Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (mus callidus)

There’s A Moose Loose Aboot This Hoose

"Here’s a present for you," said Gilbert the Cat. Unfortunately in order to say those words he had to open his mouth and move it around a little. The mouse that was squirming in his jaws took that opportunity to escape. It wriggled free and ran under the largest and heaviest item of furniture in the lounge, a cupboard full to overflowing with our very best china dinner service, a cupboard so heavy that the solid concrete floor beneath it bowed visibly under the weight of the china that was stuffed inside it. Gilbert looked at me with utter contempt. "You’re supposed to leap on the mouse," he explained condescendingly, "and grab it before it runs away."

"Sorry," I said, feeling utterly humiliated. I took all the best china out of the cupboard and pulled the cupboard away from the wall. The mouse ran between my legs and out into the kitchen where it vanished into thin air.

"It went thataway," explained Gilbert helpfully and he stalked into the kitchen and sat down in front of the fridge, staring at it fixedly. I moved the cupboard back against the wall and put all the very best china back into it. Then, exhausted, I joined Gilbert in the kitchen.

"Did it run under the fridge?" I asked.

"Of course it did, you moron," said Gilbert. "Can’t you see and smell the track it left?"

"No," I confessed, "I can’t." With Gilbert’s help, I pulled the fridge out of its kitchen alcove. We found a lot of dust, cobwebs and dead cat toys, but no mouse.

"I think that every time you move the fridge," explained Gilbert, "the mouse just keeps pace with you so it’s always hidden from view beneath the moving fridge."

"So what can I do about it?" I asked.

"Nothing," said Gilbert firmly. "The mouse has completely outwitted you. Just put the fridge back where it belongs and I’ll continue to give it a good stare. If nothing else, that will discourage the mouse from trying to run away and hide somewhere else."

"Keeping it trapped in one place is half the battle," I agreed. I pushed the fridge back into its alcove and Gilbert settled down for a long stare. The fridge stared back implacably.

* * * *

Lawrence Block is in his mid eighties. He’s been making a living as a writer for more than sixty years. In the 1950s, when he first started writing, he was part of a group of struggling young authors who kept the wolf from the door by dashing off whatever the market needed at the moment. Many of his friends wrote science fiction stories for the pulp magazines. Block enjoyed reading the SF stories that they produced and he even tried to write some himself, but as he has remarked in several autobiographical essays over the years, he was never very good at it and he never felt comfortable writing for the genre. Instead he concentrated on writing thrillers and mysteries and lesbian pornography. He has been amazingly prolific – I personally own 129 of his books and my collection is by no means complete. Almost everything he has ever written in still in print. By any measure that you bring to bear, I think it’s quite clear that he’s had a very successful career indeed.

He’s still writing, and he’s just published a brand new novel called The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown. As well as being the (lucky) thirteenth novel in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, it’s also quite a good science fiction novel as well. Perhaps Lawrence Block has finally learned the secret of how to write SF...

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. All of the books in the series except the first one are titled The Burglar Who… The Burglar In… and in one case The Burglar On… The first one is simply called Burglars Can’t Be Choosers which is an irresistible title, even though it ruins the pattern that later developed. Bernie also owns a second hand bookstore – everybody has to have a hobby, though it’s arguable as to whether burglary or bookselling is Bernie’s actual hobby! Most of the novels have exactly the same plot – Bernie burgles somewhere in search of something valuable. Generally he stumbles across a corpse and the police try to pin the murder on him. He spends the rest of the novel attempting to prove his innocence and by the end of the book, not only has he proved that he himself is as pure as the driven snow, he’s also unmasked the real killer.

The novels are deliberately formulaic and light-hearted. It’s part of their considerable charm. Personally I find it quite amazing that Block has managed to ring so many ingenious changes on the formula over so many novels. Bernie Rhodenbarr has a large legion of fans, and I am most definitely one of them.

