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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (currum rapta)

We Can't Take You Riding In Our Car Car

It was a dark and stormy night. Robin and I, each of us well supplied with a cat to cuddle, snuggled down into the safety and warmth of our bed while we listened to the wind and the rain howl and crash against the windows. Little did we know that outside our house, camouflaged by the shelter of the storm, a terrible crime was taking place...

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Robin's car pool partner was picking her up that morning to take her into work and so she went out bright and early, leaving me half asleep and practising my world famous impression of the meat in a cat sandwich. Porgy was asleep on my right side and Harpo was cuddled up close on my left. Robin had been gone for about two minutes when the front door opened and she came back in. Perhaps she'd forgotten something. The cats and I ignored her. If we kept quiet, maybe she'd go away again.

"Alan," she said, "the garage door is open and the car has gone."

"What!" I sat up in bed, scattering indignant cats far and wide.

"The garage door is open and the car has gone," she repeated. "I've got to go to work. Can I leave you to deal with it?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

The door closed behind her as she left again and I struggled into some clothes and went out to examine the crime scene. The garage looked empty and forlorn. I closed the door. The lock had been levered off. Broken pieces of it were scattered on the ground in front of the garage. I opened the door again. I noticed that there were shards of safety glass glittering on the garage floor. Presumably the thieves had smashed their way into the car. I closed the door and went back into the house. My next tasks were obvious; phone the police and the insurance company so as to put the investigative wheels in motion.

First the police. I opened the cupboard where we keep the telephone directories, but the white pages were missing. I vaguely recalled that Robin had recently looked up a phone number. No wonder the directory was missing -- many years ago the gigantic pile of stuff in Robin's room reached critical mass and imploded. Now her room contains a small black hole which greedily absorbs anything that wanders within its gravitational influence. Over the years we've fed it cats, clothes, casual visitors and Mormon missionaries. I knew that I would never see the telephone directory again.

Oh well, time to see what the googles had to say on the subject. I soon found a phone number for the Wellington police and I rang it.

"Police, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

There was a beep, beep, beep in my ears as buttons were pressed and then a new voice said, "Watch house, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

After a couple more transfers I finally ended up with someone who seemed able to deal with my problem. I described the broken lock on the garage door and gave the police the registration number of my car. In return they gave me an incident number to use with the insurance company. I thanked them and rang off. Now to contact the insurance people. That was easy; their phone number was printed on the policy. I rang it.

"Insurance, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

Again I found myself involved in a telephonic game of pass the parcel. Eventually, after speaking to several people who denied all knowledge of anything whatsoever to do with insurance policies, I finally found someone who grudgingly agreed to take my details. "There's an excess of $300 on the policy," said the insurance man. "The car itself is valued at $3,300 so taking the excess into account you'll get $3000 back on the claim. We'll need you to fill in a claim form before we can take it any further."

That's the problem with cars and insurance. The value depreciates and so when you come to replace the car you find that it's worth next to nothing. No matter what happened over the next few days, it was clear that I'd be seriously out of pocket.

About ten minutes after I finished talking to the insurance people, the phone rang.

"Hello, this is the police," said a dark blue voice. "We've found your car."

"Gosh, that's impressively quick service," I said. "It must be a world record. I only reported it stolen an hour ago."

"The car has been abandoned on Black Rock Road. Can you come and meet us there, please?"

Black Rock Road is about half a mile away.

"I'll be there in a few minutes," I told the voice.

