The launch of Snake Oil and Other Tales, my second collection of crime stories is this coming Saturday, November 4th at Sleuth of Baker Street Bookstore, 907 Millwood Road, Toronto.
The paperback edition of Snake Oil will be available for sale. Sleuth’s will always be happy to take your order, too.
I’d love to meet and chat with you in person. And do take the opportunity to browse Sleuth’s unrivaled collection of vintage mysteries and buy that book you’ve always been looking for.
With huge bears hug and thank you’s to my publisher and editor, Donna Carrick at Carrick Publishing; to Sara Carrick for her fabulous cover and to Marian Misters and J. D. Singh of Sleuth’s for hosting!
I’m excited to be part of Melissa’s kick-starter for her new Dr. Hope Sze mystery, Sugar and Vice, Book 3 of the Seven Deadly Sins series. Hope attends a festival that celebrates dragon boat racing and food, an unusual pairing made sinister by a warning that someone is about to die.
Read our interview here and do check out Melissa’s kick- starter here.
On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage 430 miles off the Newfoundland coast after colliding with an iceberg. Of the 2224 passengers and crew on board, more than 1500 died. To this day, it remains the deadliest sinking of an ocean liner or cruise ship.
I grew up hearing a lot about the Titanic disaster from my father, who claimed that he’d been taught dinghy sailing by the surviving First Mate. That might have been Charles Herbert Lightoller, who was actually the Titanic’s second officer.
Now my dad notoriously got facts wrong, so I can’t guarantee that his claim wasn’t pure wish-fantasy. But if Dad was indeed shown the ropes (literally) by Lightoller, he had reason to be proud, because Lightoller was a hero. He made sure that women and children got in the lifeboats first and managed to save his life and the lives of fellow crewmen by climbing on top of a capsized life boat and getting everyone to balance it. He went on to serve in the Royal Navy in WWI (twice decorated) and in WWII, while in his sixties, he sailed his personal yacht to rescue servicemen from Dunkirk!
The Titanic remained lost beneath the waves while I grew up. Excitingly, on September 1, 1985, a few days before my daughter was born, Admiral Robert Ballard and his team located the wreck, 12,000 feet down. They’d previously searched for two lost nuclear submarines and discovered that they had both imploded from the immense pressure of the water. Ballard located the submarines by their debris fields and this is how the Titanic, too, was located. (See map below.)
Rediscovered, the Titanic looked incredibly creepy. It had broken in half, as reported by many eye witnesses – and it had hit the ocean floor with immense force. We can related to objects falling through air; it’s a stretch to imagine an object as large as the Titanic falling through water with the consequent damage. Mercifully all biological materials, including human remains, had vanished. The iron hull, too, was dissolving due to deep-sea micro-organisms, resulting in eerie, melting rusticles.
I think it’s prophetic that my daughter, Claire, was born so close to the Titanic’s discovery. We share the same fascination with its story. Watching the documentary, Titanica, together at the Ontario Place Cinesphere is one of my cherished memories.
Titanica was a joint Russian-American expedition. (Remember those sunny days when shared economic prosperity promised to save the world?) We learned more about the immense pressures at depth and the perils of submersibles, including the hyper-oxygen atmosphere. Even more importantly we learned about technology-induced hubris. No one believed that the Titanic could sink: the number of lifeboats was reduced so as not to spoil its sleek look. The passenger list was crowded with names of the rich and famous. Sound familiar?
So what destroyed the Titanic? The ice berg did not rip a huge, entrail-spilling gash in its side. Rather it bumped the side of the ship, popping out the rivets to create a modest looking bulge that let in water. The design of the ship’s interior worked like an ice cube tray, allowing water to flow from one interior compartment to another, dragging it down.
Which brings me to the most recent Titanic disaster. On June 18. 2023, Oceangate’s Titan submersible was bringing billionaire, Shahzada Dawood and his son, Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet and adventurer, Hamish Harding, down to view the wreck. It imploded on descent, killing everyone on board in milliseconds.
The Titan was being piloted by OceanGate CEO, Stockton Rush, who had a history of flouting conventional designs and safety rules. The body of the submersible was carbon fibre, which, as any cyclist can tell you, is extremely light, strong…and brittle. One hairline crack would have been enough to cause the implosion. Also Rush did not equip the Titan with an emergency locator beacon and used an Atari (?) game controller to steer the vessel. (Really??) Criticisms of his design were dismissed as a “serious personal insult”.
