Monthly Archives: October 2015

Bouchercon 2015: Murder Under the Oaks – Raleigh, North Carolina

Author Pat Krapf Visits Bouchercon 2015As I type this week’s blog post, I am fresh off the plane from Raleigh, North Carolina, where I attended Bouchercon 2015. And I squeezed in a short working vacation to tour parts of the Carolinas and made a side trip to Tennessee to visit my alma mater—Lincoln Memorial University (LMU). More on the latter two in a moment.

What is Bouchercon? It was named in honor of writer, editor, and critic Anthony Boucher, whose real name was William Anthony Parker White, and is the world’s largest mystery convention. It is held annually between September and November in different cities throughout the US. In 2016 it will be in New Orleans, Louisiana from September 15th to the 18th. As the world’s finest crime fiction event, it attracts approximately 1,500 authors, publishers, fans, editors, reviewers, and booksellers to its four-day all-volunteer effort. Bouchercon is fan-driven and draws over 400 big-name authors, as well as those who will be big names tomorrow. The convention is an excellent opportunity to mingle with fellow writers and to sit in on informative panel discussions regarding just about any topic related to writing. There are also author signings and award ceremonies. No matter how many Bouchercons I have attended, I always walk away having gleaned something new, often something I can apply to make my craft stronger.

Biltmore HouseSince we planned to be in North Carolina for Bouchercon, we decided to extend our stay in the general area so I could visit LMU in Tennessee, and we both wanted to see Charleston, South Carolina. Our timing wasn’t the best after Hurricane Joaquin had brought torrential rains to the Southern state, but we were pleased to find minimal to no flooding everywhere we visited, even the beachfront along the South Carolina coastline. In Columbia, hardest hit by flooding, the waters were already receding, and Highway 26 from Columbia into Charleston had been reopened, as had the I-95, the main interstate linking the south to the north. We didn’t experience any detours or delays along the route we drove, only some minor roadwork—normal highway repairs or new construction.

Inn on the BiltmoreFrom Raleigh we drove to Asheville, North Carolina, where we stayed at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate. During this trip I intended to scout out new settings for a future Darcy McClain and Bullet thriller. While we enjoyed our stay on the grounds of the largest private estate in the US, a key attraction in Asheville, I haven’t decided if I will use the location for a future novel setting. The Biltmore home is a chateau-style mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895, and has the floor space of four acres. There are a total of 252 rooms, which includes thirty-three bedrooms, forty-three bathrooms, sixty-five fireplaces, and three kitchens. At one time, the home sat on 125,000 acres. Today the grounds stretch over 8,000 acres and are split by the massive French Broad River, which flows for 218 miles from North Carolina into Tennessee.

During our two-day stay in Asheville, we took a day trip to Harrogate, Tennessee, to tour LMU. I was excited at the idea of seeing my alma mater; it had been years since I had set foot on the campus. The two-hour drive seemed endless as we motored along the two-lane road that wound and twisted its way through a national forest. When the campus entrance finally came into view, I felt a certain sense of pride that I did not feel as a teenager the first time I set eyes on the town and the college grounds. Everyone I knew was enrolled in a “real university,” but there I was stuck in the remote mountain town of Harrogate on a campus of barely five hundred, a town with a gas station and a mini-mart and not much else.

We entered the campus from the north, not the main entrance, and parked in the first available space near the new student union. The day was crisp and clear and the mountain air clean, exactly as I had remembered those fall days as winter was about to close in. Such weather was the harbinger of feet and feet of snow soon to blanket once-verdant, undulating hills I wouldn’t see again until spring. We were gazing around us, deciding where to start our tour of the campus, when a man walked up and introduced himself as Chip Weisgerber, Vice President of Student and Enrollment Services. I proudly informed him I was an alumnus. He’d thought we were there for Homecoming. He offered to show us around, as the school had grown considerably, but I wanted to do a self-guided tour, to be alone with my memories. While Dave tagged along at a distance, I set out ahead of him.

The SanatoriumLMU is a private four-year liberal arts college. The thousand-acre campus borders the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. When I attended, the student body numbered less than five hundred. Today attendance exceeds four thousand, and the school has also opened a college of veterinary medicine and the DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, and in 2014 their law school received accreditation.

