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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (aqua calorifica)

Alan And Robin Get In Hot Water


I was half asleep, so I just turned over in bed and punched the pillow even though it hadn't done anything to me. I can be cruel like that sometimes. The pillow took it uncomplainingly, wimp that it is. Robin came in to the bedroom carrying a bowl of cereal.

"Did you hear a bang?" she chomped.

"Maybe," I said.

"I thought it came from the kitchen," she said, taking another mouthful of cereal. "I checked to see if it was my coffee exploding in the microwave and I opened the cupboards to see if any shelves had fallen down. But it wasn't any of those things."

There being no obvious signs of terrorist activity in any room in the house, we decided the bang had probably come from next door. Robin went to work and, in the fullness of time, I went for a shower.

About half way through my shower the fog of sleep began to lift from my brain and I recalled that about twenty years ago the immersion heater in my hot water tank exploded. It had said "Bang!" in much the same tone of voice as the bang that banged this morning. I wonder...

Showered, unshaven, dried and dressed, I looked in the cupboard where the hot water water tank lives.

Drip, drip, drip...

The floor was very wet, and getting wetter. Oh dear, where's the Yellow Pages?

I found a plumbing company with an intriguing advert. "We know how frustrating it can be when tradespeople don't turn up at the promised time. So if we don't arrive when we say we will, we'll do the job for free." That sounded promising. I rang the number and spoke to Dan.

"OK," he said. "I'll come and have a look at it."

I noticed he hadn't mentioned a time. "When exactly should I expect you?" I asked cunningly.

"Oh, in about 30 or 40 minutes or so," he said, seeing right through my ploy.

Exactly 35 minutes later there was a knock on the door.

"Hi, I'm Dan," said Dan, "and this is Felix."

Dan was young, small and super-model slim. He looked very much like Steve Marriott, the singer with Small Faces and Humble Pie. Felix was slightly bulkier and very, very black.

"Where are you from, Felix?" I asked him.

"I'm from Zimbabwe," he said, "and I am just 16 days old in New Zealand."

"Well, welcome to the country," I said and shook his hand.

He grinned broadly. "It's so cold here," he said. "But the people are nice and warm and that makes up for it."

Cold? Both Dan and I were sensibly dressed for the weather. We wore t-shirts, shorts and sandals and I suspect we both found the day a little sultry even for that minimal set of clothes. Felix wore a bulky woollen sweater over a heavy shirt, denim jeans, boots and thick socks. In moments of silence I could hear his teeth chattering.

I showed Dan the hot water tank. "Gosh, it's well lagged," he said. "Best lagging I've seen in years!" He pulled out pins and tore off sticky tape and removed untold layers. Then his face lit up like beacon. "Wow! Look at that! It's the second oldest tank I've ever seen. 1967. They built them to last in those days. Look; it's exactly forty years old!"

"Happy birthday," I said. "What's the oldest one you've seen?"

"1958," said Dan. He looked carefully around the tank. "The good news is that we can get the tank out without having to demolish the cupboard. You wouldn't believe how many times we have to tear cupboards apart. Far too many people put the tank in first and then build the cupboard snugly around it. Not a good idea.

"The bad news is, we've got to take the tank out of the cupboard. You need a new one. The old one's stuffed."

"What a way to spend your fortieth birthday," I said. "Getting ripped out and sent to the tip. Poor little thing. Oh well, let's do it." I wiped away a surreptitious tear.

Dan turned off the valve that controlled the water supply from the header tank. "How do I get down below here?" he asked. "I need to find the drainage tap so I can empty it."

"There's a very small crawl space," I said dubiously. "But it's really, really cramped."

"Oh that's OK," said Dan. "We only employ very small people. As long as it's larger than the glove compartment on a car, I can get in to it."

I took him downstairs and showed him the tiny cupboard with the removable back that gives access to the crawlspace. With a twist and a wriggle he was gone.

"If you find any hidden treasure, it's mine!" I said.

"Fair enough! Oh wow – look at this. Your pipes are all copper. That's great. You just don't see that these days." He wriggled about a bit. "There's no drain tap here. The pipe leads outside. There must be a tap out there somewhere. Felix – can you go and look outside?"

Felix and I went out exploring. I took Felix to the side of the house which I thought the crawl space led to. Sure enough there was a tap sticking out of the wall.

"Here it is,' said Felix.

"Great," said Dan's disembodied voice from behind the wall. "I'll come out."

He and Felix unscrewed the stopper from the front of the tap and turned the tap on. Hot water began to gush out and boil the weeds.

"I always wondered what that tap was for," I said.

"Right," said Dan. "We're off to Plumbing World to buy a new tank. See you in an hour or so."