When I studied industrial health and safety, I learned a concept called the Heinz Rule: how many close calls do you have before you get into a serious or fatal accident? The answer is surprising. Intuition says 3 or 4 times, but in fact, it’s more like 200 to 300 times. Small wonder Rush felt he was invulnerable and above mere mortals.
On January 13th, acclaimed British actor, Julian Sands, disappeared while hiking alone near Mt. Baldy, California The search for him resumed after the winter snows melted though deep patches still linger. Last week hikers stumbled across a set of human remains in the area where Sands’ cell phone last pinged, remains now confirmed to be his.
In Part One, I introduced Dr. Robert Koester, an expert on the behavior of people who get lost in the wilderness. Now, in Part 2, I’m recommending an excellent book about searching for missing people in the wild, The Cold Vanish, by Jon Billman.
Jon Billman, an athlete, creative writing teacher and contributor to famed Outside Magazine, uses his decades of personal experience in search and rescue to create a compelling and thought-provoking narrative on how and why people go missing in the wilds.
Billman shares representative cases of missing persons, from a runner murdered by a serial killer to deaths by falls, exposure and other misadventures to the miraculous rescue of a yoga teacher in the remote forests of Hawaii. And yes, she’d wandered off the beaten path and yes, she’d ended up many miles in the opposite direction from where logic dictated she’d be. She was spotted by mere chance by a search plane which, ironically, had also flown off course.
The overarching story that ties Billman’s book together is the case of Jacob Gray, a young man on a solo journey of self-discovery. Jacob was reported missing after his bicycle was discovered abandoned in Olympic National Park. Billman became close friends with Jacob’s father, Randy Gray, who spent years searching tirelessly for his son. Initially searchers feared that Jacob had fallen into a nearby fast-flowing river, but when divers came up empty, Randy and Billman together explored a gamut of wild possibilities, including Jacob’s joining a cult. In the end, Jacob is found, but no spoilers. Eat the book!
Missing people are located largely due to the efforts of volunteers. Billman introduces colorful characters who have made finding lost people their life mission: Duff, the blood hound handler; Michael Neiger, bushman and self-taught expert; and David Paulides, ex-cop and dedicated Bigfoot researcher.
Sadly many times the outcome is tragic. The classic scenario is that hikers or hunters stumble over the missing person’s skeletal remains, exactly the way Julian Sands was eventually found. Often it’s in a spot far from where the person initially disappeared.
The takeaways from Billman’s book reinforce Dr. Koester’s warnings: don’t stray off the main path, tell people where you are going and if you get lost, stay put! Best advice of all, don’t go out into the wilderness unprepared and alone.
I’m excited to announce that Carrick Publishing will be bringing out my new book, Snake Oil and Other Tales. Launch date is slated for October in keeping with the tradition of the Mesdames of Mayhem anthologies.
Snake Oil brings together ten of my stories and novellas published since the release of my first collection, Glow Grass and Other Tales, Carrick Publishing, 2016. Many of the stories were finalists for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence.
Stand by for the cover reveal by talented artist, Sara Carrick. I’m especially delighted by this one!
Once again I jumped onto my trusty old Trek hybrid bike to complete the 2023 Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 200+ km journey from Toronto to Hamilton to Niagara Falls. Feeling a bit exhausted this morning, but happy to be one of the 90 “Sweet Sixteeners”, cyclists who’ve done The Ride every year since it began in 2008.
For a few days, thanks to the forest fires and poor air quality in Toronto, it looked that the Ride might not happen at all. Fortunately, the weather turned in our favor with two days of rain before the start date of June 10th, which literally cleared the air.
Last year was the first “real world” Ride since COVID. Happily, this year participation numbers were back up to normal levels and together, riders raised $17.3 million. My donors were extremely generous, which spurred me on to complete what turned out to be an onerous journey due to (a) the weather (b) crowding and (c) significant route changes.
The biggest challenge on opening day was the heat: 30 degrees by the afternoon! Fortunately, a mild headwind and light cloud cover shielded us. I know from my running days how draining – and dangerous – heat can be. It’s vital to drink enough water and to replenish electrolytes through Gatorade, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to take in enough.
Training for the ride is essential and it’s easy to underestimate how much you need to do. Ride organizers urged participants to complete at least two 75 km rides. Given the routing this year, this was clearly inadequate for ordinary mortals.
