Word on the Street tomorrow!

WOTS 2018, with three Mesdames of Mayhem: Lynne Murphy, Cathy Dunphy and Sylvia Warsh in profile.

Tomorrow, Sept. 22, Toronto celebrates the written word at Word on the Street. The 30th annual literary festival will be held at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay West, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visit me from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Mesdames of Mayhem’s table, booth WB3 in the main Harbourfront building. And I’ll be at Crime Writers of Canada’s table, booth WB4, from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m.

More than 250 book and magazine exhibitors will be at Harbourfront. Admission is free!

Check out the WOTS website.

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Military Wives sound a high note at TIFF

Scrappy little comedy difficult to resist

Kristin Scott Thomas directs the choir in Military Wives.

My first day at Toronto’s International Film Festival, and the fest opened on high note with Military Wives, a film inspired by the real-life choirs formed by military spouses while their men are on deployment.

Military Wives‘ script is more than a little formulaic. One of the young wives turns out to have a huge singing talent. The film’s two leads, Kristin Scott Thomas—the biggest name in the movie—and Sharon Horgan, as rival choir mistresses, start off trading barbs, begin to develop a friendship, then completely lose it in a verbal cat fight in a parking lot. And there’s the predictable scene when one of the women receives the terrible news that her husband has been killed in combat. The other wives rally around her, and the result is the heartfelt song that the choir takes to London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Military Wives was directed by Peter Cattaneo, whose credits include The Fully Monty. Instead of unemployed steel workers stripping to make a living, this tale is about the spouses of service men trying to keep their spirits up on a soulless military base.

But in spite of its zero-to-hero storyline, Military Wives is a scrappy little comedy that is difficult to resist. Its dialogue rings true, it offers sparky little turns from supporting players, and Scott Thomas and Horgan’s performances make it sing.

Best of all, it respects the sacrifices that military spouses make for a cause that no character in the film seems interested in justifying.


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Woodstock 50 years later

The three days in 1969 that shaped my generation.
August 1969: 500,000 young people converged in a celebration of peace, music and love.

Fifty years ago this past weekend, Woodstock, the music festival that brought 500,000 young people together in a celebration of peace, music and love, was held at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 70 km southwest of Woodstock, N.Y.

I wasn’t there, although I certainly wanted to be. I was 18 years old and my parents wouldn’t hear of it. One of the great misses of my life!

This past weekend, tie-dyed, white-hair pilgrims converged at the generation-defining site to celebrate the 50th Woodstock anniversary. Arlo Guthrie returned to sing “Flying into Los Angeles.”

And Ed and I celebrated the three days that shaped our generation last night by watching Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock, which received the Academy Award for best documentary feature. The director’s cut, which we watched, ran just under four hours with plenty of performance footage.

Highlights are too many to do justice to, but a few of them are:

  • A young nun, in an opening scene, flashing the peace signal.
  • Kids lined up to call their parents at phone booths.
  • Richie Havens, sweat drenching hi shirt, belting out “Freedom.”
  • A young Joan Baez, her lovely face radiant, singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
  • Joe Cocker giving his all to “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
  • Sly and the Family Stone with “I Want to Take You Higher.”
  • Ten Years After, featuring Alvin Lee, with a blistering rendition of “I’m Going Home.”
  • And the famous finales by the late great Janis Joplin (“Work Me Lord”) and Jimi Hendrix (his brilliantly twisted version the “The Star-Spangled Banner”).

I’m afraid the time has come for watching events such as this from the comfort of our living room.

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Elvis still the King!

Elvis Presley died 42 years ago today at the age of 42.

Radio tributes to Elvis Presley on the 40th anniversary of his death two years ago brought to mind my long-ago trip to Memphis to cover the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s funeral for the Montreal Star. I was a young reporter, always on the lookout for a front-page story, and I had heard from a “source” that a Montreal travel agency had booked a charter flight to Memphis. The first few hundred Elvis fans who put their money down would travel to Memphis for the King’s funeral.

I was onto it at once. My editor approved my pitch, and I was at Dorval Airport early the next morning. My assignment was to report on the funeral – and the Montreal fans who had spent $165 each to say goodbye to their idol.

After a four-hour flight, we landed in Memphis. It was a scorcher of a day, but our travel provider had an air-conditioned bus waiting for us. We listened to Elvis songs as we toured Elvis sites in the city, inching our way through streets thronged with Elvis fans. We passed Graceland, the King’s home, and snapped photos, but the funeral there was for invited guests only. So we waited outside Forest Hill Cemetery, and saw the funeral procession enter the gates. Elvis’s casket arrived in a white hearse, followed by 17 white limousines. We waited while the casket was interred in the family vault, then watched the procession leave the cemetery. (Elvis’s remains were moved to a grave on the grounds of Graceland two months later, after a failed break-in by grave robbers.)

