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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (librorum quorum)

Books, books, books, books...

I’ve done some re-reading this month for no very good reason except that I felt like it. The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh was originally published in 1975, which is when I first read it. I’ve returned to it every decade or so ever since. It’s a book for the ages and I am sure that it will live on long after Wambaugh and all his other novels have been forgotten.

The story examines the lives and times of a group of police officers in Los Angeles. Whenever the stress of patrolling the mean streets of LA gets too much for them, they call for a choir practice – which means that they all go off to a local park where they hold an orgy by the duck pond in order to relieve their tension. The orgies generally involve two fat barmaids, lots and lots and lots of booze and, every so often, a duck.

As the novel opens, we learn that the latest choir practice has gone very badly wrong and somebody has been shot to death. We don’t know who has been shot and we don’t know who did the shooting. We don’t find out who the shooter and the shootee are until almost the very end of the story. The bulk of the novel concerns itself with the events that have given rise to choir practices in the past.

The book is screamingly funny for exactly the same reasons that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is screamingly funny and it is deadly serious for exactly the same reasons that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is deadly serious. And I do not make that comparison lightly. Thematically and structurally, The Choirboys owes a lot to Catch-22. Ultimately, both books are about the futility and the horror of war and both of them use some very clever comedy to illustrate the points they are making. Policing the city of Los Angeles may be just a small conflict in comparison to the world wide war that Catch-22 concerned itself with, but make no mistake about it, when you are a police officer on the front lines in a city you really are fighting a war, albeit an undeclared one, which is every bit as deadly and as vicious as every other war that has ever been fought on larger battlefields. One of the choirboys actually served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam (he’s a very old policeman). Two of the others are veterans of the war in Vietnam. In their cups, all three of them freely admit that they find policing the Los Angeles streets to be much more stressful than they found their service in the armed forces. At times like these, they really do need their choir practices.

All Joseph Wambaugh’s novels have a thread of dark comedy running through them. But none of his novels ever again managed to scale the comedic heights or plumb the tragic depths that The Choirboys reaches. It is Wambaugh’s masterpiece.

The Antipope is the first of eight novels (or, according to some authorities, ten novels) that make up Robert Rankin’s Brentford Trilogy. But no matter how many novels there are in the trilogy at the moment, doubtless there will very soon be a lot more. Robert Rankin is that kind of writer…

The Antipope was originally published in 1981 and it was Rankin’s very first book. It’s a difficult novel to categorise. Some people think that it’s science fiction, some people think that it’s fantasy. Rankin himself claims that it is a brand new genre which he calls far fetched fiction. He says he invented the genre so that he could have a shelf all to himself in the bookshops. Since he’s gone on to write another forty or so novels since 1981, I suspect he’ll have a whole shelf to himself anyway, irrespective of whatever genre the shop files him under! So perhaps the category is irrelevant.

The story, such as it is, begins when Archroy’s wife sells his beloved split-windscreen Morris Minor in exchange for five magic beans. Shortly after that catastrophe, a tramp of suspicious aspect turns up in Brentford. Neville, the part time barman at the Flying Swan finds the tramp quite terrifying. His worries turn out to be justified when it becomes clear that the tramp is none other than the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, the eponymous Antipope himself. Alexander is determined to remake Brentford in his own image and turn the suburb into an evil Holy See. The five magic beans grow up to become hideous homunculi who are there to aid their dark master in his dark ambitions.

All of these shenanigans mean that Jim Pooley and John Omally must temporarily give up drinking, gambling, work avoidance, womanising, and a lot more drinking in order to ally themselves with Professor Slocombe whose occult studies put him in a very good position to defeat the Antipope. Surely having an advantage like that calls for a drink? Several of Professor Slocombe’s small sherries, perhaps. In large glasses.

In many ways, the novel is rather like a reboot of a typical Dennis Wheatley bodice-ripping story of black magic and esoteric scholarship. But whereas Wheatley took his subject matter very seriously, Rankin has never been known to take anything seriously in the whole of his life. Consequently The Antipope is side-splittingly funny, though you need to be aware that if you look at it too closely, it will make no sense whatsoever. Rankin has never concerned himself very much with sense, or with sensibility either.

Poul Anderson’s novel The Boat of a Million Years dates from 1989, which was quite late in his career. It was nominated for a Hugo award in 1990, but it lost out to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I can’t really quarrel with that decision. Hyperion was certainly a worthy winner. But I can’t help wishing that The Boat of a Million Years had taken the prize. I suppose it’s partly my fault that the novel failed to win. I actually attended the 1990 worldcon at The Hague in the Netherlands. Guess which novel I voted for...

The theme of the book is immortality. In a series of vignettes we follow the lives and journeys of a group of ageless and deathless men and women from thousands of years in the past and on into the far, far future. The mutation that makes these people immortal is very rare, and for the first few thousand years of their lives they almost never meet each other face to face because they are so widely scattered across the world. And, ironically, even on the rare occasions when they do chance to meet each other, they sometimes don’t realise that that they have done so. One thing that immortals learn very quickly, if they want to continue to live their lives undisturbed, is how to disguise themselves effectively so as to keep from being discovered. They may be immortal but that doesn’t mean they can’t be killed. If their secret was exposed, they would find themselves in a lot of danger. Short lived people always respond with violence towards those who are different from themselves.