Opening speeches were nicely delivered and not overlong. Efforts to prevent a bottleneck at the start worked well and I was off and riding faster than in previous years. As always, Lakeshore Blvd was closed to traffic, which got us out of the city quickly until we hit a glitch turning north onto the Queensway. Often in the past, I’ve grumbled about training in the city, dealing with rough roads and traffic, but this proved invaluable now while negotiating the next 40 km until we headed into the welcome countryside.
Lunch wasn’t served until the 75 km rest stop. Fortunately, my loyal roadcrew, Ed, brought Rahier sandwiches at the 50 km stop where I could refuel and rest up in relative calm. Little did I know what was awaiting me for the next 25 km!
Many years ago, the route had a long stretch of rather nasty hills. My buddy, Marci and I trained for these by doing several stretches of 80+ km rides in the hills north of Holland Marsh. For the past several years, route organizers have skirted this section for flatter countryside, but not this year. The hills were brutal, especially in the heat. From experience, I’d learned that conserving energy is vital to finishing a race, so I walked up several of the longer inclines.
I did wonder if perhaps I’d skimped a bit on my training until I ran into my friend, Della, from yoga class. Della is a super-strong cyclist who trains around windy Lake Simcoe. When she pronounced the hills “brutal”, too, I felt vindicated. We both envied Della’s friend who’d opted for the “Ride Express”, thus avoiding the hills altogether. The sweep vehicle / sag-wagon was pretty busy during the last half of the ride: beginners suffered.
Toward the end of the day came our reward: a glorious 3+km downhill into McMaster University. The route winds you through the campus, past the Phoenix Pub, Ed’s watering hole from student days and over the finish line to “camp” and a most welcome Steam Whistle beer!
Free food and lots of it: pulled pork and chicken, mac and cheese, lots of salads. Ed and I shared a plate after I parked my bike in the secure lot. Then home for a most welcome shower and sleep. I dozed off in the car while Ed fought through the weekend traffic.
We were up at 4:30 am, grabbing a quick breakfast and putting our cat on gravity feeders. The drive to Hamilton went smoothly with practically no traffic and I was on my bike off and riding shortly after the route opened at 6:30 am.
Much cooler temperatures were a relief as was the cloud cover. We glided through early morning Hamilton, though here, as in Toronto and later all through Niagara, the road surface was rough, pitted with hazards, especially for the super-skinny tires on modern bikes. Carbon fiber bikes are extremely light and fast, compared to old hybrids like mine, but they’re fragile. Bike breakdowns were common. In the past, several volunteers helped fix flats and did easy repairs, but I didn’t spot their friendly vehicles this time out.
Route organizers sent us to the top of the Niagara escarpment the familiar way, up a 7 km long bike trail with a very low uphill gradient. From there, the route headed into the countryside past vineyards, huge stone mansions, horse farms and the like. I was passing the derelict barn where last year I’d sheltered from a thunderstorm, when I felt the first few spots of rain.
I’ve done the Ride in the rain a few times. First, you go into denial. It’s just sprinkling, it’s not that bad. Then resignation, as you realize, it is not going to stop. Luckily I had with me the impermeable rain coat I’d bought from a Goderich bike shop – a life saver. Getting wet is uncomfortable, but the worst thing about rain is getting cold.
I pressed on and after an hour or so, the rain tapered off. In Jordan, I had deja vu all over again. The route goes right past our friends, Bill and Lynda’s house where they were cheering riders on. So great to see them! I took the opportunity to pack up my raincoat and drink some much needed Gatorade.
Bill was inspired by the new rule that allows electric bikes. He’s envisioning charging up the many batteries needed for the distance by pedaling a stationary bike!
I carried on and had a few animal encounters. I was charged by a squirrel and a large grey tabby cat and once again, praised my disc brakes. A short distance later, I ran into two Canada geese crossing the road. Those birds weren’t stopping for anyone. As I headed them off, they took wing and we nearly had a mid-air collision!
An unwelcome change to Day 2’s route happened hours before the event began: a 23 additional kilometres. Organizers claimed this extra mileage was beyond their control. Once again, the sag-wagon was busy as were the first-aid riders and ambulance pick-ups.