The plaque on “the Quad”In 1892, Alexander Arthur, an entrepreneur, spent millions building the Four Seasons Hotel, a seven-hundred-room structure that was the largest hotel in the US. It included a separate sanitarium that still stands today, as I was happy to see. I attended philosophy classes in the former sanitarium and remember well the hike up the steep grade to the building, especially in the winter. Not long after the hotel’s grand opening, came its demise. The details are described on a plaque posted on “the Quad.” All that remains of the lavish establishment is a stone wall displayed on the LMU campus near the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

In 1896, General Oliver O. Howard, who founded Howard University, and Cyrus Kehr, Howard’s agent, suggested Howard establish a university as a living memorial to President Abraham Lincoln. While on a lecture tour, Howard spoke at Harrow School, an elementary school at Cumberland Gap, founded years earlier by Reverend A. A. Myers. With the help of Howard and Kehr, Myers purchased the Four Seasons property, and Lincoln Memorial University was chartered on February 12, 1897—Lincoln’s eighty-eighth birthday.

Our next stop on our vacation was Charleston, South Carolina. On November 5th, I will go into detail about our visit to Charleston, a setting I do plan to use in a future Darcy McClain and Bullet thriller. In closing, today’s blog post is dedicated to my father, D. L. Myers Sr., who would have been ninety-two yesterday. His father’s family migrated from Clarksville, Tennessee, to Mobile, Alabama, in the early 1700s.

Next week: “Fort Moultrie: Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.”

Europe 2013: The Prado Museum – Madrid, Spain

 

Stained Glass Dome, Westin Palace, Madrid

Stained Glass Dome, Westin Palace, Madrid

Friday morning, I made a second pass through the breakfast buffet while Dave mapped out his must-see list for our visit to the Prado museum. Polishing off a croissant, I skimmed a short history of our hotel—The Westin Palace, Madrid. The building was commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912 and has an enormous stained glass dome that tops the regal structure. However, the hotel entrance was an understatement in comparison to the grandeur of the interior with its sweeping marble floors and ornate staircases. Dave’s sudden declaration that he had completed his Prado list broke into my idle musings. He ushered me through the lobby and out the front doors for the Museo Nacional del Prado. The current collection has around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints, and 8,200 drawings. We definitely had a lot to see.

The warm, morning sun felt good as we strolled to the corner and crossed the street to the museum, a mere five-minute walk from our hotel. Tickets in hand, we queued up, ready to go through security. From behind us, someone called out, “Hey, you two.” We turned to see the British couple we had met in Toledo, the day the four of us got lost trying to reach the railway station. We cleared security, exchanged a few pleasantries, and went our separate ways.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

For hours, we traipsed through what is unquestionably the largest and finest collection of European art. But in the third hour, I left Dave with El Greco, de Goya, and Titian and went in search of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). Like many who know the painting, I had been charmed by a child I had never met, as was Velázquez, the court painter commissioned to paint Margarita Theresa, the privileged daughter of Philip IV and Mariana of Austria. Always the center of attention, Margarita was destined, one day, to be an empress. In several of Velázquez’s paintings, she appears to revel in her appearance; the rich brocade gowns and elaborate hairdos were all mandatory fashion for any grand lady. As a child of the Spanish Habsburgs, she was betrothed to her maternal uncle and paternal cousin, Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. It was required that she maintain her succession to the Spanish throne and that her succession rights pass to her descendants. In 1665, the fifteen-year-old Margarita left Spain for Austria and was married in Vienna in 1666. Despite the couple’s eleven-year age difference, she and Leopold were supposedly very happy together, sharing a love of music and theater. Tragically, at the age of just twenty-one, Margarita Theresa died, debilitated after giving birth to four children and enduring many miscarriages. She is buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. Her only surviving child, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, gave birth to three children, all of whom died in childhood. Maria herself died at age twenty-three.

The Habsburgs were one of the most powerful dynasties of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, reigning over huge territories from the mountains in Switzerland to swaths of Austria, Hungary, Italy, France, and Spain, even controlling land from the Philippines to the Americas. But they maintained sovereignty by rarely marrying outside the dynasty. From 1516 to 1700, an estimated 80 percent of the marriages were consanguineous, or between close blood relatives. Most often, these unions were between first cousins, double first cousins, and uncles and nieces. As a direct result of this inbreeding, infant and child mortality rose 50 percent among the Spanish Habsburgs. In 1700, an entire dynasty of kings came to an end when Charles II of Spain died from a panoply of health defects. Physically disabled, mentally challenged, and disfigured, he died senile and plagued with epileptic seizures. He had two wives but no offspring. Of the thirty-four children born to the Spanish Habsburgs, half died before their tenth birthday and ten died before their first, most likely the result of generations of inbreeding. Could the same marital practices that built a powerful dynasty have also caused its demise?

