Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nigrum cappillus lividus)

Black and Blue

A couple of mornings ago I said goodbye to Robin and trotted off to work as normal. Once she’d seen me safely out of the door, she wandered into the bathroom for her morning ablute. Staring idly into the mirror, she was horrified to discover a long black hair poking out of her nose.

Could it be the tail of a brain eating alien from Mars? She couldn’t think of any other explanation. After all, the hairs she grew naturally were not at all black and even though I do still have some black hairs nestling among the grey, she had no memory of me shoving my head up her right nostril as I kissed her goodbye. On balance, a brain eating alien seemed highly likely. She’d been feeling a little absent minded of late. If an alien had been eating her brain, that feeling could be explained perfectly rationally as a literal absence of her mind.

She pulled tentatively at the hair and, much to her relief, it proved not to be attached to any vital nasal structures. It slid out easily. There was no trace of any brain matter adhering to the hidden end. Furthermore the hair was long and straight. There was absolutely no way that I could have put it into her nasal passage for my black hairs are curly and crinkly and go sproing when pulled.

The only possible conclusion was that Milo the Black Cat had been extra intimate during the night. Lately he has taken to sleeping on Robin’s pillow, just above her head. He purrs loudly at the enormous pleasure this position affords him and dribbles copiously all over the pillow and all over Robin. Every so often he gets overcome with love and affection and he leans forward and licks the end of her nose. It is, she claims, a sensation rather akin to being rubbed down with wet sandpaper. But she has learned to sleep through it and these days she hardly notices at all.

But now it seems that he has discovered another hobby to while away the long hours of the night when neither of us is available to feed him. Now he is stuffing fur up Robin’s nostrils. Perhaps he is making a nest for himself and one night soon, when Robin is fast asleep and the alien brain eater from Mars has completely emptied her head, he will crawl up her nose and settle down for a snooze in the snug fur lined cavity of her skull.

John Lawton’s books feature a Scotland Yard detective called Freddie Troy. He is of Russian descent – his father having fled the revolution and settled in England. The first of the novels (Black Out) is set in 1944. Children playing in a bombsite find a charred, dismembered corpse. Troy is on a murder hunt which will soon bring him into collision with spies and spooks and the D-Day landings.

Old Flames, the second novel is set in 1956. Nikita Krushchev is on a state visit to England. Troy is one of his assigned protectors. Complications ensue when the body of a retired Royal Navy frogman is found floating near a Russian battleship in Portsmouth harbour. It starts to look as if the cold war will freeze over again. Troy’s investigations delve deep into the corrupt world of MI6.

A Little White Death takes place in 1963. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. England is exploding into a cultural revolution. But treason and murder are not far away. A cabinet minister resigns in scandalous circumstances and a Harley Street physician blows his brains out. An ageing British journalist in Beirut defects to Russia. What state secrets were stolen in pillow talk? Troy is involved up to his neck both personally and professionally.

I was born after the war finished so I have no way of judging the authenticity of the atmosphere that Lawton invokes in the first novel – but it feels right. The darkness, the fear, the weariness all come across very strongly. Lawton has a real knack for presenting period detail, for capturing the essence, the spirit of the times.

I do remember (just) Kruschev’s state visit in 1956 and the scandal of the frogman spy. And I vividly remember the defection of Kim Philby and the Profumo affair that was the kiss of death to the British government in 1963. In both these novels I can testify from personal experience that Lawton has indeed got the mood of the times exactly right. And therein lies his strength. He mingles fact and fiction, truth and lies, and presents you with an amalgam that is seemingly greater than the sum of its parts. These books simply feel right and as an added bonus, they tell exciting (and often very funny) stories.

Charles Cumming’s novel A Spy By Nature is absolutely fascinating. Much of the novel concentrates on the recruitment and training of an MI6 operative. We seldom see this aspect of a spy’s life in fiction. Normally spy novels deal with the fully fledged, hard as nails, super competent spook at the height of a successful career (or perhaps on the way down from the heights). I don’t ever recall reading a story about the start of a career before.

As with all spy novels, there are wheels within wheels, murky motives and complex conspiracies and young Alec Milius, the new boy at MI6, is a small cog in a paranoid deception. He is being used; and when this realisation dawns, he finds himself alone and exposed.

This is Charles Cumming’s first novel. He is definitely a writer to watch – anyone who starts from such a strong position has a great future ahead of him.

Something that all spies need is a secure mechanism for communicating with the home base. And something all governments need is a method of eavesdropping on those communications while at the same time preventing other governments from doing the same to them. Since the days of Julius Caesar, sensitive communications have been encrypted and a large part of the secret war has always been the effort to break those encryptions.

Today, with the advent of the global communication system that is the internet, anyone and everyone can send messages around the world at the click of a mouse button. But those messages can be read by anyone who wishes to eavesdrop – we have all lost our privacy and in the case of business transactions across the net, we have lost our security as well. Only by encrypting our messages can we regain both of those things. The science of cryptography has ceased to be merely something of concern to governments and spies. Now it is the concern of all of us.