The latest novel is set in the present day (2022). Bernie is seriously considering retiring from both of his professions / hobbies. The proliferation of closed circuit television cameras everywhere you look makes burglary pretty much impossible for him, and the existence of Amazon and Ebay makes running a bookstore pretty much impossible as well because they are undercutting his already very cheap prices. He finds both these circumstances very annoying. There’s a delicious diamond that he’d really love to steal, but the cameras prevent him from getting anywhere near it and, to add insult to injury, there are almost no customers coming into his bookshop. For want of anything better to do, Bernie relaxes behind the counter reading a novel called What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown. That’s actually a real novel – Fredric Brown was one of Block’s writer friends in the 1950s and What Mad Universe (originally published in 1949) was one of the first novels to explore the implications of alternate universes. Despite being such an old novel, it’s still well worth reading even today. But I digress…

Bernie quite enjoys the novel and he goes home that evening in a fairly cheerful frame of mind. The next morning he wakes up in a very different world. In this world, the internet still exists in much the same way shape and form as it does in our world, but there is no Amazon and there is no Ebay. And closed circuit television cameras have never been installed here, there and everywhere. In other words, Bernie has woken up in his own ideal alternate universe. Thank you, Fredric Brown. Thank you very much.

Bernie is now free to steal the diamond he’s been lusting after and, of course, he gets lots of customers in his bookshop as a bonus. Some of these customers are very strange indeed, but he writes that off as just normal bookshop eccentricity, though later it becomes clear that these customers are all involved in a conspiracy, and Bernie is the target of it.

The novel now follows the usual formula. Bernie steals the diamond and finds the corpse. He comes to realise that he is being set up to take the blame. Who is the puppet master pulling the strings? And why? The novel works its way to its predictable, but very satisfactory, conclusion. I loved every word of it.

Despite the title, Bernie never actually gets to meet Fredric Brown. How could he? Brown died in 1972 and Bernie doesn’t pick up and read What Mad Universe until 2022. Nevertheless, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown is an excellent addition to the Bernie Rhodenbarr canon. I recommend it highly.

* * * *

Nothing happened for a week or so apart from Gilbert and the fridge eyeballing each other fiercely all day long. And then one day Gilbert stopped staring at the fridge and started staring at the pantry instead. "Let me in there," he demanded.

"Certainly not," I said. "You just want to go in there and check the floor for old onion skins that you can bat all around the kitchen."

"No I don’t," said Gilbert. "Honest!"

I opened the pantry door. Gilbert shot in, jumped up on to the second shelf and started poking his paw at a half-empty box of Weetbix. He pushed it hither and yon for a few seconds then it fell off the shelf and landed on the floor. The mouse ran out of the Weetbix box and scuttled back under the fridge. "You missed it again!" complained Gilbert bitterly. "Don’t you remember? You’re supposed to leap on the mouse and grab it before it can run away and hide. Can’t you do anything right?"

"Sorry," I apologised. I threw the remains of the Weetbix away. The mouse had clearly been enjoying its feast – several of the Weetbix slabs had nibble marks on them. Gilbert went back to staring at the fridge and I went to tell Robin about the sad fate of her favourite breakfast cereal.

"Right," said Robin firmly, "it’s time to put down traps."

* * * *

The four volumes that make up Dennis E. Taylor’s Bobiverse series are very popular, so I decided to give them a try. I finished the first book, but I completely gave up on the series about half way through the second. In a sense, that’s a pity because the basic premise that drives the stories is an absolute corker of an idea. Unfortunately Taylor’s writing style leaves a lot to be desired and he fails to do justice to the idea.

The eponymous Bob is run over by a car as he crosses the street. Fortunately he had just recently signed up with an organisation that promised to freeze him after he dies and keep him safe until he can be resurrected and cured. And so, a century or more after that unfortunate event, Bob wakes up to find that that he has been (sort of) revived. His personality has been uploaded into some computer hardware and, once he has been trained for the job, he will be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe whose purpose is to look for for habitable planets to which the remnants of the Earth’s population can be evacuated.

Bob is a von Neumann probe, a self replicating spacecraft that can use scavenged raw materials to build pretty much anything you care to name, including replicas of itself. Consequently it isn’t long before Bob has built a lot more Bobs and has sent them out hither an yon in all directions to explore lots of star systems. None of the new Bobs are called Bob – the first rule of the Bobiverse is that each new Bob must choose a new name for itself. Not only does this help to prevent narrative confusion, it turns out that, probably due to unpredictable quantum effects,  each Bob personality is slightly different from the others and so a new name is a definite requirement.