The new route did not pass my favorite apple orchard, but we did cross the drawbridge over the Welland Canal. I slogged through the distance, refueling with Starbucks goodies provided by Ed. There was once particularly evil hill, impossible to bike up and one which leaves you breathless even pushing your bike up to the top. I had to agree with the older gentleman cyclist beside me who said: “That hill was unnecessary.”
The route finally landed us on the banks of the Niagara River. In the past, this stretch was the reward for a journey well-pedaled, but honestly, by then, I was too tired, longing for the end. There was supposedly one last pitstop before the end, but if so, I missed it. Before I knew it, I passed under the arch at the finish line. What a relief to finish: 127.97 km, the most I’ve ever ridden in a day.
Sadly, the Steamwhistle people had run out of beer: the first time in 16 rides, so Ed and I settled for a free glass of wine instead. We chatted to a few fellow cyclists, including a young woman who’d done a scary header over her bike, but carried on nonetheless to finish. What commitment!
We headed home. Lots of tourists crowding Table Rock and the sidewalks along the Falls. The Horseshoe Falls were shrouded in mist and even the American side looked beautiful, much more water than normal. We drove through Niagara-on-the-Lake, which appears to be thriving, then fought through the horrendous traffic back home to tea, Rahier cookies and an early night.
Will I do the Ride again next year? Perhaps it’s time to let younger riders on new equipment take the field. The cause, of course, is wonderful and compelling…I will let you know.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with people who mysteriously disappear, especially those who get lost in the wilderness. On January 13th, British actor Julian Sands was reported missing by his family. Sands, an experienced hiker and mountaineer, had set out alone for the San Gabriel Mountains , 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles. He never returned. On January 18th his car was located near Mt. Baldy , one of his favorite trails.
Julian Sands is/was 65 years old and made his home in North Hollywood. His break-out role was in the British period piece, A Room with a View , which coincidentally starred Helena Bonham Carter as an ingenue -before she found her goth persona and her partner, Tim Burton. Sands continued to work in many diverse films and series, including The Killing Fields, The L Word, Smallville, 24 and even Dexter!
How could he simply disappear? How could a seasoned climber come to grief?
For answers, I looked to my friend, bear biologist, Sarah Poole. She told me about search and rescuer, Dr. Robert J. Koester, who’s an expert in understanding the behavior of lost people.
It is very easy to get lost. Dr. Koester describes a case of an experienced 65 year old hiker who had a habit of walking 80 steps from the trail for a washroom break. (That’s right, eighty not eight!) Her skeletal remains were found two years later.
Lost people DO tend to wander around in circles. People wander in random patterns and can travel great distances. They are often found far from the area where they were supposed to be.
Lost people tend to travel downhill rather uphill. People believe that down is safer and that they will be more likely to find help there. Sadly that is not necessarily true.
People get lost by making a mistake. At first, they believe their instruments or maps are faulty so they can travel a significant distance before they realize they are lost.
People get an adrenalin rush when they discover they are lost. This is a normal physiological response. The worst thing one can do is to panic. The first thing to do is to calm down; a simple drink of water can be enough.
So what happened to Julian Sands? The San Gabriel Mountains are about an hour’s drive from LA, stretching between the city and the Mohave Desert. Winters are wet and snowfall can be heavy. Ice-climbing and snow trails are popular with mountaineers and Baldy Bowl is a favorite. This is where Sands was headed.
Mt. Baldy’s real name is Mt. San Antonio. At over 10,000 feet, it’s the highest peak in the mountain range. Winter climbing on the Baldy Bowl requires ice axes and crampons with ascents of 45 to 50 degrees. Rockfalls and avalanches are common. This January severe storms in the area led to extremely dangerous avalanche conditions and search and rescue operations had to be curtailed. Julian Sands remains missing.
Not long after, a number of bogus reports surfaced, claiming that Sands had been spotted alive and well. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario, born of romanticism and desperate hope – and perhaps too much bingeing on Netflix.
One hiker, 75 year old Jin Chung, was rescued from Mt. Baldy around the same time after he went missing for two days. He’d gone off on his own leaving his two hiking companions on another route. Fortunately, after they alerted search and rescue, Chung was found with only mild injuries.
As Dr. Koester warns hikers: tell people where you are going; take emergency survival supplies with you and never hike alone.
Time and its winged chariot and all that…hard to believe that this year’s Ride to Conquer Cancer was my 15th straight ride. And it’s thanks to your support, dear friends, that I’ve been able to maintain this streak!