Stephen Levy’s book Crypto tells the story of the contribution that the computer age has made to the science of cryptography. He tells of the personalities involved (as you might perhaps expect, many of them are more than a little eccentric) and he tells of the desperate attempts by the American government to prevent the spread of strong cryptographic ideas to the world at large. There is also a certain irony to the story as we come to appreciate that the revolutionary idea of public key cryptography that Diffie, Hellman, Zimmerman et al have pioneered was actually discovered by one James Ellis in 1969. But because Ellis worked for the spooks at GCHQ in England, the discovery was kept under wraps for many, many years.

Neal Barrett writes extremely bizarre novels. Piggs is the story of Jack who is a dishwasher in Wan’s, a chinese restaurant with an Arab chef. Next door to Wan’s is the nightclub called Piggs which is owned by Cecil Dupree who is deeply involved in a serious dope deal. Gloria Mundi, the love of Jack’s life, is a dancer at Piggs. She lives in a German aeroplane high up in a tree at the long abandoned Battle Of Britun Family Fun Park. All Jack has to do is get his hands on a few hundred thousand dollars and he can rescue Gloria Mundi from all this squalor. One way to do this is to foul up Cecil’s dope deal and intercept the money. But Cecil and the roughnecks from New Orleans may not like that very much. And that is the cue for much unbelievably gross murder, mayhem, sex and violence. The book is extraordinarily crude but the violence, the gore, the grue and the sex are all so extreme that you don’t know whether to laugh or vomit. I laughed. A lot.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. The premise is that in the fourteenth century, when the black death ravaged Europe, it killed 99% of its victims. Thus European scientific and technological progress was effectively completely wiped out. There was no renaissance, there were no voyages of exploration, no industrial revolution, no empires. At least, not from the West. The torch of civilisation was carried by the East. The novel is a view of this history that might have been; a history that stretches across centuries. The Chinese cross the Pacific Ocean to colonise America and the colonisation spreads from west to east. The industrial revolution starts in India where the world’s greatest scientific minds probe the mysteries of physics. Bhuddism and Islam are the great religions of the world and chistianity is merely a historical footnote.

There is only one way to tell a tale that spans so many centuries. Robinson gives us a series of novellas that present vignettes from important historical events. In order to preserve a degree of continuity, all these events are narrated by the same people, a common group of souls that are continually reincarnated across time. And in the periods between their many lives, they discuss the meaning of the events that they have lived and died through in the bardo, a waiting room of the gods, the purgatory from which they are ejected every so often to be reborn.

The book is very bitty. The theological discussions go on far too long and I found them very tiresome. The scientific speculations are fascinating – particularly in one episode set in India where a Galileo / Da Vinci / Newton figure called Khalid discovers most of modern physics! By its nature the book has to deal far more with big ideas than with individual stories and all too often it seems more than a little one dimensional as a result. The linking device of the bardo helps a lot with this for it gives us a continuity of character. But even that is not always sufficient. In the end, Robinson’s reach exceeds his grasp. The book is simply too ambitious and the theme is far too large.

It has been more than twelve years since I last read a David Brin novel that I enjoyed. So it’s nice finally to find another one. Kiln People has a most interesting premise. People can imprint their personality into a golem and send it out to perform mundane tasks while they themselves continue to enjoy the interesting things in life. The golems have a limited lifetime (a day or so) and when their substance decays they simply go back into the vats to be reconstituted as a new golem at some future time. Should the owners choose to do so, they can inload the golem’s life experience and add it to their "real" memories.

Brin uses this conceit on the large scale to examine the social structure that evolves in response to it and he uses it on the small scale to tell the story of Albert Morris, a private eye who stumbles across an explosive secret. Professor Maharal, a pioneer in the development of the golems, has vanished. His daughter thinks he has been kidnapped, other people think he is dead. Some of Maharal’s golems remain but they are unhelpful. Morris sends his own golems out into deadly peril. They find (of course) a complex conspiracy.

The book is a creepy tale of being in several places at once (each of Morris’s golems narrates in the first person, as does Morris himself). It is at one and the same time darkly comic and deadly serious. For once Brin remains in control of his material and has managed to curb the tendency to preach that has marred so many of his books. I liked it.

The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby is set in Shanghai in 1926. Shanghai was a brutal and corrupt city peopled by British bureaucrats, American gun-runners, Russian princesses who fled the revolution and Chinese gangsters with an half an eye out for the main chance and half an eye for the warlords. Heroin is available on room service in smart hotels, sex is just a commodity.

Richard Fields is newly arrived from England. He works for the British police and is soon involved in the investigation of the brutal murder of Lena Orlov, a young White Russian prostitute who has links to a notorious Chinese gangster called Lu. Even as Fields arrives at the crime scene, two of Lu’s men take a potential witness and behead him. Fields is powerless to stop them. Welcome to Shanghai.

