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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (in nomine patris)

What's In A Name?

My name is Alan Robson. It's quite a pleasing name. It rolls lightly off the tongue and the spelling is efficient – there are no irritatingly doubled up consonants and only two vowels are used, each of them twice. As a result, no unnecessary strain is placed upon the alphabet. It's hard to see how the name could be improved. Nevertheless, there have been times when it has caused me problems...

Wavy lines and eerie music.

When I was at university, I kept the wolf from the door by working during the long summer vacation. I had a rather interesting job as a technician in the pathology laboratory at the local hospital. I was the lowest of the low, of course. I performed menial, straightforward tasks – sterilizing the laboratory equipment, measuring haemoglobin levels and determining erythrocyte sedimentation rates. I also learned how to prepare blood slides for examination by people more highly qualified and more skilful than I was. It was a fun job, as well as a responsible one, and I enjoyed it greatly.

When I reported for work on my very first day, I was met by a man with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "Hello," he said. "You must be Alan Robson."

"That's me," I said, and we shook hands.

"Come with me," he said. "I'll take you to the laboratory and introduce you to everybody."

We walked through a maze of twisty little corridors, all alike. I wondered how I would ever learn to navigate the twisty little maze of corridors by myself. They were all exactly the same. Such a twisty maze of little corridors, each one just like all the others...

Eventually we reached the pathology laboratory and I was introduced to the other lab technicians. They all gave me a funny look when they learned my name and the twinkle in my guide's eyes brightened. Occasionally he vibrated gently, as if he was suppressing a giggle. Then came the moment he'd clearly been waiting for. "Now come and meet the chief pathologist," he said. He knocked on an office door.

"Come in!" yelled a voice.

We went in and I met the chief pathologist for the very first time. "Alan Robson," said my guide, "let me introduce Alan Robson."

"Hello," said Alan Robson. He held out his hand and I shook it. "Pleased to meet you, Alan" he said, grinning hugely.

As you might expect, having two people called Alan Robson in the laboratory, one of them the highest of the high and one of them the lowest of the low, led inevitably to a Shakespearian comedy of errors of mistaken identities. Whenever the phone rang I would always answer it, if I happened to be the person nearest to it,. "Path lab. Alan Robson speaking."

"Ah, Alan. Just the man I need." And then the voice at the other end of the phone would start discussing intimate details about some patient or other before I could interrupt and say, "But I'm not that Alan Robson..."

I learned a lot of things that I probably wasn't supposed to know about a lot of people I'd never met. These days we'd consider that to be a terrible breach of privacy. But things were very different then.

The Hanging Tree is the sixth novel in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. After the plot digressions of the fifth book, we now find ourselves firmly back in the main line of the story. Lesley has a new face, and the machinations of The Faceless Man are as evil and as twisted as ever they were. But I must confess, I found the book to be a little bit of a chore to read – by now the jokes are getting repetitively stale, and Peter has developed the annoying habit of infodumping in a voice that sounds a lot more like the omniscient author than it sounds like Peter himself. Peter is becoming rather stuffy and dull, I'm afraid; very much a member of the establishment.

There are still lots of good bits, of course. I found the character of Sahra Guleed particularly appealing. She has a nice line in sarcasm and isn't afraid to put the boot in when it becomes necessary. I'm actually starting to prefer her to Peter, and I'd love to read a book told from her point of view. Maybe next time.

Wavy music and eerie lines.

I moved to the other side of the world and settled myself in a randomly chosen suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. One day I received a bill from an electrician who wanted me to pay him a substantially large number of dollars for repairing an electrical gizmo that I was absolutely sure I didn't own any of.

I rang the electrician and explained my bewilderment about the bill.

"Ah," said the voice at the other end of the phone. "Well, we had a fifty-fifty chance. Too bad we made the wrong choice. Don't worry about it. Just throw the bill away and forget about it."

"What do you mean you had a fifty-fifty chance?" I asked.

