Canada has a new national mystery conference, The Maple Leaf Mystery Conference to be held May 24 to 28, 2022. The conference is virtual in 2022 – and if COVID cooperates, it’ll become a Real World event in 2023.
MLMC offers a wonderful opportunity to meet two masters of crime fiction whose work has led to two internationally famous TV series: Maureen Jennings, author of the Inspector Murdoch series and Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus. Readers can also watch leading Canadian crime writers on panels. Here’s the tentative schedule.
I am an intrepid armchair adventurer. One of my earliest memories is listening to a report that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had summited Mt. Everest - on the radio. (Yes, I'm that O-L-D.)
Mt. Everest has fascinated me all my life. I devoured John Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, about the notorious 1996 climbing disaster and became a long-time subscriber to Outside Magazine. In 1997, my daughter and I heard Krakauer speak at OISE about another of his books, Into the Wild. He changed our thinking forever.
Into the Wild is the story of 19 year old Christopher McCandless, who, disillusioned by modern life, turned to a nomadic existence and changed his name to Alex Supertramp. He ended up dying in an abandoned school bus in Denali National Park, Alaska after a failed attempt to live off the land. Before I would have written off McCandless as a victim of misadventure (he ate a poisonous plant), but Krakauer illuminated his tragedy. Nature isn't a gentle spiritual healer: nature just is.
When Amazon recommended, Lost in Valley of Death by Harley Rustad, it took me a whole two seconds to buy it. Rustad's book struck me as a fusion of Into the Wild and The Cold Vanish, a gripping collection of true stories about people who'd vanished in the wilderness by a search-and-rescue expert, Jon Billman,
Rustad, like Krakauer and Billman, is a writer for Outside Magazine which values excellence in non-fiction writing. Even better, he's Canadian!
His beautifully written and meticulously researched book examines the tragic life of another lost soul, Justin Alexander Shetler, who vanished in India's Parvati Valley or the "Backpackers Bermuda Triangle". There are definite similarities between McCandless and Shetler, but at age 35, Shetler was older and more experienced and what happened to him underscores the downside of living in the digital age.
The Parvati Valley lies in Northern India in the Himalayan Mountains. This remote and rugged region is a spiritual destination for Sikh and Hindu pilgrims: legend has it that Shiva, the Destroyer God, meditated there for 3000 years. What is also true is that the valley is a source of potent black hash. Though marihuana and hash are illegal in India, local authorities turn a blind eye to its use, at least by the locals. Not only do the police lack the resources for enforcement, the hash brings in Western tourists and significant economic benefits to the area. The Western search for spiritual enlightenment is big business.
Several travelers go missing every year in the Parvati Valley. Some disappear intentionally and reside there illegally before being discovered and deported. Others are victims of hiking accidents or fall afoul of bandits and/or drug dealers. The ferocious rapids of the Parvati River ensure that the bodies of the disappeared are rarely recovered.
Shetler was far from being a wide-eyed tourist. He'd travelled throughout Asia and made many friends there. An accomplished nature guide and tough survivalist, he'd survived the break-up of his parents' marriage, sexual abuse and a near-fatal car accident. A keen, deep-set spiritual void turned him into a nomad, constantly seeking fulfillment from the world around him. He assumed and shed many identities in his short life: environmentalist, Buddhist monk, IT entrepreneur, motorcycle rider and sadhu disciple.
His emptiness was fueled by an obsession to document his adventures on social media. Far from healing him, the pressing demand for content from his followers let the demons of marketing invade his soul. He became a brand in pursuit of an identity. Perhaps this desperation is why he resorted to buying and selling hash to finance his spiritual journey and to trusting the wrong people.
Rustad's book is a cautionary tale for those who fail to understand what Western tourists represent to an impoverished population. And a warning that even the mightiest man may be slain by one arrow.
RATING: 5 STARS!!
I was delighted when author friend, Sam Wiebe, announced his latest Dave Wakeland thriller, Hell and Gone, the third in the series about the introspective Vancouver private investigator (Harbour Publishing).
The first two Wakeland books were stand-outs: Invisible Deadwas a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award and Cut You Down was short-listed for both the Hammett and Shamus awards. But Hell and Gone is the best Wakeland novel yet!