Every Bob does, however, all have one thing in common with all the other Bobs. Each and every one of them is the most insufferable, self-righteous, immature, dogmatic, obtuse and downright unpleasantly annoying person you’ve ever met. Slogging through four whole novels all narrated in the first person by various Bobs, all of whom are total dickheads was simply more than I could bear. And that really is a pity because the basic idea of an intelligent von Neumann probe is a wonderful one which really does deserve a wide screen epic exploration. Taylor has some brilliant ideas about the implications of such a thing and, as icing on the cake, the various Bobs find lots of interesting things in the star systems they explore.

But I simply could not stand being in the same room as a Bob, let alone being confined to a page with one.

* * * *

I went googling and discovered an astonishingly large number of different mousetrap designs, many of them amazingly elaborate. Clearly somebody had taken the old saying about building a better mousetrap far too seriously. One such trap was actually called The Better Mousetrap and it claimed to kill the mouse humanely without breaking its skin. No messy blood to clean up, it promised. That sounded good to me. I bought four of them.

The trap itself looks rather like a gigantic clothes peg. Opening the peg exposes a small touch plate on the bottom section of the peg. The top section of the peg is locked into place above the plate. You smear something yummy on the plate and set the trap down. The slightest touch on the plate, such as a mouse slurping up the yummy stuff, triggers the mechanism and the top section of the peg snaps down, pinning the mouse between the top and bottom peg surfaces. As an added bonus, the instructions explained beguilingly that you didn’t even have to touch the mouse corpse in order to dispose of it. All you had to do was hold the trap over a rubbish bin and open it up. The dead mouse would then drop neatly out of the trap and into the bin. Simple!

"What shall we use for bait?" asked Robin.

I went googling again. The same place that sold The Better Mousetrap also sold tubes of something called Times Up! which claimed that it was an utterly irresistible mouse and rat attractant. One review said that the bait was so brilliantly effective that the trap it was smeared on claimed its first mouse after only ten minutes! "That’s what we need," I said to Robin. "What can possibly go wrong?"

I smeared a dollop of Times Up! on to the four traps and put them in strategic places near the fridge and in the pantry. Ten minutes later, I checked the traps.


Over the next few days the dollops of Times Up! slowly hardened into indigestible nibble-resistant masses of glob. It was clearly of no interest at all to the mouse. Robin’s breakfast cereal was far more attractive. This time, bored with Weetbix, the mouse made itself at home in her muesli.

"Something has got to be done," said Robin grimly as she emptied the box of muesli into the rubbish bin. "Perhaps we should get another cat so that he and Gilbert can work alternate shifts staring at the fridge and the pantry. That way those areas will never be left unguarded."

"Good idea," I said. "We can call the new cat Sullivan."

Robin winced. "Perhaps that’s not such a good idea after all," she said. "Let’s try a different bait in the traps instead."

* * * *

The University of Illinois Press has continued its series on Modern Masters of Science Fiction with two new volumes, one about Brian W. Aldiss and one about Roger Zelazny.

The book about Brian W. Aldiss, by Paul Kincaid, is a fascinating read. Kincaid puts Aldiss’ work into context within both the science fiction genre and the wider mainstream literary field. He shows how aspects of Aldiss’ personal life,  together with the social and political events taking place at the time, contributed to the kind of stories that Aldiss was writing. Kincaid also has very firm opinions about what I can only call the literary merit of Aldiss’ oeuvre. It’s a very clever analysis and though I don’t always agree with his conclusions I have to admit that he doesn’t arrive at those conclusions from nowhere at all.

Kincaid claims that Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head are among Aldiss’ very best works whereas I would rank them right down at the bottom of the list. I found Report on Probability A to be so stultifyingly dull that terminal ennui set in within a couple of chapters. And Barefoot in the Head, which derives much of its structure from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake,  is completely incomprehensible. Despite trying several times, I’ve never managed to finish either of those books. Kincaid is also quite dismissive of The Eighty Minute Hour, a novel that I really rather enjoyed. However we are both in agreement that the Helliconia trilogy is Aldiss’ magnum opus.

I wish I could lavish equal praise on F. Brett Cox’s book about Roger Zelazny, but I’m afraid that I can’t. It’s a rather superficial work that consists largely of page after interminable page of overly detailed plot summaries interspersed with occasional remarks about Zelazny’s life and times that read like they came from a Wikipedia page.