In a novel such as this, it would be very easy for the author to succumb to the temptation of letting the immortals interact with historical figures in an attempt to add some flavour to the progress of the story. After all, what’s the point of writing a scene set in the Renaissance without having Leonardo da Vinci play a leading role in it? Well actually, there is a lot of point to keeping da Vinci out of it, and Anderson steadfastly refuses to indulge himself with that kind of easy, superficial sort of tale telling. There are hardly any famous names appearing on stage in this novel. In later chapters, when his immortality is more widely known, one of the characters is sometimes asked if he had ever met Jesus. "No," he says. "I was in Phoenicia at the time." The world is very large and not everyone can consistently be in the right place at the right time (whatever that means). Anderson knows this, and his novel is much stronger for that knowledge. His refusal to tell of the lives and times of the great and the good (and the bad and the ugly) gives the stories a magnificent verisimilitude. We see the passing of the ages only by experiencing the daily lives of very ordinary people. The technique is a strong one, and it gives a very good sense of the scale of the story without ever having to belabour the point.

The novel is also a perfect demonstration of Anderson’s broad and detailed knowledge of history. His research is impeccable. The individual vignettes — each of which is set in a particular time and place such as Roman Britain, the Byzantine Empire, the Chinese Empire and the early American West — are so vividly brought to life that I would have been more than happy to have seen each one expanded into a complete novel in it’s own right!

And that brings me to my major complaint about the book. It is far too short. This is something I rarely, if ever, say. Mostly I complain and grumble that novels these days are too damn long. But the richness of the material in Anderson’s novel, and the cleverness of the theme as he interprets it, demands a lot more than the 500 or so pages that he actually gives it. As a result, the story sometimes feels a little rushed and hurried. And let’s face it, 500 pages is very short by today’s standards, though it did push the limits a bit back in 1989. Given the depth and the quality of Anderson’s research, I would not be at all surprised to learn that, lurking among the papers that he left behind, there is sufficient material to expand The Boat of a Million Years to three or four or more times its present length. Certainly the book could bear the weight of all that material without any difficulty whatsoever. But Poul Anderson died in 2001, and there has never been even a hint of a whisper of a rumour about such a treasure trove of words. So clearly I’m just indulging myself in wishful thinking. What a shame…

I did read some new books this month as well. The best of them was Gray by Lou Cadle, a writer I’ve never heard of and about whom I know nothing at all. The novel turned up on one of those tedious "recommended for you" lists that online bookstores tend to bombard their clientèle with. Normally I pay no attention to such lists, but something about Gray caught my eye and I decided to give it a go. It’s an after the apocalypse story (a genre I do actively seek out and enjoy). The novel didn’t disappoint me.

To begin with, it isn’t clear what has caused the apocalypse. Initially it manifests itself as searing heat that burns and destroys everything, everywhere. But once the flames die down the temperature starts to fall rapidly, and very soon it begins to snow. The atmosphere is so full of ash from the fires that the sun’s rays cannot penetrate it and the world enters a perpetual winter. Nothing grows, almost nothing lives, and the land is covered with grey snow impregnated with ash. Coral and Benjamin, the two survivors whose story is told in this book speculate that there may have been a nuclear war and that the world is now suffering the effects of a nuclear winter. However, as the story progresses and they fail to die of radiation sickness, they conclude that the catastrophe cannot have been a nuclear war after all. Eventually they hear a rumour of an asteroid strike…

The story is driven by all the standard tropes and it contains no surprises for the jaded readers among us who have read similar stories a thousand times before. Nevertheless I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what happened next. The story grabbed hold of me and simply wouldn’t let me go. Cadle is particularly good at describing the minutiae of survival in sub-zero temperatures, and some of the details that he comes up with are extremely gross! I enjoyed those bits a lot. I shivered along with Coral and Benjamin as the story progressed and every so often I felt an overwhelming urge to go and huddle over a heater. That’s a sign of good writing!

As far as I can tell, Cadle is a self-published writer. I’m usually suspicious of self publication, for all the obvious reasons. But Cadle is the exception that proves the rule. He’s an excellent writer who tells an enthralling story. What more could anybody want?

Gray was originally published as three separate novels and I believe that the original trilogy is still available in that form. However I read it in an omnibus edition in which the original novels are simply presented as parts one, two and three of a continuous narrative. That’s probably the best way to read it. The later parts do depend on, and continue to make reference to, the earlier parts and I suspect it would be quite frustrating to read one without having the others close at hand. Gray really is a single novel. It isn’t a trilogy at all, for the same reasons that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a trilogy despite the fact that it is often published as one.

I’ve long been an admirer of Lawrence Block’s writing and a new Lawrence Block book is always a cause of great rejoicing in my house. The Burglar in Short Order stars Bernie Rhodenbarr, a series character who has appeared in eleven other novels. In some respects, this is a disappointing book. I was expecting it to be a twelfth novel about Bernie but instead it turned out to be a collection of short stories and essays. Some of the "stories" are extracts from earlier novels, which is rather annoying since I already have all the earlier novels. Some really are stories in their own right but almost all of them have been published elsewhere (to be fair, mostly these earlier publications were in very obscure places and the stories have long been unobtainable). And one story was written specially for this collection.

