sandwiches.)

So, having failed to dine at the ballpark, I decided on fried chicken - another of Kansas City's better options. I wanted to go to Stroud's, my favorite chicken fryer in the U.S. (Their slogan is, "We choke our own chickens.") Problem was, it's hard to find and I didn't want to go back to the hotel - the wrong direction - to look it up online. So, I decided on a soul food restaurant near the National Jazz and Negro Baseball League museums. To get there, I took the Brooklyn Avenue exit off I-70 and was immediately confronted with Bryant's to the right, and Gates & Son's (possibly the most famous other KC BBQ place) to the left. It did seem like a good idea to make a taste comparison. So I turned left toward Gates.It was, I hate to say, a mistake. I had ribs. They were chewy and fatty. The sauce was mundane. After the first bite I considered not finishing my meal and heading instead for fried chicken as planned.

But I didn't. There's really only so far I'm willing to go in disservice to my arteries.

I have been doing things other than eating. In St. Louis I took several walks through some of the beautiful neighborhoods near Forest Park, the gigantic park in the middle of the city.

I had a good signing at Big Sleep Books, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, mystery bookstores in the midwest. It's run by Helen Simpson, a good friend and a fellow baseball lover. My first night in town we sat around in Helen's house and watched the Cardinals game. (When the Cardinals play the Dodgers I am in torment. I am a fan of both teams.)

The second night in St. Louis we went to downtown and walked around the fun and very nicely curated new sculpture garden, then went to the new Busch Stadium for the game. It was a good game but the Cardinals lost, so it wasn't that good a game. Still, it was a great evening.

14 July 2009


Chicago is simply one of the very best cities on the entire planet. It's got nearly everything other than weather I can stand for a few months of the year. (Well, it has pretty awful traffic also, but it does have public transit.)

It even has the best carnitas I have ever had, anywhere. And I know my carnitas, and have had them in many places throughout Mexico and the U.S. (Carnitas Uruapan, 18th St. in Pilsen.)

It's got plenty of blues, and you already know I love the blues. Here's the wall of blues player masks at the old Chess Records Studio museum on Michigan Ave.And here's Pinetop Perkins. (Played sometimes with pretty much everyone, including Muddy Waters - although I liked Otis Spann a whole lot better.)

Millennium Park is one of the greatest, most fun urban parks anywhere. And, at the moment it's prairie garden is in bloom.

Chicago also seems to somehow come up with money to preserve and restore amazing architecture and other such things, when many cities can't seem to. This is the Tiffany glass skylight in what used to be the old library and is now the Cultural Center.

And then, of course, there is THE LEDGE, on the 103rd floor of what used to be the Sears Tower and is now the Willis Tower. My feet.Me.
My sister Nancy.

13 July 2009


So I suppose I ought to say something about the events I've been having. The whole trip hasn't been entirely about eating local food, blues and now baseball. Nope, I've done some work, too.

Then again, sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud calling it work. Us authors love to convince people that we really work hard at it, that it's a job. And we do and it is. The problem, however, is that most of us would do it for free if we had to. Most of us do it for pretty damn close to free anyhow.

If any of you think that my book tour, or 99.9999999999% of other author's book tours actually, in any tangible way, even pay for themselves, you are naive.

Now that isn't to say that from a purely business point of view they aren't worth it. There's no way to quantify how, but I am convinced that they are. They get you known. They get you publicity. They help to build up your readership and your public profile. The stores sell more of your books after you've visited than they probably would if you hadn't visited.

And they are, at least for me, fun. And fun is good for you. It's as vital as an apple a day or any of those other nostrums.

So I've had book events at stores, and in most cases it's like visiting old friends and making new friends and while there haven't been any teeming hordes of frenzied readers to greet me anywhere, there have been audiences of about the size, or more than the size, than I expected.

I first visited some of my favorite old standbys: Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Clues Unlimited in Tucson and Murder By the Book in Houston.

In Austin, Book People, one of my favorite big, general, independent bookstores, didn't carry my books - BOO on them - but I did meet someone who gave me a great idea for a non-fiction book. (I'm currently working on the proposal.)

When I left the Mississippi Delta to drive to Nashville for an event, I stopped in at Bookstore on the Square in Oxford, Miss. A lovely store that I'd never visited before. They were quite welcoming, will probably now order my books to sell. And they invited me back for a book event whenever I'm next in the vicinity. As I very much like that vicinity, I will be back.

In Nashville I visited Mysteries & More, a lovely little store run by Greg and Mary who couldn't possibly have been more hospitable. They even have a super comfortable guest apartment behind the store for visiting authors. Nine people showed up, which might not seem like a lot to those of you who haven't been on a book tour before, but it's not at all a bad turnout, especially in a store I've never been to before, in a town where I don't know anyone.