The book opens with a harrowing robbery and shoot-out, one of the most gripping action sequences I’ve read in recent memory. Wakeland witnesses the crime, tries unsuccessfully to help the victims and struggles with PTSD as a result. He’s determined to bring down the perpetrators, but this puts him in conflict with his business partner, Jeff Chen.
Hell and Gone focuses on Jeff, who up till now was more Wakeland’s foil: the moral, stable, non-violent half of the partnership. Sam delves into the intricate historical ties to crime in Vancouver’s Chinese community and the traps that can befall the modern generation of business owners like Jeff. His portrayal of Wakeland’s PTSD is especially believable.
The plot offers enough twists and betrayals to rival Dashiell Hammett himself. (Sorry no spoilers!) You’ll stay up all night to get to the last page.
And for emerging writers, I highly recommend Sam’s online Mystery Writing Mastery courses. The 14 beginner’s lessons are free.
Happy to announce that my flash story , “Incompetence Kills”, is reprinted in the 2021 BOULD Anthology. which also includes “Family Values” by my friend and fellow Mme, Sylvia Warsh. BOULD is an acronym for Bizarre, Outrageous, Unfettered, Limitless and Daring.
The BOULD Contest was created in 2018 by thriller author, Jake Devlin who loves the off-beat. He encourages authors to send him that story they were unpleasantly surprised to find within themselves and too embarrassed to place anywhere. Winners get a small cash prize. (Spoiler – you won’t get rich!)
Jake only asks that stories be short, usually under 1500 words. Reprints are OK. Submissions open Jan 1, 2022. Check out the guidelines here.
BOULD has taken off. When Jake published his first anthology, he had roughly 20 stories. He aimed to find 100 acceptable tales this year – and succeeded.
Surprisingly the winning stories of the contest aren’t lurid. They stray more into the realm of SF or fantasy and offer a complete story in fewer words. One winning story I especially enjoyed was by fellow Canadian Steve Shrott. His story featured a gorilla NOT as the murderer in Rue Morgue (spoiler alert) but as the detective’s smarter assistant. Love to see more of those!
Our cottage, like nature itself, suffers waves of infestations. At one time, a neon-green grass thrived under the pine trees. We called it “glow grass”. It was the only plant I’ve encountered that grew unrestrained in soil rendered acidic by pine needles. This fascinating weed inspired my thriller, Glow Grass, a finalist for the CWC Best Novella award.
Our glow grass has vanished in recent years. The tall trees and thick bush plus the wet summer created a dark moist environment conducive to…mushrooms!
Looking out our bedroom window I spotted orange dots all over the grass. What a pretty autumn flower, I thought. Venturing outside I found a fairy ring of strange yellow mushrooms.
Ee-yuck! I am not a mushroom fan. As a child, I was warned over and over that all mushrooms were deadly poisonous. These yellow guys did not look at all like the benign grocery kind.
Thanks to the Fount-of-all-Knowledge, i.e. the internet, our daughter identified them as most likely Amanita flavoconia or “yellow dust” mushrooms, which are common in the northeast American states. And yes, they are TOXIC. Great.
Amanita…why did that name sound familiar? Because it sounded like the biological name for the Destroying Angel, or Amanita bisporigera, one of the deadliest mushrooms around! These nasty little buggers can mimic the benign and tasty puffball in their early stage before they blossom out into the parasol shape in the picture.
They contain a poison called amatoxin, which interferes with messenger-RNA and causes irreversible liver and kidney damage within hours. As little as half a mushroom cap is fatal. Victims have been saved by intensive medical intervention which included hemodialysis, swallowing activated charcoal and IV penicillin. Some medical evidence suggests that extracts from the milk thistle may work as an antidote because they destroy liver toxins.
Better to know and avoid! But let’s not stop there.
At the age of 8, I lived with my grandmother in Sweden for nearly 18 months. My uncle, Robert Syk, a polymath, who had successful careers as a architect, musician and literary author, had a passion for mushroom picking. (A popular pastime in Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic countries.) On walks through the woods on Muskön (Musk Island), he taught my cousins and me which ones were safe to bring home and eat – and more importantly – which were not. The most dangerous mushrooms he showed us was the deadly toadstool, otherwise known as Amanita muscaria or the fly agaric.
Swedes have a thing for toadstools which show up in pictures, design images even as Christmas decorations – no doubt due to their beautiful red and white polka dot motif. Many years later I read that Russians actually EAT toadstools. Boiling them twice weakens their toxicity and removes their psychoactive properties. I guess those long winters are pretty harsh and when you’re looking at starvation but …holy ergot!