Everyone has their own agenda. There are political games both large and small going on all around Fields. The Bolsheviks are fomenting revolution, the warlords are fighting amongst themselves, the gangsters have an eye to the main chance and seemingly no political creed at all. And a power struggle is going on within the police force itself.

Shanghai has long been a metaphor for the corruption and moral decay of the West. It was an evil and fatally fascinating city which casts its squalid spell even today. I once met a man in Hong Kong who told me that he had spent a week sleeping rough on the streets of Shanghai because it was a romantic thing to do. Only in Shanghai, I think.

Bradby’s novel brings all that ghastly decadence to life. He takes you into the heart of the Queen of cities. You can smell it, taste it, feel it. The novel is a tremendously evocative tour de force.

In Smoking Poppy, Graham Joyce tells the tale of Danny Innes. He is separated from his wife, his children have grown up and he is lonely and bitter. His life revolves around quiz night in the pub. But then one day his wife phones him and he learns from her that his daughter Charlotte is in jail in Thailand. She is charged with smuggling drugs and faces the death penalty. Danny and his friend from the pub quiz team go out to Thailand to bring her home.

In Chiang Mai jail, Danny finds a mystery and the trail he has to follow takes him far to the north, to the Burmese border. There, deep in the jungle in a village controlled by a drug gang, he finds his daughter.

The journey is not only a physical one; it is a journey of spiritual self-discovery as well. All the way Danny is haunted by ghosts of the past and fears for the future. Why has Charlotte done what she has done? Was her character moulded by the way he treated her while she was growing up? And what of the future; how will both of them cope with self-knowledge?

Smoking Poppy is a novel about love and redemption. It’s about forgiveness and understanding. It’s about other people; it’s about selflessness as well as selfishness. It’s about opium. It’s about the demons that haunt us all every day, the ones that bind our actions by pulling on our strings. It’s about cutting the strings. It’s a haunting book that will stay with you forever.

Stephen King has a new collection of stories called Everything’s Eventual. Several of the stories have appeared elsewhere, though in unusual formats. One (Riding the Bullet) was published as an e-book and four others were issued on CD with Stephen King himself reading them. But until this collection appeared, none of them had seen print before.

There’s no real unifying theme to the collection, though in several of the stories King plays with the premises of the genre and proves (as if it needed proving) that there is no idea so clichéd that it can’t be used originally. He has a premature burial story and a deal with the devil story and a haunted room in a hotel story.

There’s also another episode about Roland the Gunslinger (I’m getting very bored with the Roland stories – they are getting progressively weaker as the series progresses and I’m not in the least looking forward to the next novel which King claims just to have finished writing and which is 900 pages long. Good grief!).

There’s a depression-era gangster story about John Dillinger (and a gruesome story it is too). There’s a weird definition of hell and an odd little tale about a man, his wife and their pets.

They are all stories by Stephen King. What more is there to say?

Poppy Z. Brite is a horror writer who, when she wants to be, can be even scarier and even more gruesome than Stephen King. Guilty but Insane is a collection of essays that discuss her art, her craft and herself. Probably the most harrowing of the essays are the ones that describe her struggles to define her sexuality and her drug addiction. Also for much of her life she has had to live with constant chronic back pain caused by an old injury. Her attempts to cope with that make for very grim reading indeed.

The collection is an uncomfortable one; Poppy Z. Brite is an uncomfortable person. But the essays make a fascinating companion piece to her fiction.

"Blue," said Robin firmly. "We want blue."

We were shopping for curtains. My new house has much to recommend it, but the curtains leave a lot to be desired. They are ancient, filth-encrusted, spider-haunted rags with holes in. Except for the bedroom curtains which are in excellent condition but which have a pattern of bright green semi-fluorescent flowers that shine through your eyelids at night and prevent you from sleeping.

"They’ve all got to go," said Robin. So we went to buy replacements.

I looked carefully around the display.

"There aren’t any blue ones," I said.

"Look closer," hinted Robin.

I crawled under the display table where the spares were kept. It was dark and claustrophobic. I emerged covered in cobwebs, triumph and blue curtains.

"Blue!" I announced.

Robin was across the other side of the shop where she had spotted a curtain display hanging across a wall. Curtains of every colour were proudly displayed. Robin looked thoughtful.

"Purple," she murmured.

"?" I asked.

"Put the blue ones back. You want purple curtains in the bedroom."

"Do I?"


John Lawton Black Out Orion
John Lawton Old Flames Orion
John Lawton A Little White Death Orion
Charles Cumming A Spy By Nature Penguin
Steven Levy Crypto Penguin
Neal Barrett Jr. Piggs Subterranean Press
Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt Bantam
David Brin Kiln People Tor
Tom Bradby The Master of Rain Bantam Press
Graham Joyce Smoking Poppy Gollancz
Stephen King Everything’s Eventual Scribner
Poppy Z. Brite Guilty But Insane Subterranean Press

Previous Contents Next