In Ann Arbor I went to another store where I've not been in the past. Aunt Agatha's is a an excellent store, jam packed with stock, run by Robin Agnew who is very active in the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association among other worthwhile endeavors. The store did a great job of publicizing the event and 15 people showed up and bought even more than that number of books.

One of those who showed up was PJ Coldren, who I have wanted to meet ever since she started saying such incredibly nice things about my books in her reviews. She drove two hours, each way, to see me and I am honored and humbled by that. Us writers are nothing without readers and no matter how despondent I get sometimes over the state of publishing and slow book sales, etc - which, like every other author I know, I do sometimes - when I meet people like PJ it helps renew my enthusiasm.

Now I'm in Chicago. No one here seems to be carrying my books. I'll drive around to some stores and pester them with free copies and ordering information in the hope of remedying that, but for the most part I'm visiting my sister - Nancy - a photographer for the Tribune. Last night we watched the Cardinals beat the Cubs in a very good game at Wrigley Field. Nancy was unhappy about that. Me, I'm a Cardinals fan, I was pleased.Albert Pujols is one of my very favorite current players. He hits plenty of homeruns, but I could almost care less about that. He hits for a high average and on base percentage and he is a superb fielder - the kind of ballplayer I love to watch.
This is where my sister Nancy lived when she first moved to Chicago - on Waveland Avenue, behind left field of Wrigley Field. The apartment windows in the photo are what used to be her apartment. The owner of the building has since converted it into a private, rental sports bar, and built bleachers on top of the building. (You can see the building at the far left of the picture of the whole ballpark.)When they announced that Patti Smith was going to sing the national anthem at the start of the game, we got very excited.It figures, though, that there's more than one.
I'm here through Wednesday, then it's up to Madison, WI for an event at Booked For Murder. Then it's St. Louis on Friday and Saturday, Big Sleep Books on Saturday afternoon.

10 July 2009


My pictures of the Mississippi Delta are in the next post down. But meanwhile, here's some reflections stimulated by having watched a 14 year old guitar player in a Clarksdale blues club:

Let’s start this out on a high note, with a reflection on the Koran. It is, according to most Islamic scholars, impossible to translate the Koran. Any version of it in any language other than the original classical Arabic is an “interpretation,” not a translation. Most classics scholars will tell you the same about Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Poetry is problematic. It is dependent on the precise meaning of every word, on the rhythmic structure of the language, on evocation and impression, on its readers understanding of it, not just in the head, but in the heart (the soul if you think you have one) the gut and the groin.

That said, Jake is 14 years old and one hell of a proficient guitar slinger. I saw him play the other night at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi; a town with a credible claim to being the (American) birthplace of the blues. The boy’s got chops, allright. He can truly shred his blues licks.

But can he play the blues?

That’s the age old question. Greater minds than mine have pondered it. But I’ve got some thoughts on the matter.

He looks a lot more like a surfer kid than any sort of blues baby. I don’t suppose it’s relevant that he’s white. Does it?

Maybe it does. I’m trying to think of any truly great, original white blues players, and I can’t. I can think of plenty of stylists - musicians and singers with tremendous talent – people I admire, respect and listen to. But they all seem like interpreters of the blues, rather than honest to goodness, deep, dark bluesmen and women. Tracy Nelson and Mose Alison maybe come closest.

I can think of a number of truly great, authentic, original, white blues-rock musicians; and I think Jake (I never caught his last name) could grow into one of those. Clapton, Johnny Winter, plenty of others. I can think of a few great white rhythm & blues performers: Eddie Hinton comes to mind.

What makes the white performers stand out is their technical prowess. Eric Clapton is certainly one of the most talented guitarists of all time. Tracy Nelson has a voice with a range, power and expressiveness that is second to none.

Not to slight the musical chops of blues musicians – Otis Spann, James Booker and Professor Longhair could have easily held their own against almost any concert pianist, Buddy Guy can play rings around Eric Clapton, and in pretty much any style he wants to – but the blues seems to require something more than great musicianship. It’s music, yes, but it’s also a culture.

T Model Ford and Robert Balfour, who are still playing, and before them, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, are all good examples. They were, and are, all good enough musicians, but maybe not world beaters. Still, there is a deep, dark, rich soulfulness to their music that is missing in the music of white blues players.

There is a lifetime of hurt and sorrow and oppression and back-breaking hard labor and yet a concurrent, near-perverse, joy and wry humor about life, that fills every note they play and sing.

I hear white blues players with my head. I feel black ones in my gut, they burn into my core.

