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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (milopuss ipsissimus)


Milo the Cat died of kidney failure on October 12th 2002. He was sixteen years old.

I first met Milo and his sister Ginger when they were only a year old. My wife Rosemary spotted the advert in the paper.

"Look," she said. "Milo and Ginger. Terrible names, but you can’t have everything. The owners are going overseas. Let’s ring them up and go and see the cats."

"Do we need two cats?" I asked, dubiously.

"Of course we do," said Rosemary, horrified that I could ever have thought otherwise.

We took the travelling cage with us, just in case Milo and Ginger wanted to come home with us that day, and off we went to meet them.

The lady of the house answered the door. "My husband can’t come to say hello," she said. "He’s in the lounge with Milo."

I found this a puzzling statement, but she took us through to the lounge and all was revealed. The man of the house was lying to attention in an easy chair. Milo was sprawled out huge and black on his chest, purring like a power drill and dribbling copiously. This was a position with which I was to become all too familiar over the next fifteen years…

"Sometimes you have to turn him upside down," explained the man, and he demonstrated the technique. "That way the dribble goes back inside." Milo lay blissfully content while the man tickled his tummy.

Gradually it dawned on Milo that something new had happened. Oooh! People! Are they any good at stroking? He struggled upright, yawned like a gaping chasm so that we could admire his fangs, and then jumped down onto the floor.

"Oooof!" came a sudden gasp as Milo propelled himself into space from the launching pad of the man’s tummy. This too was a noise that I would soon become very practised in making…

Milo rubbed himself against us and we stroked his soft, black fur. Ginger came in from the garden where she had been chasing butterflies, and she too immediately made a bee-line for us and got a good stroking. I looked at Rosemary, and Rosemary looked at me and she nodded. No words needed to be said. We both knew that we had found two wonderful cats.

We put them in the cage, which surprised and upset them. I carried the cage out of the house and put it in the car and they began to wail piteously. As I drove away, I saw the lady of the house waving goodbye to them. There were tears streaming down her face.

A lot of crime writers start out as simple story tellers and as their novels become more popular the writers become more subtle, their stories more complex their characters more real. You might, if you were in the mood, accuse them of committing literature. Examples are legion – Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin. However James Lee Burke is an exception to this rule. He started out as a self-avowedly literary writer who later found his niche in the crime novel without ever once having had to compromise his art for the sake of commercialism. He started high and continued to aim higher and I’ve just discovered his books. There are a lot of them, and as yet I have barely begun…

Half of Paradise was his first novel, published in 1965. It examines the lives of three failed men. Toussaint Boudreaux and Avery Broussard end up on a chain gang. J. P. Winfield enjoys initial success as a singer but quickly succumbs to drink and drugs and destroys himself. It is a gloomy and grim novel (though not without flashes of humour). It is a novel about failure, about disintegration, about the lack of control that some people have over their lives. It is structurally flawed and a bit too episodic but nonetheless it never fails to grip. Burke followed it with five more novels and a collection of short stories over the next thirteen years. One of the novels won a Pulitzer prize. All of them were published at long intervals, after great struggle and to great critical acclaim, but none of them sold well.

Then, almost by accident, he wrote a crime novel and suddenly the publishers were clambering over themselves in their eagerness to publish him. James Lee Burke had arrived.

He writes of Louisiana and Montana and sometimes Texas with an almost elegiac passion. He paints word pictures that bring the territory alive and he is obviously much in love with the country. But he populates this country with degenerates, with down-and-outs, with violent men, drunken men, drug taking men, failed men. Life is often nasty, brutish and short. The themes of his first novel are never very far away from him and he continues to explore their ramifications.

He has two major series. One concerns Dave Robicheaux, an ex-detective from New Orleans. I am a little unclear at the moment as to why Dave is no longer a detective (I started late in the series), but it is obvious that drugs and violence were the root causes. Robicheaux is not a nice man; though he does have his redeeming features for he is struggling, with some success, to control his penchant for mayhem. So far I have only read one novel in this series (Purple Cane Road), but I am eagerly looking forward to reading the rest.

The other series concerns Billy Bob Holland. These days he is a lawyer in Deaf Smith, Texas. But once he was a Texas Ranger who spent much of his youth with his partner and friend L. Q. Navarro, hunting down and killing Mexican drug smugglers. But one ambush went terribly wrong and Billy Bob shot and killed his best friend. Billy Bob is still a violent man with an often unpredictable temper (quite similar to Robicheaux in many ways – I wonder how closely they both reflect the character of Burke himself?) but his conversations with the ghost of L. Q. Navarro often have a stabilising influence on him. Cimmarron Rose and Bitterroot are two of the novels in this series.

There is obviously a lot in common between the two sets of characters. In every case they have a violent past, often complicated by drink and drugs. They have fierce loyalties and fierce enmities and they are not afraid to indulge their violent streaks when it seems appropriate (and sometimes when it isn’t). The novels are all very dark but the poetry and lyricism and sheer story-telling exuberance rescues them from the slough of despond. It isn’t all dark; his heroes are searching for redemption, albeit slowly and with a lot of backsliding. But that’s humanity for you. Is Burke committing literature? I suspect yes – but I don’t actually care. I don’t even care that he is perhaps a one-themed writer (at least in his crime novels) for he continues to ring fascinating changes on the theme and the sheer momentum and drive of the narrative carry the reader headlong through a torrent of plot, counterplot, character analysis and tension. You’ll hate the characters but you will love the vivid stories.