Dwelling on this sad conclusion, I sought out the works of Hieronymus Bosch, who produced at least sixteen triptychs, of which eight are still fully intact. The Last Judgment, created after 1482, currently resides at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria. Having seen this triptych on a prior European visit, I was interested in viewing more of Bosch’s work. In the late sixteenth century, Philip II of Spain acquired many of Bosch’s paintings, so the Prado owns The Adoration of the Magi, The Garden of Earthly Delights, the tabletop painting of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, The Haywain Triptych, and The Stone Operation. Although Bosch signed several of his pieces, he dated very few. The Haywain Triptych dates back to around 1516, the date established by means of dendrochronological research. The Garden of Earthly Delights, dated between 1490 and 1510, is his best-known and most ambitious complete work. It has been housed in the Museo Nacional del Prado since 1939.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

From the triptychs, I moved to the piece I had come to see—The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, completed around 1500 or later. The oil-on-wood panels are a series of circular images—four small circles surround one large circle in which the seven deadly sins are depicted. In the center of the large circle is a pupil, possibly the eye of God. Below the image of Christ emerging from his tomb is the inscription Cave Cave Deus Videt (Beware, Beware, God Sees). The painting was intended as a deterrent to those who were tempted to engage in sinful acts. “Greed” depicts people being boiled in gold pots. In “Pride,” a demon holds a mirror for a vain woman. In “Wrath,” a man is about to murder a woman. “Gluttony” shows everyone eating or drinking more than their share. “Avarice” depicts taxpayers trying to squeeze more out of a hardworking man (or that’s my interpretation). “Envy” shows a man dressed in expensive white garments who appears to be the object of jealousy. “Sloth” depicts a nun standing and a woman sitting. Though greedy people were shown being boiled in gold pots, I wasn’t quite sure what the punishment was for the remaining six sins, and really had no idea what “Lust” depicted, until I did some research on Bosch’s work. In an article written by Sally A. Struthers, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Hieronymous Bosch,” she states, “Next Luxuria (Lust). Two pairs of lovers dawdle inside a tent. Outside a jester is beaten with a big spoon, in those times an emblem of illicit love. Musical instruments litter the foreground, illustrating the Flemish proverb that “music-making leads to love-making.”

But the four last things appeared to be pretty straightforward. “Death of a Sinner” shows a dying man receiving the last rites from a priest. In “Glory,” the saved enter heaven. In “Judgment,” angels are waking the dead, while Christ is shown in glory. Finally, in “Hell,” demons torment the sinners. What bothered me most about this work was not its subject but knowing that recent dendrochronological dating had revived the controversy that the painting was done by a student of Bosch, not Bosch himself.

Boating Lake at El Retiro

Boating Lake at El Retiro

I checked the time. I had agreed to meet Dave near another of my favorite artists, Albrecht Dürer. I fell in love with his work the first time I laid eyes on his self-portrait in the Louvre, Paris. Nearing the end of the fourth hour, my mind began to wander to things other than art, such as whether the Prado would be a good setting for a scene in a future Darcy McClain thriller. My imagination was running wild when Dave tapped me on the shoulder. I said goodbye to Dürer and accepted Dave’s suggestion of some shopping. I had just the place in mind—Lola Fonseca.

Lola’s small retail shop/workshop offers a variety of hand-painted silk scarves, foulards, shawls, and beautiful fans. We entered the store to find Lola at work hand-painting a turquoise silk scarf, her dog Lana sprawled on the floor. With Lola being friendly and not pressuring me to buy, I perused the scarves for a good twenty minutes before making my purchases. It was a tough decision with so many wonderful colors and designs to choose from.

