The Penguin Pericles

Look what I've got!

Coming to Australian bookstores real soon now.


Update: the Oz release date is officially Tuesday, 4th January.

The page 69 test

The Page 69 test is a fascinating idea by Marshal Zeringue. Is page 69 representative of the rest of the book? Would a reader skimming that page be inclined to read on?

I took the Page 69 test for The Pericles Commission.  By sheer luck, it happens to contain one of the book's central conflicts.

The weird world of book marketing

Vicki Leon interviews Steven Saylor, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Ruth Downie, Adrienne Mayor, Caroline Lawrence,, on the fun and games of marketing your book.

Vicki Leon is the author of Working IX to V, and How to Mellify A Corpse.  Both very funny non-fiction guides to the ancient world!

It struck me how many authors' worst moments involve large rooms without people.

Gary buys books

The local Borders is having a sale. Every book $5. So I bought a few.

Since the books are remaindered, I believe the authors don't receive royalties. Apologies to Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Jeffrey Deaver et al. I'll buy you a coffee at the next Bouchercon to compensate.

Spartan cloaks: red, scarlet, vermilion?

The floor is open for nominations.  What color would you say was the cloak worn by the Spartans?

Unlike the other city states, the Spartans had something approaching standard issue wear, and it included a cloak that might be described as red, scarlet or vermilion.  (Or perhaps some other shade?).

In my third book, working title Sacred Games, I refer a few times to the famous cloak.  As I read through the ms, I find I've used all three words to describe the color.  This won't do!

I've put a poll widget on the right hand side of the blog page.  Feel free to express your opinion.

What makes this more fun is that if you base your answer on movies you've seen, such as 300, then it's the blind leading the blind, because their choice is as random as mine.  To the best of my knowledge, there's no surviving example of the real thing.

Could women watch the Olympic Games?

I want to address the vexing question of whether women were permitted to watch the Olympic Games.

Certainly there was a women's camp. It contained the women and children of any men who'd seen fit to bring their families, plus a whole lot of hookers, both pornoi (working girls) and hetaerae (high class courtesans). The women's camp was on the opposite side the river from where the Olympics were held, and there was an easy ford so people could cross at will.

It's known for sure that there was a law forbidding married women from watching the Games. If a married woman was caught inside the stadion, or even on the wrong side of the river, while the Games were in progress, then the prescribed penalty was to throw her to her death from Mount Typaion, a cliff-laden area on the road from Elis to Olympia. But I'm not aware of the penalty ever being exacted, and frankly it seems unlikely to me that men are going to off a woman like that.

There was one woman who was caught red handed. Her name was Kallipateira, and she had personally trained her son in athletics. When he competed at Olympia, she disguised herself as a man and sat in the box with the other trainers. When her son won, she got a trifle too excited and was caught out.

They didn't have the heart to exact the penalty, so they let her off. Ever afterwards, the trainers of the athletes were required to attend the Games stark naked, to prevent another woman pulling the same trick.

There was one woman who was required to watch. That was the Priestess of Demeter from the city of Elis. Olympia lay within the boundaries of Elis and the Eleans supplied all the officials. No one fully understands why a priestess of Demeter had to be there, but we know the contests were considered invalid unless the Priestess of Demeter had watched. There was no temple to Demeter at Olympia, which makes it even weirder.

Oddly, the rule forbade only married women. As a result it's become a standard meme on the internet that virgins could watch the Olympics. This is helped by an ancient writer called Pausanias having made some vague statements about seeing virgins at the Games.

Let's think about that. We have a stadion filled with tens of thousands of drunken, sports-crazed men, and scattered in amongst them are a bunch of teenage virgins.

I don't think so!

What is very likely is that fathers brought along unmarried daughters, to matchmake them with eligible bachelors from other cities. But there's no way virgins were in the stadion when the contests were held. It's just a recipe for disaster.

Normally, when I write my mysteries of Classical Greece, I take the most liberal possible interpretation of the status of women consistent with known history. But this is one instance where I'm a rock-solid conservative. The only women watching the Games were the Priestess of Demeter and, maybe, a few of her assistants.

Centuries & Sleuths

My final blog post about the tour has been overtaken by events. This email was sent the other day by the Mystery Writers of America:
Two exceptional mystery bookstores will be honored with the 2011 Raven Award. ... Once Upon a Crime, in Minneapolis, MN, and Centuries & Sleuths in Chicago, IL, will receive recognition for their contribution to the mystery community.
Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore was named one of the Ten Best Bookstores in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune. Many customers have tagged the owner, Augie Alesky, as the coolest bookseller in Chicago. "I have always wanted a Raven. The mystery community is such a great place,” Alesky said upon hearing the news.
The store has hosted hundreds of author readings and talks, with both new and established writers. Augie’s programs are innovative, including mock trials, debates, and numerous “Meeting of Minds” programs similar to the PBS series. In fact, from the very first days of opening, actors and then authors themselves were encouraged to dress in period costumes to illustrate and dramatize a book. Centuries & Sleuths was nominated for the American Booksellers Association “Bookseller of the Year” award in 2008. The store marks its 20th Anniversary this year.
Augie is indeed a very cool and happy guy with an infectious laugh. Here he is, looking unusually serious:

Augie, minus Raven Award but plus Pericles Commission
And here's the first thing I saw when I arrived at the store:
The lovely display in the front window when I arrived. All the books around it are to do with Ancient Greece
Congratulations Augie and Centuries and Sleuths!