And they’re disappearing, for all sorts of reasons. There are very few young people in this country who will ever again grow up in the circumstances that gave us the great blues players. And the blues doesn’t pay, not like rock and roll or hip hop. An aspiring blues player is setting himself up for a life of itinerant poverty. Not much to aspire to.

And the modern world has sort of overtaken the blues. We all sell our souls to one devil or another almost every day. And if a no good mate breaks our heart, we just get online and call up another from Match.com or someplace. And no one chops cotton by hand anymore.

But, while the American blues might be dying out, not to worry, there’s still more than enough misery around the world to cause the blues to break out in other forms, in other cultures. Africa’s got more blues than it knows what to do with. (Which is only right. Sorry Clarksdale, but Africa is the real birthplace of the blues.) In Thailand, the music called Morlam sings of the tragedies of young men and women who go to the big cities to escape the wretched poverty of rural areas, who fall into prostitution and crime and suffering. And it’s mournful, soulful, gut wrenching music. (That’s not bad to dance to, either.) It’s the blues, really. And it too has got its interpreters. I hear there’s some pretty good Japanese Morlam bands.

09 July 2009


07-09-09, Nashville, TN: The Mississippi Delta is one of my favorite places on the planet. I didn't do anything all that notable there over the last two nights and one full day. I just drove around and looked at stuff, ate plenty of truly great food that was bad for me, listened to some great music - you might enjoy WABG, the sound of the Delta - and took plenty of pictures:

I arrived in Greenville at suppertime, so, as planned I ate one of the world's greatest steaks at Doe's Eat Place.

Then I drove around town a little, in a stupor, taking pictures of buildings in the evening light.

After that, I needed to keep moving, either that or curl up somewhere and fall into a deep, dark food coma. I took a walk along the Mississippi River levees at Greenville. (The Mississippi River levees are the largest, longest engineering project in history.)

The next day, Wednesday, I took my time driving around on my way to Clarksdale. I went to Leland. (Which I had also driven around the night before.)
I met Pat Thomas there. He's the son of James "Son" Thomas, a blues player as well. He was playing in the Highway 61 Blues Museum, but I think he was just warming up, or maybe it was all the bandages on his fingers.

I lunched at the Crystal Grill in Greenwood and I highly recommend it. The $7.95 lunch special I had was fried catfish, turnip greens, mac & cheese, hush puppies, corn muffins and a piece of pie, oh yeah, and a drink. And it was just about perfect, even if my arteries weren't happy about it. It was fish, wasn't it? That's good for you. And there were greens, so what if they were loaded up with ham hocks.

After lunch I turned north up old Highway 49. I passed Parchman Farm, famous in dozens of blues songs. It's the Mississippi State Penitentiary and was famous as a truly hellish labor camp. These days there don't seem to be long rows of stripe-clad prisoners with hoes or bent over chopping cotton. There were a bunch of road signs telling you what sort of trouble you'd get into if you stopped along that stretch of road for anything other than an emergency, but it didn't look much different than most of the other stretches of road I'd been passing along.

Then I got to Tutwiler, the town where W.C. Handy supposedly first heard the blues on the train platform.
There was an oddly decorated house there. Driving around the Delta you see a lot of art in people's yards and decorating their houses. I couldn't find out any details about this place.There was a nice swampy area right in the middle of town.

Finally I got to Clarksdale, the town that makes the loudest and most persuasive argument for being the home of the blues. I checked into the truly fantastic Big Pink Guest House, and had it to myself for the night. (This is the interior courtyard.)Then I wandered around town for a little while.

There are a number of intersections that claim to be the actual "crossroads" where Robert Johnson, and others, sold their souls to the devil to play the blues. In Clarksdale, the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, the two main highways that run up and down the Delta, would seem to have the greatest claim on it. Sadly, here it is.

I'd never been to Helena, Arkansas, and it is just across the Mississippi from the north Delta. It seemed like as good a place to cruise to as any. It has a beautiful park built along the levees.Which is good, because downtown has fallen on some hard times.

I went back to spend the night in Clarksdale, where at the Ground Zero Blues Club I saw, among other things, a 14 year old white boy (he looked like a little surfer kid) named Jake, shred the hell out of blues guitar licks. That brought to mind the age old question of whether or not white people can play the blues. Far greater minds than mine have mulled this over and come to a wide variety of conclusions. I spent some time mulling it over, too, and I came to some of my own conclusions. I will blog about them, possibly tomorrow. But for the moment, this blog is plenty long enough.

I leave you with a picture of the northern part of the Natchez Trace highway. Just about 200 miles of my drive today, from Clarksdale to Nashville, looked just like this.