"We lost the worksheet with the address details on it," explained the voice. "But we remembered the name and so we looked it up in the phone book. However it turns out that there are two people called Alan Robson in the phone book and they both live very close to each other. So we tossed a coin and sent the bill to the first address in the book. That turned out to be your address and clearly it was the wrong one. Don't worry about it – now that we know the proper address, we'll send the bill out to that and remove the one we sent to you from the system."

"Thank you," I said, somewhat bemused. "Good bye."

Intrigued by the information I had just learned, I looked myself up in the phone book. Sure enough, there I was:

Alan Robson [My Address] [My Phone Number]
Alan Robson [His Address, a couple of streets away from me] [His Phone Number]

Over the next few years I occasionally received substantial bills from sundry tradespeople all of which should clearly have been sent to him. I presume that he received a fair number of my bills as well. About once every couple of months I'd get a phone call for him and several times, in a strange parallel to the many conversations I'd once had with doctors who thought they were talking to the chief pathologist, I ended up learning many intimate details of the life of this other Alan Robson. I presume that he also learned more than he ever wanted to know about my private life as well, but I can't really confirm that because in all the years that I didn't pay his bills, I never actually met him or spoke to him. And, oddly enough, he never met or spoke to me either.

But my doppelgangers hadn't finished with me yet...

Ian Rankin's new novel Rather be the Devil is his twenty first novel about  Edinburgh detective John Rebus. By now Rebus is several years into his retirement from the police force, but that doesn't stop him from poking his nose into places where perhaps it doesn't belong. A casual remark to his dinner companion one evening starts him thinking about an old case – the murder of socialite Marie Turquand who was strangled more than forty years ago but whose murderer was never found. Rebus picks up the cold case files from his old colleague Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke and starts asking questions of the few witnesses who are still alive after all these years. One person with whom he discusses the case is another retired policeman called Robert Chatham who had reviewed the case himself a few years previously. Not long after their conversation, Chatham himself is murdered. It seems that somebody wants to keep the cold case safely cold...

Meanwhile, local crime boss Darryl Christie has been assaulted. Is somebody trying to move into or take over Christie's territory? And if so, could that someone be Rebus' old nemesis Big Ger Cafferty? Truly there are wheels within wheels within wheels...

Malcolm Fox is called in to work with Siobhan Clarke on an investigation into Darryl Christie's affairs. The old team is back together and, not unnaturally, all the cases are closely connected beneath the surface.

The plot is complex but very satisfying. Rebus, Fox and Clarke are on the top of their form and the book is shot through with very dark humour – Rebus has what might prove to be a serious medical condition. X-Rays have detected a shadow on one of his lungs. In conversation, Rebus refers to the shadow as Hank Marvin... (If that joke went whistling over your head, Hank Marvin was the lead guitarist in the Shadows). Big Ger Cafferty goes to a hardware store and buys two hammers and some nails. He uses one of the hammers and the nails to torture information out of someone. The question occupying everyone's mind is why on Earth did he buy two hammers when he only needed one? I'm not going to spoil the magnificent joke by telling you the answer to that question – suffice it to say that the reason is really very Scottish!

Ian Rankin is back with another wonderful book. I don't know how he does it, but he does it every time. Rather Be the Devil is utterly brilliant.

Michael Connelly has made a career writing about a Los Angeles detective called Harry Bosch. In many ways, Bosch is the American equivalent of John Rebus – they are both about the same age, they hold similar opinions and they are both now retired from the police force. By a strange coincidence, Connelly has just published The Wrong Side of Goodbye which is the twenty-first Harry Bosch novel. So it seems that both Rebus and Bosch are pursuing their twenty-first investigation at the same time, albeit on opposite sides of the world...

A reclusive billionaire is reaching the end of his life. When he was a young man he had an affair with a Mexican girl and made her pregnant. However his family forced him to give her up and he never saw her again. He desperately wants to know what happened to her. Did she have the baby? Does he have a whole other family that he has never met? He asks Harry Bosch to look into it. Initially Bosch is a little reluctant – although he is officially retired, he still works part time as a volunteer with the local police force and he is heavily involved in an investigation into a serial rapist. Furthermore, because the billionaire’s estate involves so much money, Bosch feels that he might be putting himself and the billionaire's other family (if it exists) in a great deal of danger. That much money can be a powerful motive for murder.