Chicago was notable for meeting two other fantastic people: Judy Bobalik who is a serial Bouchercon organizer -- and you can't get much more insane than that -- and Merry Monteleone. Merry was present at the grand event now known as The Strange Case of the Missing Gary, and has been following my publishing adventures ever since. It was terrific to meet one of the veterans of the Gary-gets-published saga!

Announcing: the Australian cover!

Looks different, doesn't it!

When I first met Belinda, my lovely editor publisher at Penguin Oz (congrats to Belinda on her promotion!), one of the first things she said to me was, "Of course, we'll have to change the cover." And I asked, "Why?"

Cover change is not only normal, it's expected. The people who understand these things swear that reader cultural response to covers is radically different across countries, even between the English speaking nations. I thought it was an old wive's tale, but when I put my two covers side by side, and showed them to locals, the Australians said they preferred the Oz version. I should imagine most US readers would say the reverse.

The screen image, by the way, does not begin to do justice to the very cool texture of the background.

I'm battling to get an expert on cover design to write about it here, but unfortunately they are all shy!

Gary and the chemical explosives

Some years ago, in 2002 I think it was, I happened to be passing through Los Angeles airport on my way for a flight back home. Airport security was considerably tighter than it used to be, but all those incredibly annoying scanners had yet to be installed.

I was randomly selected for a baggage check. (The fact that not all bags were checked tells you how long ago this was.)

Fine. I handed over my bag.

They opened it up, had a poke around, then swiped the inside with a small piece of material which they popped into a machine.

Red lights flashed! Alarms sounded! Nice men with guns appeared!

"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Sir, please step back behind the red line," said a nice man with a gun.
I stepped back behind the red line.
"What's wrong?" I repeated.
"Sir, your bag has tested positive for chemical explosives."

Well this was going to be fun! I knew I was pure as the driven snow, in this one small respect at least, so I settled in for an interesting experience.

It will come as no surprise that everything came out of the bag. Then they pulled the frame out of the bag. Then they looked inside the frame. Then they looked inside the lining. All clothing was minutely inspected. I had probably 15 or 20 books in that bag, some of them huge technical volumes. They turned every single page.

While this was going on, another nice man took my passport and wandered off with it, no doubt to ask the FBI if I was known to them. He returned while they were still flipping pages and tearing my laptop apart. He gave me a strange look, and didn't return the passport.

That's when I remembered that, not long before, I'd had to get a Federal Police security check.

The check was so I could do some work at Argyle Diamond Mine, which is the largest source of pink diamonds in the world. Once you're inside the compound, the diamonds are just lying on the ground, so they prefer to restrict visitors to honest people and successful thieves who haven't been caught yet. (While walking past swept-up heaps of small black rocks, I'd asked, "Where are the diamonds?").

But the nice men at LAX wouldn't have known that detail. All they would have known was that the Australian Federal Police had queried the FBI for a standard check on me, and the FBI had probably recorded that query. And now here I was, testing positive for chemical explosives.

After they had reduced the bag to its component atoms, they asked, "Have you ever spilled any soap or washing powder in this bag?"

As it happened, my wife and I had used this bag on our honeymoon, and washing powder had indeed been spilled. Fourteen years before.

"That must be it, then. The machine detected the phosphorus."

From fourteen years ago?

They reassembled the bag and repacked. I tried to help several times, but each time was politely but firmly told to get back behind that red line. So I watched them make a complete hash of the repack. Lumps bulged in odd places and the zipper strained. They handed back my passport. I moved to pick up the bag, but was told, "No sir, this man here--" they indicated one of their own, no doubt the most unimportant man present, "--this man will carry your bag until you get on your plane."

My new friend was having none of that. He picked up my bag, brushed past the long queue of people waiting to check in, and stopped at the front desk.

"Check this passenger in at once."

And that's how to get to the head of the queue at LAX. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. We threw away the bag when I got home.

Aunt Agatha's

I had a fantastic time at the author event at Aunt Agatha's, in the lovely university town of Ann Arbor.

Now I pause at this point. If you're my literary agent, would you please avert your eyes. I wouldn't want you to become sad, or use me for chum.


Okay, now that The Shark's not reading, I'll admit I probably did everything at the Ann Arbor event that an author's not supposed to do. Which is no surprise, because until Pericles Commission released, I'd never seen one. Yes, the first author event I ever attended was my own. I'm what's called a pantster when it comes to writing and, it seems at events too.