That was as close as we got to Elvis before we headed back to the airport, but his Montreal fans were ecstatic. “I can feel Elvis all around me,” one of them said as we drove past Graceland. “He lived and died in there.”

“If I died today, my life would be complete,” another told me.

My favourite was from a Memphis police officer doing crowd control outside the cemetery. He’d been a year behind Elvis at Humes High School, and had seen him perform at the school’s annual talent show in 1953. “He put a foot on a chair, strummed his guitar and sang his heart out. For me, that’s when rock ’n’ roll was born.”

Those memories wove themselves into my story “Farewell to the King,” a tale of four young women who travel to Memphis for Elvis’s funeral. The story is included in the short fiction collection In the Key of 13 to be released by Carrick Publishing in October.

Elvis Presley died 42 years ago today at the age of 42, after suffering a cardiac arrest. And more than four decades later, he is one of the world’s most profitable entertainers. Millions of people still buy his music and 500,000 fans visit Graceland every year to see where he lived, died and is buried. Elvis ranked No. 2 behind Michael Jackson on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid celebrities in 2018. The list, which is released every October, showed Elvis pulled in US$40 million last year.

Every year, fans from around the world gather in Memphis to mark the Aug. 16 anniversary of the King’s death. This year has been no different. Elvis Week 2019 opened on Aug. 9 and wraps up tomorrow. Events included tours of the Graceland mansion, a contest by Elvis tribute artists, an evening of reminisces by artists who shared the stage with Elvis, and an auction of his memorabilia. The highlight, as always, was the candlelight vigil. It drew tens of thousands to Graceland last night, the one night of the year fans can enter the gates free of charge, and it lasted well into this morning.

Think of it: all those fans and all the money they spend on his music, 42 years after his death. Elvis has been dead as long as he was alive.

Mai-Lei, one of the characters in “Farewell to the King,” put it this way: “There’ll never be another like him. Elvis was the King. He was ours.”

Elvis's hearse leaves Graceland on its way to Forest Hill Cemetery
Elvis’s hearse leaves Graceland on its way to Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis.
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Newfoundland: Icebergs, jellybean houses and moose farts


Iceberg off King’s Point, Newfoundland, in late July.

“When Canada joined Newfoundland in 1949…” The line is delivered as a joke today, but it reflects the tension in Newfoundland pending the decision to join Confederation. The referendum result was 52.3% to 47.7%, and in the capital of St. John’s on March 31, 1949, the day Newfoundland entered Confederation, black ties and black flags at half-mast signaled the end of hopes of many Newfoundlanders for an independent Newfoundland.

Over the years, I’ve met Newfoundlanders who had relocated to Alberta and Ontario for employment. Friendly, engaging people, all fiercely proud of their Newfoundland heritage. They made me eager to visit their province. Finally, this summer, Ed and I did that.

We landed in Deer Lake, spent two days in Corner Brook, then travelled up the Great Northern Peninsula to Gros Morne National Park. We walked across bog lands to Western Brook Pond where we took a cruise inside an ancient fjord carved by glaciers millennia ago. The village of Cow Head was our base in Gros Morne, and our window in the Shallow Bay Motel looked out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a chain of small islands in the near distance. Magical in the evenings!

Entering the fjord on Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park.

At St. Barbe, we took the passenger and car ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc-Sablon, Que., then travelled down the road to L’Anse-au-Clair, Labrador.  A beautiful, barren mountain landscape with huge boulders, ponds and yellow lichen on exposed rocks. Still some snow in late July in roadside ditches and in the hills. Red Bay Whaling Station, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a major Basque whaling site in the 16th and 17th centuries. Historians believe a decline in  whale stocks led to the abandonment of the station.

L’Anse aux Meadows is at the northernmost tip of the Great Northern Peninsula; the Vikings landed there 10 centuries ago. Archaeological evidence of a Norse presence was discovered in the 1960s, and L’Anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Norse site on mainland North America and it may have ties to Leif Erikson. The remains of eight wood-framed peat-turf  Norse buildings were uncovered during the evacuation of the site between 1961 and 1968. The buildings in the photo below are reconstructions of the Norse buildings; the originals have been reburied.

L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

Trinity, Newfoundland.

So much to see in Newfoundland. To the left is a shot of Trinity, a small town on Trinity Bay with beautifully restored fishing rooms and heritage saltbox houses. The buildings’ exteriors are all wooden; a law was passed forbidding aluminum siding. Since the cod moratorium in 1992 (the once-plentiful fish stocks had dwindled to near-extinction), many  fishing villages now focus on tourism.

Towns with whimsical names: Dildo, Heart’s Delight, Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Content. In Heart’s Content, also on Trinity Bay, we visited the Heart’s Content Cable Station, that served as the western terminus of the first permanent trans-oceanic submarine telegraph cable, with its sister station on Valentia Island, Ireland. The original cable was first brought ashore on July 27, 1866, and the station remained in use until it was closed in 1965.