My car was sitting by the side of the road with a police car parked on guard behind it. The car was a mess. The windscreen was completely opaque, heavily gouged and spider webbed with cracks. All the other windows were shattered, smashed to smithereens. There were glass shards all over the floor and the upholstery and the road. There were several dents and scrapes on the passenger side panels where the car had crashed into something. The lock on the driver's door had been torn out so that the door could be opened. The ignition lock had also been forced apart in order to start the car, and the broken remnants of it were dangling down at the end of the exposed wires. The ceiling light had been ripped out for no very obvious reason. There was quite a lot of blood soaked into the upholstery and there were several large bloody smears all over the outside of the driver's door. Obviously whoever had broken into the car was utterly inept and had cut themselves rather badly in the effort to break in. The engine was still running, and the petrol gauge showed that the tank was still almost full. Obviously the car had been stolen, driven about half a mile and then just trashed and abandoned. It made no sense. Why break into a locked garage to steal a car, only to abandon it almost immediately? Particularly when there were other cars parked out in the open on the road. Surely they'd have been much easier to steal?

"Can you examine the car and see if there is anything in it that doesn't belong to you?" asked the policeman.

I glanced over the wreckage.

"That screwdriver isn't mine," I said. "And neither is the small stick on the floor. The cell phone on the back seat isn't mine either."

It seemed clear to me that we weren't breeding our car thieves for intelligence. What kind of moron leaves behind the screwdriver that they used to break into the car? And as for not noticing that your cell phone has fallen out of your pocket! Words fail me.

I sat in the police car while the policeman took a statement from me.

"This has all the hallmarks of a revenge attack," he said. "Why else would they go to all the trouble of smashing their way into your garage, only to abandon your car almost immediately and trash it so severely? Have you got any enemies who would do that to you?"

"Well," I said, "one of my cats hates me, and he bites me whenever he gets the opportunity. But he has a perfect alibi. He was asleep on the bed all night. Anyway, he doesn't know how to drive a car."

"No," said the policeman. "I doubt if it was a cat who did this."

"I wrote a book review last month," I said. "I was very critical of the book. I said it was one of the worst novels I'd ever read; that the author couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag. I was very rude about his writing competence."

"Ah! A clue!" said the policeman. "Where does the writer live?"

"America," I said.

His face fell. "No," he said, "I don't think that works either."

Neither of us could come up with any other ideas. It seemed that the motives of the morons would forever remain a mystery.

"We'll tow the car away for forensic examination," said the policeman. "We'll be able to get a good DNA analysis from all the blood he has spilled. If it matches anyone on the database, we'll soon find the little ratbag."

Soon a tow truck arrived and drove off with the wreckage. "I'll take you home," said the policeman. "I'd like to look at the garage." So I got my first ever trip in a police car. It was quite thrilling. He had his radio turned down low and an almost inaudible voice muttered mysteriously about crimes and criminals as we drove up the road.

All too soon, we arrived back at my house. We got out of the car and the policeman looked closely at the torn and mangled lock on the garage door. "They've obviously gone to a lot of trouble to force their way in," he said. He walked into the garage and looked carefully around. "Oh!" he said. "Look at this!" He was pointing to something on the floor. I went in to see what he was looking at. There were several large patches of blood on the garage floor and there, right in the middle of a puddle, was a single small footprint. The thief had been wearing trainers and the pattern of the tread was clear and sharp in the blood.

"We'll get the forensic people to look at this as well," said the policeman. "Lots of good clues here."

"This guy's lost a lot of blood," I said. "I wonder if he's had to have hospital treatment?"

"We'll certainly check that out," said the policeman.

"With any luck, he'll get a massive infection and die screaming in agony," I said.

"We can but hope," said the policeman.

Last month I reviewed a series of light-hearted detective novels by Charlaine Harris, the author of the very popular Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire stories. This month I'd like to turn my attention to a much darker series of detective novels that she has written and also to a thematically related stand alone novel.

The so-called "Shakespeare" novels concern the trials and tribulations of one Lily Bard who has moved to the small southern USA town of Shakespeare. She is running away from an ugly past, and in Shakespeare she sets up in business as a house cleaner and caretaker. These being detective stories, Lily keeps stumbling upon murders, and solving them of course. So far so formulaic. But the dark secret in Lily's past is that she was kidnapped, raped and tortured. Eventually she killed one of her tormentors and managed to escape. Now she is trying (and often failing) to rebuild her life. She studies martial arts and keeps herself very much to herself.

