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Break In

Phoenixine Ninety, February 1996

Some friends were staying with me, sleeping in the back room. One morning, around 12:45am one of them snuck into my bedroom and woke me up.

"There's a prowler out the back," she reported. "I can hear him and see his torch."

I went to investigate and found several panels removed from the louvre window and one more on its way and a hulking shape, disturbed by the lights and voices in the house, running away. I yelled at him as I watched him disappear round the side of the house and vanish into the night.

I called the police and they arrived within three minutes. A couple of minutes later a dog handler turned up. They searched diligently, but he was gone without a trace.

It was a frightening experience -- but there is no doubt the man was totally inept. I examined the damage the next day and found that before removing the louvre windows he had tried to lever the frame out instead! He only gave that up when it proved too difficult (and probably too noisy -- I suspect it was that which initially woke my friend up). But why did he try to break in to a house with people in it anyway? He must have known -- there were three cars in the drive and a rubbish bin placed out on the pavement for collection. What a wanker!

At the time this happened I was reading Deception by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. It is a detective novel set in Tang dynasty China and the hero is Judge Dee, a real life person who was used by the Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulik in a series of detective novels published in the 1950s. I have long been a fan of these novels and so I fell on this with glad cries of glee when I found it in a London Bookshops remainder sale. I must admit, though, that this novel falls short of the mark.

For example, on several occasions, characters ask the Judge how he deduced the guilt of this or that character. The Judge tells them, BUT HE DOES NOT TELL THE READER. We don't find out until much later, since if the clues are explained too soon, some suspense will presumably be destroyed. I find this technique infuriating. Furthermore, the plot of the novel revolves around arcane interpretations of Bhuddist lore, a subject which I find less than enthralling. These things taken together mean that I cannot recommend the book. Pity -- I really do like Judge Dee.

I boarded up the window the guy had tried to break in through (it was a superfluous window) and had the two remaining louvre windows replaced with real ones. I've had security lights fitted -- the kind that come on when movement is detected. These are currently causing the cats much consternation! Futhermore I have put locks on the few remaining windows that didn't have them. The place is like Fort Knox. The only way in is to smash something down (or chainsaw throught the walls). Do you think they will finally stop? After all, this is the fourth bloody time, five if you count the time the cars were vandalised and six if you count the graffiti on the house. Why me????

In between all the security work, I read the new Tom Holt, Paint Your Dragon and fortunately it was very good and very funny. I needed a laugh. Bianca Wilson has carved a monumental statue of George defeating the Dragon -- it is so good and so lifelike that George and the Dragon both reincarnate into the statue and fight it out all over again. It turns out that the first time round, George had cheated and the Dragon feels that evil got a raw deal. Add to the mixture a coach load of demons on holiday from hell and the farce is with you. I laughed like a drain. This is Tom Holt on the top of his form.

My guests left behind a copy of Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh which had an intriguing premise. Humans have landed on a planet and been soundly trounced in a war with the natives. Now they are restricted to one island, with the exception of one human known as the paidhi, a technological liason officer between the humans and the natives. An attempt to assasinate him fails and the aboriginals hustle him off to the interior "for his own protection". Though isolated (and finding it hard to distinguish friend from foe) he must still try to sort out the complexities of the plot against him.

It sounded good and I dived into it, but I quickly bogged down in the intricacies of half-explained politics, murky motivations and the irresistible feeling that far more was going on than appeared on the surface. I couldn't finish it. I've had this problem with every Cherryh book I've ever tried to read. I simply don't understand what's going on. I think this must be a fault in me rather than a fault in the writer -- too many people whose opinions I respect love her books. But not me. Sorry.

Tiring of SF and mindful of the crime wave, I read Pretty Boy Floyd, part of my ongoing Larry McMurtry marathon. This is a thinly fictionalised account of the life and death of the eponymous gangster and it is vintage McMurtry, funny, tragic and peopled with a vast set of eccentric characters.

Sometimes, in between fortifying houses, I like to read horror novels. They give me ideas of what to do to housebreakers, should I ever be lucky enough to get my hands on one. The Tooth Fairy opens up quite quietly. It could almost be a novel by Richmal Crompton -- it concerns a gang of scruffy kids doing all the things that scruffy kids do. But one of them wakes one night to find a tooth fairy sitting at the edge of the bed. Both are somewhat surprised that he can see the fairy. Apparantly it violates some rule or other, and someone is going to have to pay...

The fairy is not the gentle myth figure that we normally associate with teeth, but a malevolent, nightmarish presence who opens up the dark side of the child. Things go rapidly downhill and the cosy world of childhood is left far behind. Murder is committed. And worse.