Needless to say, Bosch does take the case, and the novel tracks the course of both his investigations. Each one twists and turns back upon itself. Seeming enemies prove to be friends in disguise; and vice-versa of course. Connelly's novels lack the dark humour of Rankin's stories, but Bosch and Rebus are both fascinating characters. Both have had a brilliant twenty-first birthday...

Eerie music and Wavy Gravy. Er... Lines...

One day an email slithered into my inbox. Someone I'd never heard of asked me to review a novel they'd just finished writing, and could I perhaps discuss it it on my radio programme? It's not unheard of me for me to receive review requests, but the radio programme request was a new one on me.

I emailed back. Radio programme?

Yes, radio programme, wrote the emailer and they went on to explain that I was a well known British disc jockey whose nationally broadcast programme had all kinds of special features in it, such as book reviews. Indeed, claimed my correspondent, I was also an author in my own right.

All this was news to me. So I did an ego search and typed my own name into my favourite search engine. Sure enough, the giggles informed me that I really was a Disc Jockey whose phenomenally popular radio show was transmitted throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. The fact that I lived in New Zealand was apparently no handicap whatsoever to me putting my show together for broadcasting on the other side of the world...

Clearly I'd bumped in to yet another doppelganger. It seems that this other Alan Robson has written several books and many of his fans have compiled bibliographies. Most of these bibliographies contain the titles of books that I've written, so clearly this other Alan Robson shares many of my interests. Everyone knows that bibliographers never make mistakes.

The Amok Runners by Colin Cotterill is an amusing bit of serious fluff (if that's not an oxymoron) which I thoroughly enjoyed. Cotterill refers to the book as a prequel to his previous trilogy of novels about Thai journalist Jimm Juree and her rather peculiar family. The last book of that trilogy did fall a little bit flat, which I suspect might be why he chose to set this one prior to the others. Anyway, it represents a true return to form. It's funny, cynical and really quite thrilling.

Jimm, her brother Arnie, and her other brother Sissy, the transvestite, have taken temporary employment as extras on a Hollywood movie being filmed in and around Chiang Mai. A local film director is a second unit director for the movie, and he's using the opportunity to piggy-back resources into a feature film he is directing for the local market. But all that comes to nothing when he gets murdered. Meanwhile Jimm and her brothers are puzzled by the large numbers of extras on the movie. The extras are described as Burmese refugees, but none of them speak Burmese or Thai...

Khin is a Burmese friend of Jimm's. She isn't involved directly in the movie. She's a professor of Thai history and she is hot on the trail of a fabulous treasure that she is convinced has been buried in an old temple where the Hollywood movie is being shot.

As with all Colin Cotterill's books, there is a very serious subtext lying behind the surface fun and games. Make no mistake, the book is very funny indeed, full of delightfully eccentric characters and deliciously witty prose. But what it is really about is the corruption of high officials and the extreme lengths they will go to in order to feather their nests and protect their status. It's a first class piece of writing.

J. Jefferson Farjeon was a stalwart of the golden age of detective novels. He seems to have lapsed into obscurity these days, which I think is a little bit of a shame. Mystery in White dates from the 1930s and it is definitely showing its age. Nevertheless I found it well worth reading, not so much for the mystery itself (though it is a satisfying one) but more for the delightful prose with which Farjeon tells his tale.

It is Christmas Eve and the snow is falling deep and crisp and even. This being England, the snow brings a train to a complete stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Several passengers leave the train and eventually stumble across a house where they take shelter. The house is completely deserted but strangely, the fire has been lit and the table has been laid for tea. The snowstorm increases in fury and everyone is trapped in the house. They will all be spending Christmas here whether they like it or not.

And then one of their own is murdered!