Wicked by Gregory Maguire is a novel about the life and times of the Wicked Witch Of The West in the Land of Oz. I approached it with a degree of trepidation. As Maguire himself remarks in his introduction, the Land of Oz is not well known outside of the USA. It never really caught the imagination of the world in the same way that it caught the imagination of America. About all that any non-American tends to know about Oz comes directly from the Wizard Of Oz movie. Fortunately that's just about enough to understand what's going in Maguire's novel. I found the book quite witty, very smile-worthy and very, very clever – which is to say I enjoyed it a lot and I'd dearly love to read his other novels. Unfortunately they all seem to be published in enormously expensive editions. Even Wicked (first published in 1995) spent eleven years as a hideously overpriced luxury book before finally appearing as a reasonably priced normal paperback. So I suspect I have several more years to wait before I'll be able to read the other novels that Maguire has written. Shame.

Christopher Moore's new novel is called You Suck and it is subtitled A Love Story. It is a direct sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends which was also subtitled A Love Story. Both subtitles are true descriptions of their respective novels, though given that this is Christopher Moore we are talking about, the description is more than a little twisted.

Bloodsucking Fiends ended with Zelda the turtle, Jody the vampire girl and Elijah Ben Sapir, the evil vampire, encased in bronze statues. Zelda, not being a vampire, is dead. Tommy, Jody's mortal boyfriend, wants to tell Jody all about how she got to be trapped inside a bronze statue and he drills holes in her ears so she can hear him. Jody, of course, turns into mist and seeps herself out through the holes.

You Suck opens with Tommy having just been turned into a vampire by the newly reconstituted Jody. He finds it quite amazing – his zits have healed up, his little toe isn't bent any more and the scar on his leg where he hit himself with a hatchet has gone. Whoopee! He gets a bit scared when he finds that his foreskin has grown back (he's never seen a foreskin before and so he thinks he's become deformed) but he soon gets used to it.

Jody turned Tommy into a vampire before he'd eaten dinner, so he was still quite hungry. Naturally he microwaves a burrito and scoffs the lot. Jody feels quite guilty when he vomits it back up and so she helps him clean masticated beans off the kitchen wall and the fridge door. Damnit, there are downsides to being a vampire. There's no blood in the fridge. Maybe he'll have to eat a bug.

Now that both Tommy and Jody are vampires, they'll need a minion to take care of their daily needs. (Someone has to be able to go out in the daytime, that's when the shops are open. Even vampires need to go shopping). So Tommy recruits Abby Normal, a teenage goth who has literary pretensions and a sister with head lice. Meanwhile the Animals (the shelf-stackers that Tommy worked with at the supermarket) have spent all their money in Las Vegas and have returned with a blue-dyed prostitute with huge tits. Her name is Blue.

Then things get strange.

It's impossible to describe a Christopher Moore novel. The word indescribable was especially coined so that it could be used to describe Christopher Moore novels. Suffice it to say that the novel is extremely sick, extremely funny and extremely extreme. Store your gag-reflex somewhere safe and come along for the ride. After all, it's a love story. What could be nastier and less wholesome than that?

I didn't like Michael Flynn's last novel (The Wreck Of The River Of Stars) and I don't much like his new one (Eifelheim) either. I think I might have to give up on Michael Flynn.

The novel is an expansion of a novella that was originally published in Analog in 1986. The historical record shows that over the centuries a small town in Germany has disappeared. The disappearance is not unusual in itself – many small settlements vanish during times of plague and war. But when things settle down again, the land is reoccupied. However Eifelheim was never resettled. Very odd. Tom, a historian, and Sharon, a physicist, are intrigued by the mystery. Some surviving documents drop elusive hints...

We, the readers, know exactly what's going on. Large sections of the novel are set in Eifelheim in the mid 14th century. An alien spaceship crashes in the forest near the village and Father Dietrich, the village priest, makes humanity's first contact with an alien race.

The novel alternates viewpoints between now and the 14th century. The "now" sections of the novel correspond to the original novelette from Analog and so it is probably not surprising that they consist of page after stultifying page of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook and hand waving. The episodes set in the 14th century consist mostly of tedious theological and philosophical speculations by Father Dietrich as he tries to assimilate the reality of an alien life form into his religious framework.

Essentially this is a very dull book and it is dull because it spends far too much time speculating about things that simply don't matter. Boring!