And, of course, the capital and largest centre in the province, St. John’s. The city is the oldest post-Columbian European settlement in North America and has a magnificent, protected harbour. The Narrows, a long, narrow channel between the Southside and Signal hills, is the harbour’s only entrance and only 61 metres wide at its narrowest point. The city’s jellybean houses, the colourful row houses in the photo on the left, many of them on steep streets, give the city its distinctive character. They harken back to the time when houses throughout the province along the coast were brightly painted to make them visible to fishermen in foggy weather. The “tradition” was revived in the late 1970s to inject new life into a declining downtown. The row houses have become a symbol of St. John’s, shown in ads, on signs and replicated in souvenirs sold in gift shops.

Ed kisses the cod at our Screech-in ceremony. Kissing the cod is a Newfoundland tradition to welcome newcomers. Once the cod has been kissed, the newcomer is asked, “Is ye a Screecher?” The reply is, “Indeed I is, me old cock, and long may your big jib draw.” Then the newcomer drinks a shot of rum known as Screech.

Newfoundlanders do marvelous things with language. Here are some of their expressions, which mirror the Gaelic dialects spoken by early settlers:

“Whadda y’at?”

Translation: “What are you up to?”

“Where y’ longs to?”

Translation: Where are you from?

“Who knit ya?”

Translation: Who’s your mother/parents?

“I’m gutfounded. Fire up a scoff.”

Translation: I’m hungry. Make me some food.

And “Long may your big jib draw.”

Translation: May you have good fortune for a long time.

Humpback whale in Witless Bay. Photo by Tim McArthur.

And here’s a Newfoundland recipe I picked up: MOOSE FARTS, a confectionary not unlike chocolate truffles.

Ingredients: 1 can sweetened condensed milk, about 300 ml. 1/4 cup melted butter. 1 tsp vanilla. 1 1/2 cups of (each) dried coconut, graham cracker crumbs and chocolate chips.

Instructions: Melt butter and combine with condensed milk and vanilla extract until well blended. Add graham crumbs, coconut and chocolate chips. Mix to combine well. Refrigerate for an hour before rolling into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls into additional graham crumbs and chill until firm. Store in a sealed, refrigerated container.

View of St. John’s from Signal Hill. All photos by Ed Piwowarczyk unless otherwise noted.







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A cover to be proud of!

This is Sara Carrick’s fabulous cover for the Mesdames of Mayhem’s fourth crime fiction anthology, In the Key of 13, which will be released this fall by Carrick Publishing.

There are 19 stories in the collection, all on the theme of music. My story, “Farewell to the King,” is a homage to Elvis Presley. I got the idea for the piece two summers ago, on the 40th anniversary of the King’s death. The anniversary brought back memories of a trip I took to Memphis. I was assigned to cover the King’s funeral for the Montreal Star where I was working as a reporter. A group of us flew from Montreal to Memphis–for the day–where we joined thousands of mourners.

Ed Piwowarczyk  has just finished editing the collection, and now it goes into production.

The print launch will be on Saturday Oct. 26 at Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto.

Mark that date!

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Benny Cooperman’s author dies at 88

Howard Engel, one of the  giants of Canadian crime fiction, died earlier this week at the age of 88. Engel was the author of the much-loved Benny Cooperman mystery series and co-founder of Crime Writers of Canada.

Howard Engel

Benny Cooperman, the protagonist of Engel’s 14-novel series, is more Lieutenant Columbo than Mike Hammer. He’s a nice Jewish boy who runs a small detective agency in the sleepy town of Grantham. He doesn’t swear or carry a gun, and he’s squeamish about violence. (The fictional town of Grantham stands in for the real  St. Catharines, Ontario, where Engel was born and grew up.)

The late crime writer Eric Wright described Benny as “a sweet guy who’s found a job he likes…a kind of tidier. Benny likes things tidy, and he worries away at them.” In The Suicide Murders, Benny refuses to drop the case because, he says, “It didn’t add up. And things that don’t add up give me heartburn.”

Engel’s fiction is full of sharp dialogue and witty one-liners that play with the clichés of detective fiction: “She was the sort of woman that made you wish you’d taken an extra three minutes shaving”—The Suicide Murders.

A former CBC producer, Engel was well aware that sometime you have to break the rules of writing–such as the rule about avoiding clichés because they often capture timeless wisdom. And Engel makes clichés work for him; they are all suited to Benny’s character. The result is whimsy and wit, a clever use of the English language.

Engel said he was strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon).

He is also known for A Child’s Christmas in Scarborough, his parody of Dylan Thomas’s classic: “Whenever I remember Christmas as a child in Scarborough, I am again a boy among boys, riding our crash-barred, chrome-bedazzling bikes through the supermarket swing-doors, grabbing girls’ tuques and popsicles in the Mac’s Milk and diving with our arms spread to make angels in the snowbanks that the plows churned up.” It first aired as a monologue on CBC Radio, and was later published in print form by Key Porter Books.

Engel was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2007.


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