Cox is obviously aware of the two already existing major works about Zelazny’s writing, one by Jane Lindskold and one by Christopher Kovacs (he refers to both of them a lot), and he includes an extensive bibliography which appears to be there mainly to give his own book a spurious air of scholarship. The whole thing reads very much as if it was hastily assembled at the very last minute. It’s quite disappointing.

* * * *

I went googling for the best mousetrap bait. I was half expecting to find that the old cartoon standby of a lump of cheese was the way to go, but I was wrong. Mice, I discovered were not all that fond of cheese. The best bait seemed to be peanut butter…

I cleaned the Times Up! off all the traps. It took a lot of scrubbing. The stuff had hardened to the consistency of concrete – I wondered if perhaps I could use what was left in the tube to repair the cracks in my driveway. I baited the clean traps with peanut butter and put them back in place. Ten minutes later I checked them.


The next morning the trap near the fridge was completely clean. Not a trace of peanut butter remained on the touch plate, and annoyingly there was no sign whatsoever of the mouse. The trap remained unsprung. Such delicacy of touch had to be admired, and I was duly impressed.  This was a smart mouse. The only positive aspect to the unfortinate state of affairs was that it was clear that the mouse really liked peanut butter, much more than it liked Times Up! I can’t say that I blamed it. I didn’t really fancy spreading Times Up! on my sandwiches so why should the mouse? Clearly this was a mouse of taste and discernment. Peanut butter! Yummy!! We were both in agreement about that.

I re-baited the trap. This time I used a smaller dollop of peanut butter and I made sure to put it more towards the back of the trap so that the mouse would have to clamber further over the touch plate to get at it. Ten minutes later I checked the trap.


Gilbert spent most of the day staring at the fridge and the fridge spent most of the day staring back at Gilbert. Business as usual, in other words. Late in the evening Gilbert abandoned his post and went outside to do whatever it is that cats do in the night. Robin and I went to bed. The fridge stared blankly at nothing at all…

* * * *

Tom Cox is no relation to F. Brett Cox and he has no interest in science fiction at all. He’s probably never even heard of Roger Zelazny. What Tom Cox is interested in is cats. He’s written four books about the pleasures and perils of living with cats and all four of them are very funny, very moving and at times very sad.

For a long time, Tom Cox refused to admit that he was a mad cat man despite the fact that he spent most of his waking hours making friends with every cat that crossed his path, often going out of his way to do so!. Things finally came to a head when he seriously considered getting a dog – a beagle to be precise. But he ended up getting two cats instead on the grounds that they would weigh the same…

After that there could no longer be any doubt. Tom Cox is the maddest of mad cat men!

He has cats for whom he has bought expensive toys only to find that they prefer the dry noodle he accidentally dropped on the kitchen floor one day while preparing pasta. He has cats who he claims, are too imbecilic to figure out how to put their tongue back in their mouth after they have finished licking their bottoms. I think he’s mistaken here. I personally regard that habit as a sign of great intelligence – would you want to put your tongue back in your mouth after you’d finished doing that? But I agree with him about Ralph, the cat who, at every opportunity meows his own name at the top of his voice. Clearly Ralph is perfectly qualified to be the next UK prime minister.

* * * *

The next morning I examined the trap by the fridge. Success at last! The trap was firmly closed. A long mouse tail dangled rather forlornly from the side of it but the mouse itself was held firmly between the pegs. I positioned the trap over a plastic bag and opened the trap up. The dead mouse dropped into the bag with a satisfying plop!

Gilbert wandered into the kitchen and drank daintily from the water bowl. Then he curled up on his favourite cushion in the lounge and went to sleep. "Aren’t you going to stare at the fridge today?" I asked.

Gilbert yawned hugely. "What’s the point?" he said. "There’s nothing worth staring at there any more." He fell asleep.

Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown LB Production
Dennis E. Taylor We are Legion (We are Bob) Worldbuilders Press
Dennis E. Taylor For We Are Many Worldbuilders Press
Paul Kincaid Modern Masters of SF: Brian W. Aldiss University of Illinois
F. Brett Cox Modern Masters of SF: Roger Zelazny University of Illinois
Tom Cox Under The Paw - Confessions Of A Cat Man Simon & Schuster
Tom Cox Talk To The Tail - Adventures In Cat Ownership Simon & Schuster
Tom Cox The Good The Bad And The Furry Sphere
Tom Cox Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind Sphere
Previous Contents Next