According to stats provided by the organizers, there are 90 riders in the 15 year group, less that 1% of the estimated 40,000 participants. Certainly the Ride treated us very well, beginning with a free “diamond” helmet.
Because of COVID, the Ride’s past two years went virtual, which meant I’d been taking it easy, doing 200 km in four 50 km segments in the week before our designated weekend. Back in the Real World though The Ride was 100+ km each day over the weekend of June 11/12. I had work to do to get back in shape!
First the good news: I had a great training buddy, Peg, an old running friend who wanted to cross The Ride off her bucket list. Now for the bad news: she’s a machine. Not only is she a super-fast runner, she’s a veteran of quadrathons where you run, swim, bike and kayak. ARGH! Needless to say, trying to keep up was agony, if not impossible, but it got me back on track!
June so far had offered up perfect training weather but predictions for June 11/12 looked dire. Two days of rain back-to-back? Mind you, I have done The Ride in the rain though it was only one day. And I did get drenched despite my then rain jacket. Wisely, as it turned out, I bought a new, truly impermeable jacket.
Day 1 of The Ride dawned…stormy. All the 15-year vets gathered on the steps of Princess Margaret for a group photo.
We then rode in a peloton down to the starting line at Exhibition park. That added 7 km to the 103 km distance to Hamilton, but so what? Totally worth it to be part of such a wonderful group of people.
Day 1 went smoothly. The rain held off except for a few sprinkles though the skies did look unsettled for the whole journey. The route has improved a lot since 2008: fewer hills, excellent signage alerting you to hazards, traffic police stationed at busy intersections. But The Ride still owes a lot to its intrepid volunteers who man the rest stations and who sweep the route in cars or on motorbikes to fix broken-down bikes, get riders medical help and even to pick up the exhausted ones and their bikes.
The route ended with a fab 5 km downhill zoom into McMaster University where the 15 yr vets had another treat waiting: champagne and nibbles reception at the PMH / KPMG tent. Ed, my faithful road crew every single year, I indulged! Great to connect with fellow riders. I especially love this guy’s shirt BTW.
Day One was the easy one, Day Two was…not! At 6:30 am, I retrieved my bike from safekeeping and hit the road for Niagara Falls. There’s a long climb up onto the escarpment, a low gradient bike trail 7 kilometres straight up. It’s a doable grind with a spectacular view at the top. I could see across the lake all the way to Toronto – and the storm clouds gathering overhead.
The rain started – with determination. I’d stopped by the side of the road to pull on my new rain jacket when a fellow rider hailed me. She’d taken shelter under the eaves of an old barn. The weather app on her phone showed a rapidly approaching thunderstorm.
As I made my way over, the heavens opened. In the ensuing downpour, our shelter was rapidly filled up by storm-tossed riders. Crowded in like the Tokyo subway, we waited for the thunderstorm to pass.
As the rain eased up, I set out, having ridden in wet conditions before. Soon I discovered that the helpful vents in the side of my jacket didn’t keep out serious rain. Oh, well. Ed brought me hot Starbucks coffee at the next rest stop. He got several cash offers for it from other riders!
But the rain hid something wonderful. As I passed through Jordan, I spotted our friends, Bill and Lynda, standing by the road. Turns out that this year, the route passed right by their house! They’d braved the storm and gotten soaked to cheer me on – I couldn’t believe it! We hugged and cheered – and then I was back on the road.
The rain continued sporadically as I rode through the farms and vineyards of Niagara. Though flat, this point in the journey can feel endless. I marked off the Thorold drawbridge, the town of Pelham and at long last the Niagara River. Amazingly, people have docks and boats that close to The Falls!
During the last stretch to the finish line, I chatted to another 15 yr rider who, due to back issues, has done the distance every year on a recumbent bike. And I thought my 120 km were hard work. Great to cross the finish line.
More great surprises: I ran into my yoga buddy, Della and her riding partner, also veteran riders!
So how did my training buddy, Peg, make out? Well, I saw her at the start of the ride on Day One and then didn’t see her again. We kept missing each other because she was leagues ahead of me. We celebrated our successful Rides a few days later at The Granite Brewery – out of the rain!
Best of all, this year 3700 riders raised $16 million for cancer research at the Princess Margaret Hospital. In 15 years, The Ride has raised $250 million to fight cancer, the most successful charity fund raiser in Canada’s history!