One of the great mysteries of the universe is this: what is an author supposed to talk about at an author event?

In my case, I have a tendency to talk about the innards of my book. On the face of it, this is reasonable, but received wisdom is that readers turn up to book events to learn about the author and his personality. Alas, my personality runs to the uber-geek, so with the best will in the world, I'm usually sucked into talking about the fun history.

To my joy, at Aunt Agatha's I was in a room of like-minded people. I'm pretty sure we spent 3 solid hours talking about ancient Greek history...yes, Janet is wincing...that's probably her head your hear thumping the wall ...but I cannot tell a lie.

It went three hours because these kind people in the picture took me to dinner before the talk, and the moment I sat down, someone asked a history question about the book. It was all downhill from there...when we removed to the store, we kept going, and I'm sure I'd still be there if the lovely proprietess Robin Agnew, standing at the back, hadn't politely suggested it was well past 9pm. (Another blunder on my part; authors are supposed to watch the time.)

So all this proves is I'm an amateur at the book tour biz. That's okay; I'll get more normal with practice.

But the important thing is I had fun, and I know the Ann Arboreans had fun because they hung around and chatted and bought books. (I just made up Ann Arboreans, but it looks right, doesn't it?)

One slightly embarrassing moment: I discovered, to my surprise, that I don't know my own book! I wanted to quote a piece of dialog, but do you think I could find it amongst all those pages? It was up to the kind gentleman on the left in the picture, to save me by flipping through while I chatted away. There was no chance of spoilers: he'd already read the book! He therefore wins the prize as the first Real Person I've ever met who's read my book before they met me.

I had so much fun at that talk, I can't wait to go back and see the nice people at Aunt Agatha's again. (A desire assisted by the fact that Ann Arbor is a gorgeous place with good coffee.)

So I'd be interested to know, if you're at an author event, what do you want to hear? What is the perfect author talk?

Attack of the Giant Rodents

Two days after the author talk at Mysterious Galaxy, I was taken on a tour of the world famous San Diego Zoo, by none other than zoo volunteer and well known giraffe-kisser L.T. Host. (If you've ever seen her avatar, you'll know what I mean.)

LT and friends
Only a couple of weeks before, L.T. had upgraded from giraffes to her very own husband, Scott, who is an incredibly nice guy, and very patient with out-of-towners disrupting his life.

LT and husband Scott. Giraffes now forsaken.
Scott and L.T. introduced me to the native food of San Diego: fish tacos.

I'll ignore every animal in the wildly fantastic zoo except for these:

This is a capybara. It's the largest rodent in the world. It grows to about 1.3 meters in length. That's a bit over 4 feet.

If you found these in your attic, you really would have a serious rodent problem. The pictures don't begin to tell you how big these things are. We keep guinea pigs, which are also rodents, but a guinea pig is tiny in comparison. This is how tiny:

Taken from
Yes, that's a guinea pig on the capybara's back. This is the most famous capybara in the world. His name is Caplin Rous, and he has more twitter followers than I do.

Win a copy of The Pericles Commission!

My good friend Stephanie Thornton has begun a competition on her blog.  The prize is a copy of The Pericles Commission, plus an extremely nifty bronze statue of the goddess Nike.

What's an author to do when he has fantastic support like this?  All I can do is say, thanks Stephanie.  You rock!

Click on over to Stephanie's blog and see if you can win the free copy!

Gary is home

I'm back home from the US tour.  I had a wonderful time, but it's unbelievably good to see my womenfolk again, and to sit in my own comfy little office, writing blog posts and books.

I tried to break the jet lag in one go, which meant staying awake throughout the day.  When I couldn't stay awake any longer, at 9pm, when I'd been awake for 45 hours, I collapsed and slept for 10 hours.  It seems to have worked though because I feel more or less normal.

I nominate these awards from the trip:

Best public transport system while on tour:  the Seattle buses.  Especially the cool way they turn into electric trams in the tunnels underneath the city.  Why doesn't every US city have these?

Best intercity trip:  the Amtrack from Ann Arbor to Chicago.  Comfortable, cost-effective, and incredibly convenient.

Best Airline:  Frontier Airlines.  Flew with them from San Diego to Detroit.  They have real people at real check-ins!  No machine replacements for people!  Staff who seemed genuinely happy to be there!  Totally crushed both United and American. Well done, guys.

Best coffee and muffin:  Bakery, (that's its name) in San Diego.

Best non-private-friend place to stay: Inn at Michigan League in Ann Arbor.

Career highlight: the ancient mystery panel at Bouchercon.

Weirdest moment: every time I walked into a store and saw my book on display.  A huge thank you to "M" is for Mystery, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Mysterious Galaxy, Aunt Agatha's, and Centuries and Sleuths.