Gods And Pawns is a new collection of stories by Kage Baker. All the stories are about the Company, so in a sense you could call this a new Company novel, though it isn't part of the main sequence. The stories hop all over time, of course, and they are all as intriguing as only a Kage Baker story can be. I loved the early Company novels and I love all the Company short stories because they depend for their effect largely on operatives of the Company interacting with historical characters and situations. The later Company novels are much more concerned with political in-fighting and the convolutions of the Company's master plan and they are rather less interesting as a result. Gods And Pawns, being a story collection, is right up there on the top of the list. I loved it, and you will too.

An hour or so later the tank was fully drained. Dan and Felix arrived back, exactly on time.

"Here we are," said Dan, "bearing gifts."

"Gifts?" I asked. "Does that mean it's free then?"

"I spoke metaphorically," said Dan.


They took the fuse for the water heater out of the fuse box and then began disconnecting everything. It wasn't long before the tank came loose and they carried it downstairs, through the sliding door and out into the garden. They left it lying on the lawn. I went and had a look. The bottom of the tank was very corroded and flaky. I could peel strips off. It obviously wouldn't have been very much longer before the whole bottom gave way, dumping the entire contents of the tank onto the floor in one fell, foul swoop. I began to feel very lucky that I'd got away with only a slow drip from (probably) a small fracture in a welded seam, or maybe a tiny hole in the corroded bottom.

"How long do you think it's been leaking?" I asked Dan.

"Maybe a couple of weeks or so," he said. "Certainly not very long. I could see that water had soaked through when I was down in the crawl space, but there wasn't any real damage to see.

"You were lucky you caught it early. Some people don't notice until the rotten floorboards give way and the whole thing crashes down into the room below. That can be very messy, not to mention expensive."


"I told you not to mention expensive!"

They fitted the new tank very quickly and efficiently and let some water dribble in to test the seals. It all seemed watertight.

"All we need now," said Dan, "is an electrician to wire up the heater. I've rung several but either they're not answering the phone at all or they can't give me an appointment until the middle of next week. I presume you do want hot water before the middle of next week?"

"Yes please," I said, contemplating with horror a week of being unable to do the washing up or take a shower. Of course, Robin would love it – washing the dishes is her job; and she resents time wasted in the shower when she could be doing more interesting things, like gardening. But I was not attracted to the idea.

"Bloody tradespeople!" said Dan. "You can never get one when you need one." He made a few more phone calls. "OK," he said, "we've tracked one of the elusive bastards down. He says he'll be here early in the afternoon, whatever that means. Felix and I are going off to our next job. When he arrives, give me a ring and I'll come straight back."

It's always rather a thrill to discover a new writer, particularly if that writer has been quite prolific before you finally stumble across one of his books and your head catches fire. That way you have a lot of entertainment to look forward to.

I'm currently in that situation with the slightly oddly named George Pelecanos. He writes dark mystery novels set in Washington DC. His general plot involves some low-life nasties doing naughty things and some slightly higher-principled (but still very flawed) less-nasties trying to stop them. In other words, pretty routine stuff and probably not worth bothering with, except that you could describe the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in much the same way, if you were so inclined, but you would be doing Chandler and Hammett a great disservice if you did.

Of course, it's not unheard of for the critics and blurb writers to hail some noir one-hit wonder as the new Raymond Chandler. It's the mystery field equivalent of the fantasy novel blurb that invokes Tolkien with every frantic breath. You quickly learn to pay it no attention. And therefore, every time I picked a Pelecanos novel off the bookshop shelf and looked at it, I immediately put it back on the shelf again. Can't possibly be worth while, I thought. The blurb is too hysterical.

Since it is a well known fact that I am never wrong about anything, this was obviously the right thing to do. Sadly, well known facts are often untrue. Just like this one, as it happens.

My first exposure to Pelecanos was a trilogy (damn things are popping up everywhere!). It's one of the big, thick books that Orion have lately been publishing a lot of. They've done several omnibus collections of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, for example. And last month I reviewed an omnibus of Lawrence Block novels. These (rather bulky) books represent extremely good value for money – you get several great novels for the price of one, and the editorial team at Orion seem to have excellent taste. I've enjoyed every Orion Omnibus that I've read.

These considerations led me to buy Three Great Novels – The Derek Strange Trilogy by George Pelecanos. And it hooked me. The books were dark, and bitter as chocolate, and just as addictive. Damn him, he really is a modern Chandler or Hammett. The blurb was not wrong. Blurbs are never wrong, are they? I really should have known better.

Derek Strange is an ex-cop turned private eye (OK, OK I know, just be patient). He runs his own detective agency called Strange Investigations. He has a dog called Greco. He's black, and he's in his mid-fifties. The years have taught him that sometimes it is best to walk away from confrontations. You don't prove your masculinity by being staunch all the time. He's a calm, slightly cynical man.