Yes, readers, it turns out that the fly agaric has hallucinogenic properties, much prized as an entheogen by the indigenous people of Siberia and the Sami, the Arctic people of Scandinavia. In other words, to open Huxley’s spiritual doors of perception.
Argh! Do not eat!
The orange mushroom infestation exploded over the weekend, sprouting up all over our grass made swampy by the heavy September rains. Fortunately by Thanksgiving, they were gone. What next, I wonder.
The 2021 Virtual Ride to Conquer Cancer took place over two days, the August 28-29th weekend. For Ride #4, my final pledge ride, I picked Saturday, August 28th, mostly because my parents got married on that date in 1943, nearly 80 years ago!
Ed snapped this pic of me as I headed out, wearing my yellow Ambassador’s jersey. The weather looked cloudy and unsettled so I skipped the opening speeches on YouTube to beat the heat.
I rode east to Bayview and turned south, treating myself to a 1 km downhill zoom to the Don Valley bike trail that runs parallel to the Bayview Extension – an easy ride past the Brickworks and Rosedale Valley Road to River Street.
Thanks to COVID, the City has made the tail end of Bayview Extension one way and carved off half a lane for a new bike path. That deposited me squarely into the Canary District and the corporate art therein.
A moment of nostalgia for the super-techs at Gears Bike Store: they fixed my flat in 15 minutes during the 2020 virtual Ride. They’ve now relocated north to King St. The Canary District looked deserted: not the eastern twin of overbuilt Liberty Village…yet.
I decided to take the lakeshore trail to stay out of traffic and use the headwind to ward off the promised heat.
Passing under the Gardiner Expressway, I took in the gallery of street art.
Once again, it was a fast ride with the west wind behind me. The lake looked spectacular though the rain clouds did look ominous.
Few people were out this morning. I passed the occasional dog walker and happily connected and chatted with a fellow Rider who was doing her third Ride. By the time I reached the Distillery District for my usual Balzac’s break, I was almost exactly halfway done. Waiting for Ed to drive down to join me, I found some neat things: the original shoreline of Lake Ontario memorialized and the LOVE sculpture.
Pledging eternal love by using a padlock originated in Europe in the early 2000s even though the origin is sad. During WWI a young Serbian woman fell in love with a soldier and they put a padlock on the Bridge of Love. He left her for another and she died of heartbreak.
Not a great recommendation but since 2000, lovers have placed locks on bridges and fences throughout the world. In Paris, the Pont des Arts was so overloaded that in 2014 part of its parapet collapsed. Cities now routinely remove these padlocks. Some, taking a more positive route, invite people to create sculptures like LOVE above. Read more about love locks here.
After coffee, I cycled out along the Lakeshore bike path to my usual turnaround point at the Humber Bridge and Palace Pier.
On the bridge, I met and chatted with a team of fellow riders, all wearing yellow jerseys. They all work for the same software company and were riding for the father of the young woman with them. A heartfelt moment and reminder of why we ride.
On the way back, I began to feel the heat, but luckily I was nearing the end of the journey. I turned up Bay Street and kept to the lane reserved for bikes, cabs and buses. I played chicken with three buses all the way up to Belmont Street. With relief, I turned right and from there went north onto Yonge St.
Once again, thanks to COVID, the City has installed a bike lane up Yonge St. starting at Bloor St. It was the fastest way home for me though it did mean two thigh-burning climbs between Summerhill and St. Clair Ave.
Happily when I passed the Summerhill clock tower, I hit the 50 km mark! After I reached St. Clair, I had a quick pedal through the calm of Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, said hello to the boys and arrived home in time for lunch. Total distance: 53.422 km!!
This was my 14th Ride. Did I sign up for next year? Of course, I did. Who could say no to a pair of stylish socks like these?
Apparently only 64 riders have done the Toronto Ride every single year since the inaugural one in 2008. I’m one of them!
On to training for 2022 and big hugs and many, many thanks for your wonderful support of cancer research at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Here at last is my blog on Ride #3. (Spoiler alert: I did successfully complete my four pledged rides for a total of 200 km!)