There are five novels in the Lily Bard sequence and Charlaine Harris has stated quite categorically that there will not be any more. Lily's story is complete. The novels are only tangentially detective stories (though they are detective stories and very good ones as well). They are really about Lily's rehabilitation as we follow her from her initial self-imposed isolation through to a close approximation of social assimilation and relative happiness. It is easy to see why there will be no more novels in the sequence. By the end of the last novel Lily is much happier with her self image than she was at the start of the sequence.

Lily is so scarred by her experiences, both mentally and physically, that there is little opportunity for light-heartedness in the novels and they are undeniably very grim and dark. But Charlaine Harris' essentially sunny nature simply will not be suppressed and every so often her joyful delight in life and her gleeful humour cannot be concealed, and little rays of sunshine keep breaking through the darkness.

The golden rule for writers is to write about what you know. Charlaine Harris makes it quite clear on her web site that she really does know what she is talking about in these novels. She herself is a rape victim. I doubt there is any real correspondence between Lily and Charlaine; their personalities are too different. But there is no doubt that Charlaine's real life experience of rape gives her a far greater insight into what Lily is thinking and feeling as life goes on around her. And that heightened sense of dark realism is what makes these magnificent novels stand out from the crowd.

These days everything that Charlaine Harris writes belongs to one of her ongoing series. But early in her career she published several stand alone books. A Secret Rage was (I think) her second novel. It was originally published in 1984 and has recently been re-released. It too is a story about rape. Nickie Callahan has had a successful career as a fashion model in New York. However fashions come and fashions go and as she falls out of favour with the glamour magazines she decides to return to Knolls, her home town in Tennessee where she plans to study to be a writer and to complete the degree that she interrupted when her fashion career took off.

But it turns out that the women of Knolls are not safe -- Nickie and several of her acquaintances are raped and beaten. Despite all the evidence, there is a general refusal by the small town to recognise that the rapes have even taken place at all. This kind of thing is so often swept under the carpet; it is not a fit subject for genteel discussion. And besides everyone knows that those women must have been asking for it, particularly that provocative dresser and fashion model Nickie Callahan.

Sadly these attitudes are all too common even today. A Secret Rage concerns itself with Nickie's struggle against these small town prejudices and also with her plan for taking revenge on her rapist, a plan which has utterly unexpected consequences.

This is a very powerful novel indeed, and also an absolute page turner. Once you pick it up you will not want to put it down until you've finished it. It is a sustained paean of fury about the rage and humiliation engendered by rape and how this rage can all too easily translate into sometimes tragic action. It is breathtaking and magnificent.

I first came across Derek Robinson's hilarious and brutal war novels when I read Goshawk Squadron some time in the early 1970s. Since then I have made it my business to read everything that he has published. He has not been very prolific -- only a dozen or so books in the last forty years. But every single one of them has been an absolute gem and the loosely connected series of novels that trace the history of the RFC and the RAF from its early days in WW1 through to its triumphs and tragedies in WW2 are works of sheer genius.

His latest novel is Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. It brings the story of the RAF into the 1960s and takes as its theme the madness and insanity of the cold war. The novel is about the crews of England's V-bombers who, in the event of a pre-emptive nuclear strike from the Soviets, would fly their bombers within range of Russia in order to launch their own retaliatory nuclear missiles. After that, the planes and their crews were expendable. There would be nowhere for them to go. Their home bases would no longer exist. Most of England would fry to a nuclear crisp minutes (or even seconds) after the planes took off. And hopefully so too would most of Russia after the bombers launched their payloads. Take that, you bastards!

If all of that sounds quite insane, that's because it was. It probably isn't a coincidence that the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction was referred to acronymically as MAD. And even that acronym is itself typical of the cynical humour that we developed to try and keep ourselves sane in a world that sometimes seemed hell-bent on blowing itself to smithereens. What use is tragedy if you can't laugh at it?