By and large, all the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels are rather lightweight. That’s a deliberate choice by Lawrence Block. The books are meant to be frothy and funny. But the stories in this collection are lightweight even by Bernie Rhodenbarr’s somewhat loose standards. There really isn’t very much meat on the bones of this book. However it is a new Lawrence Block book. Surely that has to count for something?

In one of the essays included in The Burglar in Short Order, Block praises John Sandford’s novels about Lucas Davenport. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by John Sandford, so the essay didn’t mean much to me. But on the strength of it, I decided to give Sandford a go.

Rules of Prey is the first of Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels. Indeed, I later learned that it was the first novel that that John Sandford ever wrote. On the evidence of this book I can say that he started his writing career very strongly and I’m sure the series will just get better and better.

There is a serial killer at large in Minneapolis. He’s known as the maddog. Lucas Davenport must hunt him down, hopefully before he kills again. So far, so very ordinary. The plot is nothing special – we’ve all read this story a thousand times before. And everybody knows that there are no new stories under the sun, there are only re-told stories with, hopefully, something a little bit clever to keep the reader turning the pages. And there are indeed some very clever aspects to the book. The cleverest is that almost from the beginning the reader knows exactly who the maddog killer is, but Lucas Davenport, of course, does not. Several chapters are told from the killer’s point of view and it isn’t very long before we know his name, his job, and and his motives for doing the terrible things that he does. Davenport has none of this information, and it’s very entertaining to watch him try to interpret the meagre clues that the maddog leaves behind. Some of them turn out to be deliberate clues planted by the killer himself in an attempt to confuse the issue and muddy the waters. It’s amusing, as well as mildly frustrating to see Davenport pursue a lot of what we know to be red herrings before he eventually gets on the right track and we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a lot of fun watching him slowly assemble the jigsaw puzzle whose completed picture we have already seen.

Davenport himself is something of an oddball character. He’s very rich. He earns a huge amount of money from designing role-playing games. He drives a porsche and he lives a life of luxury. He does not need his police salary; he does not actually need to be a policeman at all. He does his job out of a sense of dedication. It’s an attitude I find extremely hard to understand (if I was as rich as Davenport I’d be a lotus eater) but I can admire it.

Rules of Prey is a strong and complex novel with a clever plot and a lot of subtle psychological insight. Lawrence Block was right to recommend it.

Scat is a YA novel by Carl Hiaasen. Like all of his YA books it’s a little preachy, full of exhortations about preserving the environment from evil and exploitative organisations like big oil companies. But, for once, the preaching doesn’t get in the way of telling a rather good, and marvellously eccentric, story.

Nick Waters and Marta Gonzalez are classmates at school, united in their fear of Mrs Bunny Starch, their eccentric and extremely scary biology teacher. She organises a class trip to the swamps of the Florida Everglades but while they are there, somebody starts a fire and the children are forced to flee the flames. Mrs Starch does not return from the field trip. Is she dead? If so, who (or what) killed her? Who started the fire, and why?

The school principal tells everyone that Mrs Starch has been called away because of a family emergency, but Nick and Marta are not convinced by this excuse. They are sure that Duane Scrod, the class delinquent, is behind the whole thing. After all, isn’t his nickname Smoke? With a nickname like that, who else could possibly have started the fire?

Well, Nick and Marta are partly correct. Duane really is a mover and shaker behind the scenes, but not at all in the way that Nick and Marta first assume him to be. Eventually they are forced, somewhat reluctantly, to regard him as an ally. In the course of their investigations they meet an eccentric eco-avenger, a stuffed rat named Chelsea, an utterly inept Texas oilman, and a substitute teacher who thinks he can sing (spoiler, he can’t). The teacher, a raving loony if ever there was one, always teaches page 117 from every textbook in every subject on Mondays. He has different page numbers for other days of the week. Thursdays, for example, are devoted to page 329 and only page 329. And when Monday comes around again, it’s back to page 117.

Eventually the mystery of what happened to Mrs Starch is solved and all the loose ends are tied up, but not before Nick has a close encounter with the rare and endangered Florida panther whose presence in the swamps of the Everglades provides a motive for everything that happens in the story.

The novel’s saving grace, despite its rather pompous ecological message, is that it is very, very funny. It is stuffed full of eccentric, and yet completely believable, characters and it has a pleasingly complex plot. The obvious explanations for what is going on are never the real explanations. There are always wheels within wheels and the reader is constantly taken by surprise with each new development. Scat is by far the very best of Carl Hiaasen’s YA novels.


Joseph Wambaugh The Choirboys Orion
Robert Rankin The Antipope Transworld
Poul Anderson The Boat of a Million Years Tor / Open Road
Lou Cadle Gray Kindle
Lawrence Block The Burglar in Short Order Subterranean Press
John Sandford Rules of Prey Putnam
Carl Hiaasen Scat Alfred A. Knopf
     
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