Tuesday, August 24th I headed west to the Humber River one of my favorite trails. Getting there from mid-town Toronto unfortunately requires a hair-raising pedal through traffic. I started out early to beat the promised scorching heat. The first few kilometers were along the cool shade of the Beltline trail.
The Beltline trail follows the path of a commuter railway that opened in 1892. It never turned a profit and only lasted two years. For almost a century afterwards Torontonians wrangled over how to use the land until David Crombie, Toronto’s tiny perfect mayor, turned it into a bike path. (If you’re having a sleepless night, you can read the detailed history of bureaucracy and indecision here. )
As a runner, I was familiar with the Kay Gardner section that runs from Mt. Pleasant Cemetery to the Allen Expressway. There my buddies and I would literally “hit the wall” before looping back, 11 km roundtrip from the Pearly Gates on Bayview. I ran across the York section west of Allen Road purely by accident, actually coming east from the Humber. The access from the west is well hidden down a narrow sidewalk past an auto bodyshop and as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy would say behind the sign saying “Beware of the leopard”.
The York Trail is belied by the overgrown entrance. It’s actually quite exposed and bland, running as many rec trails do, under a set of hydro wires and pylons. But behind a set of industrial buildings, there’s some neat street art.
At the end of the Beltline, I pedal back along Bowie to Montgomery and cut through Prospect Cemetery, which bears a striking resemblance to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, which is hardly surprising since they were designed by the same people. Prospect is bigger than Mt. Pleasant, consisting of three pleasantly green sections to ride through despite a steep climb midway.
You might think that Prospect provides a lengthy stretch in which to contemplate one’s own mortality, but death is far more imminent on the next part of my route which follows St. Clair Avenue west until it ends at Scarlett Street.
There are no – and I mean NO – accommodations for cyclists along busy St. Clair. Stay alert, stay alive. I watch for car doors opening, street car tracks and open air patios that have narrowed the thoroughfare to one lane. In some sections, I beat a retreat to the sidewalk. Better to be humbled into walking with pedestrians than blending in with the traffic in a grisly way.
I’m much relieved to turn onto Scarlett Street and its bike path. It’s a speedy downhill ride for the most part to the quiet refuge of the Humber River trails.
The northern parts of the trail are wilder and susceptible to flooding. One spring, a cycling team mate and I watched an enormous snapping turtle swim across our path.
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck Toronto with winds of 115 km/hr. The Humber, Don and Rouge Rivers overflowed and killed 81 people, destroying nearly 2000 homes. After this disaster, Toronto no longer builds on floodplains and developed an early warning weather system. Today though the trail is dry. I say hello to the few hikers and wave to the kids at a bike camp.
The Humber Trail has a general downgrade interspersed with some short steep hills. Long sections are being rebuilt in the section north of Old Mill Road. I’m glad that my trusty bike is a hybrid and that Ed pumped up my tires as I negotiate the gravel and mud.
South of Old Mill, the trail gets challenging with two heart thumper climbs out of the valley. There’s a short section that detours through city streets before I reach my midway point and the last part of the Humber trail.
It’s now a downhill zoom through a wood and field flowers. One of my fav features along the trail is the Oculus, a UFO-inspired 1950s pavilion designed by British architect, Alan Crossley, and engineer, Laurence Cazaly. Over the years, Oculus had been defaced by tag graffiti and the City considered demolishing it. Happily, in 2019, it was saved. It’s now an art installation complete with alien graphics. (See pics below.)
At the pedestrian bridge by Palace Pier, I turn east for the 15 km journey along the lake shore. I pass a kid-friendly dinosaur playground. Along the way I pass one of Toronto’s saddest ghost bicycles, a memorial to a 5 year old boy killed when he fell into Lake Shore traffic.
It’s full sun by now and 30+ degrees. Too hot even for biking. No free Perrier today at Ontario Place. At Balzacs in the Distillery District, I treat myself to an iced coffee before taking my usual route home: up Sherbourne through Summerhill and Mt. Pleasant cemetery.
Home at last and my third pledged 50 km ride is done
Ride #2 completed! Today Ed persuaded me to put on my 2021 Ambassador’s jersey ahead of the official virtual ride date. One way to tell the world about The Ride to Conquer Cancer, so I did.
Because of the weather forecast for August 20th – full sun and soaring temperatures of 30+ degrees – I opted for the shadiest and coolest bike routes through the Don Valley and along the lake.