The explanation for the deserted house is ingenious and not particularly elaborate (elaborate plots often fail to convince). And so by the end, there is a distinct feeling of being a little let down, rather like the feeling you get when the mechanics behind a mystifying conjuring trick are explained. Nevertheless, the fascination still lingers and you have to admire the clever way in which the building blocks of the plot all fall into place one by one. The conjuring trick continues to enthrall even when you know how it is done. You can still admire the skill with which it is performed.

I was mildly irritated when the characters made far too many far too clever deductions from far too little evidence, but, on the other hand, that is par for the course in books like this so I really don't have the right to complain. On the plus side, Farjeon deliberately tells his tale from the points of view of several different characters, both male and female, and he manages that extremely difficult task very convincingly. Clearly he was completely in control of the story all the time. And always his prose is an utter delight, full of clever observation and not a little wit.

I simply cannot understand why Farjeon has fallen into such obscurity.

Wavy lines and eerie music.

I moved to the other end of the country (well actually I got half way up and then I took a right turn before finally settling down). I settled in to my new house and did all the bureaucratic things necessary to keep the council satisfied. I began to contemplate a simple life of dog walking and somnolence. However I became mildly perturbed when a letter addressed to Alan Robson from the local council turned up in my mailbox. The letter congratulated me on becoming the new owner of a house at 36 Redacted Road, and went on to suggest that I might like to set up a direct debit authority with my bank so as to make it easy for the council to collect the rates on the property.

"Robin," I said.


"Do you recall us ever buying a house at 36 Redacted Road?" I asked her.

"No," said Robin. "I'm sure I'd have remembered us buying another house. It's not the kind of purchase that you easily overlook."

"That's what I thought," I said. "I think I'd better ring the council."

To think is to do. Do be do be doo...

"Hello," said a very nice man in the council office. "My name is Michael. How can I help you."

I explained about the rates demand for the house I didn't own at 36 Redacted Road.

"Hmm," said Michael. "Have you ever owned that house?"

"No, never," I said.

There was a clattering of computer keys. "Ah," said Michael. "There it is. Yes – it's definitely owned by Alan Robson. Are you telling me that you aren't Alan Robson?"

"I'm definitely Alan Robson," I said. "But I'm not the Alan Robson who owns 36 Redacted Road. That must be be another Alan Robson."

"I suppose it is just possible that there are two people called Alan Robson that we've got confused in our database," said Michael dubiously, "but I've never heard of it happening before."

"Well, it's definitely happened now," I said.

"According to our records," said Michael, "you own two houses. One at 10 Somewhere Else and also a house at 36 Redacted Road, and you are therefore liable for the rates on both properties."

"I'm quite happy to pay the rates for 10 Somewhere Else because that's where I live," I said. "But somebody else is responsible for 36 Redacted Road. That's not me."

"I'll tell you what," said Michael. "Because this is all about the rates, I'll transfer you to the rates department."

No sooner said than done. The phone in the rates department rang and rang and rang. Nobody answered it. Eventually it went to voice mail and I left a message explaining roughly what had happened and asking that somebody ring me back so that we could sort things out. I said my phone number slowly, distinctly and carefully so there could be no mistake.

Naturally, nobody ever rang me back. Nobody ever does...

In desperation, I sent an email to the squiggle who had signed the original council letter and whose email address was printed in such a minuscule font that I needed a magnifying glass to read it (trust me, I may be old, but my eyes aren't that bad – I've never seen such a tiny font). Rather to my surprise, I got a very helpful and apologetic reply a couple of hours later. There were indeed two people called Alan Robson in the council database and his transactions had been inadvertantly attached to my record. So sorry. What an odd coincidence. It's never happened before. It will never happen again until it does. It's all fixed now. Blah, blah, blah.

I look forward to the next rates demand for 36 Redacted Road...

Eerie music and wavy lines.

My name is Alan Robson. And so, it would appear, is everybody elses.

Ben Aaronovitch The Hanging Tree Gollancz
Ian Rankin Rather Be the Devil Orion
Michael Connelly The Wrong Side of Goodbye Little, Brown
Colin Cotterill The Amok Runners Smashwords
J. Jefferson Farjeon Mystery in White British Library Publishing

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