This is the first of Derek Robinson's novels to be set in a time that I actually remember. I was only a child and therefore much of the cold war paranoia passed me by. But I had airfix kit models of the V-bombers and I was certainly well aware of the part they would have to play if the whole house of cards ever came tumbling down. And even though I was only a child, I was nevertheless strongly affected by the almost palpable sense of fear engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It seemed likely that the world I knew would not be there when I woke up in the morning. If I woke up in the morning.

The thing that makes a Derek Robinson novel stand out from all the others that surround it is his impeccable understanding of history, his extraordinary ability to re-live it in context through the eyes and minds of the people to whom it is a contemporary happening, and the sharp, crackling and sometimes breathtakingly cynical wit of his dialogue and of his observations; a wit that is often laugh out loud funny but which makes you weep inside even while you are laughing so very hard at the piercing truth of it.

Hullo Russia, Goodbye England is a genuine tour de force.

All of Derek Robinson's books are currently out of print and he was unable to find a publisher for Hullo Russia, Goodbye England and so he has self-published it. It is available for a modest fee from his website:

You owe it to yourself to buy a copy. Do it now!

The good news is that Derek Robinson has negotiated an agreement with a new publisher. MacLehose Press will be reissuing some of his books in the (northern hemisphere) summer of 2011. The first two will be Piece Of Cake (Robinson's novel about the Battle Of Britain -- you may recall the TV series they made from it a few years ago) and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.

Mike Resnick writes glorious pulp adventures the like of which was never seen before on land or sea. I absolutely love his stuff and so I was delighted when WarriorWomanWithOnlyOneBreast shipped my copy of The Buntline Special a few days before the announced publication date.

The book is subtitled A Weird West Tale and that is precisely what it is. In the year 1881, the territory occupied by the USA ends at the Mississippi River. Across the river, the medicine men of the Indian Nations control the lands and the power of their magic has halted the westwards expansion of the white people.

In a desperate search for some mechanism that will counter the magic of the Indians, the famous inventor and scientist Thomas Alva Edison travels to Tombstone, Arizona in order to be closer to the Indians' source of power. Hopefully his research will be more fruitful the closer he is to the source. Notorious gunslinger and Marshall Wyatt Earp is hired to be Edison's bodyguard and he, his brothers and their friends Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson expect to have their work cut out for them. Ranged against them are the mighty Apache wizard Geronimo and the self-serving and notorious Clanton gang. The Clantons send for the gunslinger Johnny Ringo to come to their aid. However unbeknown to them, Ringo is already dead, killed in a gunfight several weeks before. But he doesn't let a little thing like that get in his way and his zombie corpse is soon on the front lines of the battle.

This is the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral as you've never heard it told before. Wizards, zombies, vampires, mad scientists, sane scientists and lots of action. Steampunk meets the wild west. What could be better than that? Not a lot, in my opinion.

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy contains two novellas/novelettes by the late Kage Baker. The first is her Hugo Award nominated story The Women Of Nell Gwynne's and the second is another story set in the same universe called The Bohemian Astrobleme. Both are, of course, utterly brilliant; that almost goes without saying, though I freely admit that I am biased. Kage Baker's stories are a huge enthusiasm of mine and while I will grudgingly agree that some of her stories might (might!) be better than others of her stories I'd be very hard put to make an ordered list.

The Women Of Nell Gwynne's is a clever, witty and utterly delightful steampunk adventure experienced by the distaff side of the Gentleman's Speculative Society. Lady Beatrice is the madame of a very sophisticated, high-class brothel (Nell Gwynne's) that serves as a front for the operations of the GSS. She is blind, but manages to see the world quite well, thank you very much, through the brass telescopes fitted in her empty eye sockets. While investigating rumours of some anomalously advanced technology, the ladies arrange to have themselves hired as the salacious entertainment for an orgy at a country estate. Typical complications ensue; murders take place, secrets are revealed.