In the first book of the trilogy (Right As Rain) he is hired to investigate the shooting of an off-duty policeman by another cop. The dead cop was black, the one who shot him was white. There's no question that Terry Quinn, the white cop, did the shooting. The question is why did he do it – the official investigation came up with one answer, but the black cop's mother is sure there was more to the story. She wants Strange to look into it. He isn't happy about this – it all looks quite straight forward to him and he doubts that there is anything new to learn. But he takes the job anyway. Perhaps the obvious, racist answer isn't the whole truth?

Terry Quinn, the cop who did the shooting, turns out to be a nice guy. Strange gets on with him quite well. He's no longer a cop. He left the force after the investigation into the shooting. He works in a second hand bookshop these days and spends much of his time reading westerns. But he has a very short temper. He never backs down from a confrontation. Strange can easily see how Terry could have been provoked into the killing. The black cop was in a rage, shouting and waving a gun. Terry Quinn would never handle such a situation well.

But Strange can't help liking Quinn; indeed he uses him as an operative in some of the other investigations that he has on the boil. And slowly, more facts about the original killing emerge. The black cop's sister is a junky, and the Washington police are poorly trained and (some say) corrupt. Drug deals are lucrative and temptation is all around. It turns out there was a lot more to the killing than Strange, and even Quinn himself, had originally assumed.

You feel a bit dirty after reading a book like this. The degradation and the cynicism rub off. The mean streets of Pelecanos' Washington are meaner by far than the streets of Chandler's Los Angeles. But down them, nevertheless, a man must walk. And the essential humanity of a man like Derek Strange (and even Terry Quinn, in small doses) makes the walk worth while. Like Philip Marlowe before them, they know that some people will live and some will die; not always the right people. There isn't any justice. But sometimes the survivors learn lessons.

The remaining two books in the collection (Hell to Pay and Soul Circus) are much as you would expect. Routine private eye novels in one sense, but darkly disturbing in their reality nevertheless. Strange and Quinn are partners now, albeit briefly. The first novel was about violence and drugs. The second is about violence and street gangs and the third is about violence and prostitution. But they are all about life in the poverty trap.

The only other Pelecanos novel I could find on the local bookshop shelves was his latest. It's called The Night Gardner. Again, I would never have bought it on the strength of the blurb alone. It sounds incredibly silly. In 1985, someone in Washington DC was killing teenagers and leaving their abused bodies in public parks. The deaths were dubbed "The Palindrome Murders" because the only thing the victims seemed to have in common was that their Christian names read the same forwards and backwards – Otto, Ava and Eve.

Twenty years later, a lot has changed. Gus Ramone and Dan Holiday were two junior cops on the periphery of the investigation into the Palindrome Murders. Their careers have progressed very differently. Gus is now a Detective Sergeant and he has a reputation as a good, solid policeman. Holiday has been drummed out of the force. His sleaze and corruption proved to be too much even for the notoriously sleazy and corrupt Washington police to handle, and so he is long gone. But now a boy called Asa, a friend of Gus's son, has been found in a public park, his skull shattered by close range gunfire. Perhaps the Palindrome Killer has come back. Both Gus and Dan are soon closely involved in the investigation.

Good grief! The Palindrome Killer! What a stupid idea. I almost didn't buy the book, it sounded so ridiculous. But I remembered the skill and subtly of the Derek Strange novels. I remembered how the books sucked me in and how they proved to be so much more than the blurb had suggested they would be. And so I bought The Night Gardner and I'm very glad I did.

Every single thing in the blurb and the plot summary I've given you above is absolutely true. And it has almost nothing to do with the story. Yes there is a Palindrome Killer, but nobody gets very far with the investigation, either in 1985 or in 2005. It does eventually solve itself (though more by good luck than good management), but nobody cares very much by that stage. More important things are going on. Pelecanos' themes and interests are just the same as they were in the earlier books, they are just as dark and just as enthralling. Oh, go out and buy the book; and don't read the blurb, it won't tell you anything important.

Having exhausted the Pelecanos supply in the local bookshops, I turned my attention to the virtual bookshelves at in order to satisfy my new addiction. It wasn't long before a multitude of parcels arrived on my doorstep...

I didn't much like Shoedog. It represents a bit of a departure for Pelecanos, and it simply didn't work for me. Unlike his other books, it isn't set in the slums of Washington and it doesn't concern itself with the poverty trap. Two drifters and a shoe salesman(!) get involved in a robbery. I think it's supposed to be a light-hearted, maybe even a funny book, but it isn't. Pelecanos doesn't do light-hearted, he's a serious man with serious concerns and they keep breaking through when he's not looking. In this case that just ruins the book. The story noodles along, not quite knowing where to go and what to do.