The book is nerve-wrackingly tense and I read it in a sitting. I simply couldn't stop and didn't go to bed until 3am. That's how good it is.

One of the weirdest books I have ever read is Only Forward. It is totally indescribable, so I won't even try -- but I will say that it starts out hyserically funny. But by about half way through the humour is becoming progressively blacker and it is downhill all the way from there on. The humour dies and tragedy replaces it, but the pace and the invention never flag. It is irreal and surreal and very, very peculiar. If Michael Marshall Smith ever writes anything else I'll be at the head of the queue to buy it.

For no other reason except that it was cheap, I bought The Secret Life Of Laszlo, Count Dracula at a sale. I didn't really know what to expect, except that I knew from the blurb that it wasn't a common or garden vampire story. It turned out to be a psychological study of a deeply disturbed (some might say sick) Hungarian aristocrat. The book follows him from his life as an impoverished medical student in Paris through to his degenerate (and degenerating) life as Count of the ancestral estates in Transylvania. Part detective novel, part horror story, utterly fascinating from beginning to end, this novel gets completely inside the mind of a psychopath (and even succeeds in making him seem almost sympathetic). It is utterly brilliant.

Paul J. McAuley is an up and coming young British writer. Secret Harmonies was his second novel (it dates from 1989) but already it shows the promise of things to come. It is a subtle, complex novel set on a planet called Elysium. The planet is seemingly a paradise, beautiful and bountiful, inhabited by a primitive and enigmatic native race.

Political machinations in the colony cause a lecturer from the colony's university and a man who has gone native and is living wild in the outback to ally in a revolution. Perhaps the alien aboriginals will finally wake up and notice that there are strangers on the planet...

The depth of this novel is awesome. It is an adventure story in the traditional mould, but it is also a sociological parable, a psychological thriller, and an anthropological study all in one.

The Aachen Memorandum is a satirical novel set in 2045. Waterloo Station has been named Maastricht Terminus, Nelson is gone from his column and the United States of Europe has all but snuffed out British Nationalism. But Dr Horation Lestoq, sniffing through the archives, discovers something a little odd about the referendum that joined Britain to the United States of Europe. Then he discovers a dead body.

The novel's purpose is, of course, to point the finger at the pro-European faction in present day Britain. It suffers from many of the faults of a satiric novel (and a first novel at that). It is very self-indulgent, with a lot of very obvious jokes, and it makes its points with a somewhat heavy hand. But it has its points of interest, and it is rather fun in parts.

Recently I discovered that Terry Pratchett is rather fond of a crime novelist called Carl Hiaasen, a writer of whom I had never heard. On the grounds that if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me, I picked up a copy of Strip Tease, and I soon found out why Pratchett likes him so much. The book is screamingly funny, and the tension never lets up. I enjoyed it so much, I went out and bought all the other Carl Hiaasen books I could find. Yes, it really was that good.

Erin is a stripper in a club called Eager Beaver. Her ex-husband has stolen her child. The ex-husband is a nasty piece of work, a junky who pays for his habit by dealing in stolen wheelchairs. Erin needs money to fight the custody case (though she draws the line at creamed-corn nude wrestling). Shad the bouncer also needs money and plants a cockroach in a tub of yoghurt so he can sue the company and retire a millionaire. All this comes together when a drunken congressman beats up a punter in the club. Someone recognises him and blackmails the congressman to intervene in Erin's custody case (because he is in love with Erin). That's when the fix goes in and things start to turn nasty.

The style of the novel reminded me very much of Joseph Wambaugh (if you haven't read The Choirboys go and do so immediately), and from me that is high praise indeed. I advise you to seek out the novels of Carl Hiaasen and put them on the top of your reading pile.

In order to get at the window I wanted to board up, I had to shift some old flowerpots. Sticking out of one them I found a large screwdriver. Obviously the burglarious implement. I took it round to the police, but they weren't too interested.

Eleanor Cooney & Daniel Altieri Deception Morrow
Tom Holt  Paint Your Dragon Orbit
C. J. Cherryh Foreigner Legend
Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana Pretty Boy Floyd Pocket
Graham Joyce The Tooth Fairy Signet
Michael Marshall Smith Only Forward Harper Collins
Roderick Anscombe  The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula Bloomsbury
Paul J. McAuley Secret Harmonies Orbit
Andrew Roberts The Aachen Memorandum  Orion
Carl Hiaasen Strip Tease  Pan
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