I headed down early into Sunnybrook. This morning I chose the Serena Gundy entrance just east of Laird Avenue, a narrow steep hill that swings down through some pretty parkland that’s a favorite of day camps. A scary metal grid bridge crosses the West Don before dumping cyclists out between two huge boulders into a parking lot.
The park was donated by James Gundy, one of the founders of Wood Gundy, in memory of his late wife, Serena. WG used to be one of Canada’s biggest stock brokerage firms before CIBC absorbed it in 1988. When I first entered the finance biz, the principle of “The Four Pillars” was sacrosanct. Banks, stock brokerages, insurance and, I believe, credit unions operated in separate silos to protect customers. However, the Four Pillars vanished in 1980s. Now banks sell you stocks and insurance. Thirty years later our financial world, fingers crossed, has not collapsed.
At The Teeth and Tout Est Possible, I turned right and headed onto the North Don Valley trail for 5 km. This is one of my favorite trails, sheltered, well-paved and mostly downgrade. The Don River seems tame, but it can get wild in spring to the delight of kayakers. it’s also burst its bank and flooded roads many times.
I’ve encountered plenty of small wild life here – even a deer once! Today I noticed a group of people gathered around… a skunk!Luckily it wasn’t mad.
I crossed over Pottery Road onto the South Don Valley trail, which has lots of neat artwork along the way. Sadly during COVID, many of the official Toronto Street Art murals have been obliterated by tags. See below:
Halfway along, I encountered several trucks, workmen and assorted equipment blocking the route. They were obliterating the graffiti tags with a smooth cement coating. This doesn’t work. The punks love it. The cement leaves an empty canvas for, you guessed it, more tags.
The gargoyle garden is happily not damaged, but at the end of the trail, several of my favorites are.
I met Ed at the Distillery District for a coffee at Balzac’s. Life feels almost normal on summer day.
Now that craft beers taken over, artisans are taking up custom spirits, too. We spotted this interesting entrance. Wouldn’t it make a great location for Noir at the Bar?
Temperatures stayed manageable by the lake. I headed west along Queen’s Quay and the Martin Goodman trail, marking my midway point at the Windmill by Exhibition Place.
It’s a 30 km loop along the lakeshore trail from the Distillery District to the Humber River and back. I passed several landmarks: Sunnyside Beach, the Ex and Marilyn Bell park.
On September 9, 1954, Marilyn Bell, at only 16 years of age, became the first person to swim Lake Ontario. Entering the water at Youngstown, New York, she fought through lamprey eels, hypothermia, oil spills and high waves to land close to Sunnyside 21 hours later. Winds and currents blew her off course so that she actually swam 72 km instead of the planned 51.5 km. She’s a true hero who inspired many marathon swimmers, including Vicki Keith, the lady of all five Great Lakes.
To learn more about these remarkable women and the unusual sport of marathon swimming, I recommend my friend, Laura E. Young’s book, Solo Yet Never Alone. Marilyn Bell retired at only 18 after swimming the Straits of Juan de Fuca. She chose to lead her own life, married and became a teacher, mother and grandmother. Now 83, she lives in a retirement home in New York State. Despite a spinal injury, she still swims!
On my way back from Palace Pier, I stopped to look at the lake. Lots of sailing boats out with both blue and white sails. As a child, learning to sail with my dad, my dream was to own a wood-hulled Dragon with blue sails. It’s now a vintage sail boat with its own fans and niche regattas.
When I passed by the inukshuk, I got lucky. Perrier had set up a pop-up / guerilla marketing booth handing out ice-cold cans of a new product to cyclists: Perrier water flavored with fruit and laced with Yerba Mate. Free caffeine! Just what I needed.
It’s remarkable how much the waterfront has changed in the past 10 years. In 2008, the Redpath sugar refinery was easily the largest of the few buildings along the eastern part of Queen’s Quay.
Today I had a hard time finding it, dwarfed and hemmed in by several monolithic condo towers. Even the sign to the Redpath museum looked dusty. It’s no longer Redpath and no longer a Canadian company. The caramel tang of melting sugar is overwhelmingly strong. Wonder what the condo dwellers make of it?
I pedaled over to lower Sherbourne and took the bike lane for the fastest way home: up through Rosedale, Moore Park and Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. I was happy that my calculations were correct as it was getting too hot even to bike.