Of course I may have been a bit biased. Early in the book Constantine, one of the drifters, drifts his way to New Zealand and Pelecanos gives us a bit of tax-deductible travel-writing as Constantine wanders his way around the tourist spots of the South Island. He drinks a lot of "dark steinlager" (sic). I couldn't take anything in the book seriously after that.

Drama City represents a return to form. Lorenzo Brown is an ex-convict who has fallen on his feet and managed to get a job as an animal control officer with Washington's Humane Society. Rachel Lopez is his parole officer, and she is very proud of Lorenzo. Many other ex-convicts on her list have done a lot less well with their lives. Many of them will soon find themselves back inside. They won't be able to help themselves. Life on the street will call them back.

In his teenage years Lorenzo had been involved with a gang of drug dealers. Indeed his best friend from his childhood is the boss of the gang these days. It isn't a problem for Lorenzo; he's out of the life now and the gang know and respect that. But a turf war is about to begin as a rival gang begins to muscle in on their territory. A psychopathic kid is out of control and people start to die, some of them are Lorenzo's friends. Even Rachel is threatened. Lorenzo is caught in a conflict between loyalty and redemption. Sometimes you do get a second chance at life. And sometimes it looks like you have to throw it back in the water. That's what this novel is about. Maybe that's why Shoedog didn't work; it didn't have a strong enough theme. Pelecanos is at his best when he's dealing with the big subjects.

And I've still got eight more of his novels sitting on my shelves waiting to be read.

By about 2.45pm I was starting to get worried. It was no longer early in the afternoon. The afternoon was getting later (and older) by the second. Then a van drew up and Dan and Felix got out.

"The electrician's just sent me a text message," said Dan. "He'll be here at 3.00pm. So while we're waiting, I'll just start work on attaching the straps that will stop the tank falling over in an earthquake. I'll only fix up one end at the moment, just in case we need to swivel the tank for the electrician."

He carefully measured the length of strap required and cut exactly that length off a roll. It was an inch too short.


He tried again, with slightly more success. By now it was 3.15pm. No sign of the electrician. "Anything else you need me to look at while we're waiting?" offered Dan.

"Well you could have a look at the cistern on the loo. It fills up a bit too much and water runs out of the overflow pipe."

He took the lid off the cistern and peered at it. "I've never understood how these work," he said. He poked at it a bit and twirled the flushing handle. Nothing happened, apart from a couple of gurgles.

"Would you like me to flush it for you?" I asked.

"Yes please," he said, mildly embarrassed.

I gave the handle a little twiddle and water gushed like Niagara Falls. "It's all in the wrist action," I said. "And the suppleness of the follow through."

We watched the cistern fill up. Dan poked a thingie here and twisted a whatsit there. Then he turned the flushing handle again. Nothing happened so he tried one more time. It still didn't flush. I reached past him and twirled gently. Niagara Falls again.

"Call myself a plumber," said Dan, chuckling at his own misfortune. "I can't even flush a toilet. Perhaps it's time to hand in my cards."

"If it's any consolation," I said, "lots of people find this design hard to flush. My mother in law can't flush it, and her middle name is efficiency. Phyllis Efficiency Clarke. I really can't imagine what her parents were thinking of when they christened her that."

"I've adjusted it a bit," said Dan, peering into the cistern as it filled. "And now the water level is about an inch below the overflow pipe. That should fix it."

"Thanks," I said. I looked at my watch. "It's nearly quarter to four. In light of your advertised promise, do I get the job done free because the electrician's so late?"

"It doesn't filter down to subcontractors," explained Dan. "They're outside our control. Come to think of it, they're outside everyone's control."


The electrician arrived just after 4.00pm. He attached wires, put the fuse back, waved a voltmeter and said the happy word, "Perfect!".

He went away again and Dan finished fixing the earthquake straps. Then he opened the valve to the header tank and turned the heater on.

"There we are," he said, "all finished."

"Any idea what went bang?" I asked.

"No idea at all," he said. "It wasn't anything to do with the old tank. There was nothing dislodged, nothing obviously broken. Bit of a puzzle, really."


The next morning I lay lazily in bed, cuddling a cat, at peace with the world.


Gregory Maguire Wicked Headline
Christopher Moore You Suck Morrow
Michael Flynn Eifelheim Tor
Kage Baker Gods And Pawns Tor
George Pelecanos Three Great Novels: The Derek Strange Trilogy Orion
George Pelecanos The Night Gardner Orion
George Pelecanos Shoedog Warner
George Pelecanos Drama City Warner
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