Paella

Paella

After this brief shopping spree, we took a leisurely walk to Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat)—or simply El Retiro, as the locals refer to it. The park is one of the largest in Madrid and belonged to the Spanish monarchy until it opened to the public. We paused at the boating lake to snap photos of a few rowers enjoying the warm day and carried on to what I really wanted to see—Palacio de Cristal. The palace, modeled on London’s Crystal Palace, was designed by architect Ricardo Velásquez Bosco and made almost entirely of glass set in an iron framework on a stone base. It was built in 1887 to house exotic flora and fauna as part of an exhibition on the Philippines, which was still a Spanish colony. Today it is used for contemporary art exhibitions. Not far from the park, we spotted people sitting at tables under a grove of trees. As we drew closer, we noticed they were eating paella. We ordered one to share, as well as one icy cold beer. We didn’t want to spoil our appetites for dinner by eating too much that late in the day.

El Barrill de las Letras, a recommendation from our hotel concierge, was a good dinner choice. We started with clams on the half shell, followed by grilled octopus, grilled asparagus, and an order of sole “roasted in its skin.” To wash down our delicious seafood, we chose a good Spanish white wine. Full, we walked off the meal with a short stroll, then retired to our room to pack, for the next day we were flying back to the US.

Next week, I am taking a short break from blogging before I begin a new series of posts on October 22nd. These will focus on book and writing-related topics, as well as comment on and answer questions from my readers and blog subscribers.

Next week: “Boucheron 2015: Murder Under the Oaks – Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Europe 2013: Toledo, Spain – Part 2

Puente de Alcántara, Spain

Last week we visited Alcázar. Picking up from there, we left the castle and made our way to Toledo’s cathedral. The formal name of the French Gothic church is Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo. Construction on the white limestone structure began in 1227 on the site of a former mosque. The opulent, shimmering, gold interior is jaw-dropping: it’s laden with elaborate wrought iron work, lavish wood carvings, 750 five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows, and a spectacular gold high altar, not to mention eighteen El Greco masterpieces.

El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece

El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece

All around me tourists uttered the same word: “Wow.” The initial design had five naves and eighty-eight columns and measured 390 feet long by 196 feet wide. Over the centuries additions have been made to the original building. In the fourteenth century San Blas Chapel and a cloister were added, and construction on the towering altar in the main chapel began. It took six years to complete, and many famous sculptors worked on the five-story gold filigree structure. During the fifteenth century vaults were added and another chapel, for a total of seven today. But the most moving and stunning feature in the cathedral was El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece illuminated by a large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar. A second hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself allows sunlight to strike the tabernacle. The illumination is dazzling when the sun shines from the east, giving the impression that the whole altar is rising to heaven.

Catedral de Toledo, Spain - Large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar

Catedral de Toledo, Spain – Large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar

We stepped outside to blinding sunlight and made our way through the picturesque narrow streets to Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, the synagogue of “St. Mary the White,” The 1203 house of worship was designed and decorated by Mudéjar architects. The architectural style was a synthesis of techniques resulting from Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side and emerged during the twelfth century. The dominant characteristics are elaborate tile work, brickwork, wood and plaster carvings, and ornamental metals. To dress up walls and floors, Mudéjar architects used complicated tile patterns. Long after the Muslims were no longer employed as builders in Spain, their distinctive elements continued to be incorporated into Spanish architecture. Inside the synagogue the Moorish influence is obvious in lovely white horseshoe arches, capitals carved with vegetal motifs, and the contrasting dark red floors with decorative tiles. (In architecture, a capital is a “head,” the topmost section of a column or pilaster.) The synagogue has been used as a carpenter’s workshop, a store, a barracks, and a refuge for former prostitutes. Beautifully restored, today it is a museum.

Our next stop was El Tránsito Synagogue, a private family synagogue known for its rich polychrome stucco work, multi-foil arches, and a massive Mudéjar paneled ceiling with Arabic inscriptions intertwined in the floral patterns of the stucco panels. After the expulsion of the Jews from Toledo in 1492, the building was converted into a church.

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo, Spain

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo, Spain

We lunched on tapas at Mesón La Orza before we set out for the El Greco Museum, only to find it closed. We had no information about whether or not it would open that day, so we walked on to the Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes. The structure was built by Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I to commemorate their victory over the army of Alfonso V of Portugal in 1476, and they also planned to house their mausoleum there. However, after the reconquest of Granada in 1492, the Catholic monarchs chose to be buried in Capilla Real in Granada. The two-story Gothic monastery with its Plateresque stonework, a larch wood ceiling painted with the motifs and the coats of arms of the monarchs, and the peaceful cloister and garden were definitely worth the visit. I would have liked to linger a bit longer, but we had two more stops to make and had to hurry along to catch a train back to Madrid. But before we left, Dave had to show me something on the exterior of the monastery. Chains hung from on high, the remnants of leg irons worn by the Christians imprisoned by the Muslims. During the reconquest, the prisoners were freed, and the chains were hung on the monastery in 1494 to symbolize the triumph of Christianity.

Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

With only two hours left for sightseeing and still much to see, we both agreed we should have considered at least a two-day stay in Toledo and noted this for a future visit. Not rushing but not dawdling either, we headed toward the Puente de San Martín. Constructed in the late fourteenth century to provide access to the old town from the west, the bridge has five arches, heavy fortification with towers, and an impressive span of just over 130 feet. At that time, very few bridges in the world had reached that length. It complements the older Puente de Alcántara, which links the city to the east.

Our next stop was Puerta de Bisagra, the main gate to the old city of Toledo, a majestic stone gate built in the tenth century in the time of the taifa of Toledo. The taifa was a Muslim medieval kingdom located in central Spain in 1035 that endured until the Christian conquest in 1085. The gateway is actually two gates, the old one built by the Moors between the sixth and seventh centuries, and a new gate built in the sixteenth century. After photo snapping and a time check, we pressed on to our next destination.

Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz dates back to 999 and was built as a mosque known as Bab al-Mardum. It is the only surviving mosque of ten that once stood in Toledo. It has a square footprint that measures roughly twenty-six by twenty-nine feet. The facade is brick and decorated with a series of arches. The interior has open brick latticework and an arcade of blind horseshoe arches that support nine ribbed vaults, all of which have a unique geometric design. In 1186 when the mosque was converted into a chapel, a transept and a Mudéjar-style apse were added. The chapel derives its name from legend. When King Alfonso VI rode into Toledo in victory in 1085, he discovered that a candle, which had burned continuously behind the brick masonry for three and a half centuries of Muslim rule, was illuminating a statue of Christ concealed within the brick wall to prevent profanation.

Puente de Alcántara, Toledo, Spain

Puente de Alcántara, Toledo, Spain

Mindful of the time, Dave and I threaded our way through the quaint Toledo streets toward the Puente de Alcántara, an arched stone bridge built between 104 and 106 to span the Tagus River. So far we had avoided getting lost in Toledo, but that soon changed. The street we were on came to an abrupt end, and we had to loop back up the steep incline. Along our way a British couple stopped us to ask for directions. We really couldn’t help them, except to say that this street was not the way to the bridge. They too were in a hurry to reach the train station. “So let’s team up and rally on,” they said, and that’s precisely what we did until we bumped into a local. She gave us excellent directions, but not ones we wanted to hear. We had to hike another steep hill. We crested the rise only to discover that the bridge was nowhere in sight. We still had a ways to go. Eventually, the bridge came into view, and the four of us let out loud sighs. We finally entered the station and queued up. Neither we nor the British couple had purchased return tickets, and we were darn lucky to get the last four seats on the 5:00 p.m. train. The next available departure with any empty seats was at 9:00 p.m.

We arrived back at the Westin in time to shower and change for dinner at Lieu Restaurante for what would be a fabulous meal prepared by chef Daniele Scelza. The restaurant offered two prix fixe menus. I ordered one and Dave the other, along with the wine pairings. The meal began with test-tube cocktails and chorizo madeleines for two—gratis—followed by a transparent tomato ravioli with parmesan cream and basil for me, and for Dave a zucchini carpaccio: paper-thin slices of zucchini with a tangy citrus and herb drizzle. Next, I had an aerated gazpacho and Dave a potato-bacon pie with escargot in a beef sauce. So far everything had been superb, and we couldn’t wait for our mains—Dave had the lamb saddle with creamed sweet potatoes, and I chose black cod with olive oil, basil, tomato confit, and pumpkin puree. By the time dessert arrived, I had run out of superlatives. We shared an order of creamy chocolate with olive oil, brownies, and tiles of red wine granita; and an order of berries, cassis sorbet, and ginger chips, topped with a champagne foam. Both were palate-pleasing delights. A meal to remember, but unfortunately, from what I’ve read on the Internet, the restaurant has permanently closed.

Next week: “Europe 2013: The Prado Museum – Madrid, Spain.”