In The Bohemian Astrobleme, the Gentlemen's Speculative Society discovers a substance which they suspect may be of extraterrestrial origin. Two of the society's members and a not very trustworthy assistant go on an expedition to search for more of the material. They make extensive use of the remarkable James Bond-like gadgets invented in the secret laboratories of the GSS. Lady Beatrice herself also has a role to play in the search. The expedition travels into darkest Eastern Europe where the denouement involves an amusing point of chemistry.

Stories don't come any better than this!

Later that afternoon a forensic examiner arrived. I felt quite sorry for him. He was dressed in full police uniform with a thick anti-stab jacket covering his chest. He was sweating profusely in the hot sun and he looked enviously at the shorts and T-shirt that I was wearing.

"Now then," he said, "what have you got to show me?"

He took photographs of the broken lock and he dusted the garage door for fingerprints. "Nothing useful there," he said. "Just a lot of smudges. They must have been wearing gloves. I didn't find any useful fingerprints on the car either."

"What about the cell phone they left behind?" I asked.

"Oh that was full of clues," he said. "It had a lot of photographs of his bros waving their arms about in gangsta attitudes, and a whole heap of text messages to his mum."

"I suppose even car thieves have mothers," I mused. "I wonder what she thinks of his evening hobby?"

"Probably not much," said the forensic man. "Now where's the bloody footprint that the report mentioned?"

I took him into the garage and showed him the blood puddles. "I doubt we'll get much useful DNA from these," he said. "The floor is a bit dirty for that. But that doesn't matter; we got some lovely clean swabs from the blood in the car. I'll take a photo of the footprint though."

He stuck a small paper arrow to the garage floor. It pointed directly at the footprint so that there could be no doubt about exactly what to look at in the photograph. He put a ruled strip of paper down beside the footprint so as to give some indication of scale. Then he took the photograph and picked the pieces of paper up again. He also took a DNA swab, just in case.

"How long will it take to get the DNA results?" I asked.

"Probably about ten days," he said.

"Gosh, that's fast," I said. "I would have expected that it would take at least a month."

"Oh no," he said. "New Zealand has one of the best forensic lab services in the world. We get a very rapid turn round on results." He seemed quietly proud of that, and who could blame him?

The next few days passed in a blur. I was almost constantly on the phone with the police and the insurance company sorting out this and that detail. It seemed that there were an infinite number of i's to cross and t's to dot.

The insurance assessor confirmed that the car was a write off. It would cost far more to repair than the car itself was worth. In many ways I was pleased about that. I don't think I'd ever have felt comfortable driving it again, and I was particularly not looking forward to sitting on the upholstery that the thief had bled over so profusely. Of course I now had to buy another car and finding the money for that was not going to be easy. The slightly derisory $3000 that the insurance company was willing to pay out was merely a fraction of what I would have to pay for another set of wheels.

Since the car was being written off, I went to visit the wreck to reclaim whatever bits and pieces of my personal property might have been left behind. Interestingly, everything was still there. Even the CDs were still sitting happily in their cases. The thieves had not even bothered searching the car for valuables. My opinion of their intelligence plunged to new depths, though their motives remained, if possible, even more murky and puzzling.

The police interviewed the person who had left the cell phone behind. Naturally he denied all knowledge of the crime and, in the absence of any other evidence, they had to let him go. It isn't a crime to leave a cell phone in a stolen car. It implies a lot, but it doesn't prove anything at all. He voluntarily gave a sample for DNA testing so obviously he was quietly confident that he hadn't left any DNA behind. He wasn't the bleeder.

One week to the day after the car was stolen, Robin and I took delivery of a new (to us) Subaru Legacy. There's a button on the dashboard that, when pressed, causes a coffee cup holder to telescope out into the car. Who could possibly resist a feature like that? It was love at first sight.

Charlaine Harris The Lily Bard Mysteries Omnibus Gollancz
Charlaine Harris A Secret Rage Berkeley
Derek Robinson Hullo Russia, Goodbye England Whistle Books
Mike Resnick The Buntline Special Pyr
Kage Baker Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy Far Territories
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