Two for Texas is one of Burke’s historical novels (I think there are others, but I’ve not come across them yet). It opens in a Louisiana prison camp in the early 1800s. Two prisoners, Hugh Allison and Son Holland (an ancestor of Billy Bob Holland of the crime novels) escape and make their way to Texas where they join the army of Sam Houston and take part in the fight against the Mexican armies of Santa Anna. They are not present at the battle of the Alamo itself (though several of their friends are) but they do take part in the final battle where Santa Anna is defeated.

They aren’t men to admire. Burke has no truck with the commercial image of the clean-cut defenders of the Alamo protecting the American way of life from being despoiled by degenerate evil empires. Allison and Holland commit murder to escape from the prison and there are other, sometimes quite casual, murders along the way. You could argue that they lived in violent times, but given Burke’s preoccupation with violence I don’t think that is an excuse. It is simply something on which he likes to dwell and he chooses his heroes appropriately. I have no idea how historically accurate the novel is (it is a period of history with which I am not well acquainted). But whatever the truth of it, Burke brings the times convincingly to life and I for one was more than willing to suspend my disbelief. It is a raw, noisome and nasty book and I highly recommend it.

The Convict is a collection of short stories. Guess what they are about?

Milo and Ginger howled and cried all the way home. Rosemary spoke to them soothingly as I drove, but they paid no attention. Their world had been turned upside down, and they didn’t care who knew it.

I carried the cage into the lounge and we made sure all the doors were closed. Then I opened the cage. Ginger jumped out and immediately began to explore. She was obviously frightened, but she had an urgent need to know where she was. Milo took one horrified look at all the strangeness that surrounded him and immediately ran underneath the couch where he stayed immobile for twenty four hours until hunger, thirst and internal hydraulic pressure forced him out into the world again.

From the point of view of Milo and Ginger it was an inauspicious beginning. But it would lead to great things for all of us.

We soon learned their idiosyncrasies. Ginger was very athletic and liked to chase things. There was a tree in the front garden that shed small, hard unidentifiable fruit all over the deck. I would throw these, and Ginger would leap off the deck and chase them as they bounced around the garden. When she was sure they were dead, she would sometimes bring them back to me as a gift. Milo would watch all this with a slightly bewildered air. He was a somnolent cat and he had no truck with all this activity. He preferred to curl up in the sunshine. As the sun moved away, he would sigh heavily, and plod after it until he found another comfortable patch of sunlight to plonk himself down in. He would sometimes give me reproachful looks. Why did I keep moving the sun thereby forcing him to expend energy chasing it? He always forgave me at dinner time.

Both cats appeared to be descended from monkeys and would happily chase each other up trees. Ginger in particular seemed more comfortable the higher up she was. But even Milo appeared to get pleasure out of high things. Once I was standing in the kitchen doing the washing up when I glanced out of the window and saw Milo walking casually over the roof of the house across the way. This was astonishing for there were no trees or poles overlooking the house and I have absolutely no idea how he got up there. I can only assume that, like most cats, he had the ability to teleport himself into and out of anywhere at will; provided nobody was watching of course.

He wandered up to the top of the roof, sat down and washed himself and then vanished down the other side. He was back safely in time for tea. He was always back safely in time for tea. In the whole of his life he never missed a meal.

Robert Rankin’s new novel shows that he is as inventive as ever with his titles. And oddly, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies Of The Apocalypse is indeed a perfect title, given the events that unfold.

It is a sort of detective novel. Toy Town has grown over the years into Toy City and the original inhabitants are now mostly very rich from the royalties on their nursery rhymes. However there is trouble in Toy City – the rich and influential are being murdered one by one. It started with Humpty Dumpty who was boiled alive in his swimming pool. Little Boy Blue was turned into shish-kebab, impaled on his shepherd’s crook. Wee Willie Winkie, a private eye, has mysteriously vanished. His sidekick Eddie Bear is trying hard to come to grips with the case, but when you don’t have opposable thumbs, that’s difficult to do. Fortunately Jack, a young lad, has come to Toy City to seek his fortune. He teams up with Eddie and together they try to solve the mystery. The only clue linking the murders is the hollow chocolate bunny left behind at the scene of each crime.

Most writers would make an absolute mess of this. It would be too twee, too knowing, far too tongue in cheek. Rankin makes none of those mistakes. The book is a hilarious romp from beginning to end, full of typical Rankin trademarks, running gags, enormous silliness and (oddly!) a plot that actually makes sense (for small values of sense) and which comes to a logical conclusion – even though the reader HAS figured out the denouement long before any of the characters manage to. It’s a Robert Rankin novel for heaven’s sake! Who cares? I laughed like Thomas the Tank Engine (laughed like a train, geddit??).

By the way – if the phrase "Sweet as!" annoys you half as much as it annoys me, you will love this book with a passion. It obviously infuriates Rankin and he has a lot of fun with it. You’ll never hear it again without wincing even more than you do at the moment. And if you use the phrase at the moment, read this book immediately. You’ll never, ever say it again. I promise.

I read Esau on the strength of Philip Kerr’s brilliant trilogy of novels set in pre- and immediately post-war Germany that I reviewed last month. I picked Esau to read next because it had a science fictional premise. It is set in the modern day along the India – Pakistan border. As usual, this is a place of strife in which a lot of governments interest themselves (if only to try and prevent a nuclear war). However complicating the plot is the discovery of a tribe of Yetis living in the Himalayas, in the disputed territory.

It is a fascinating premise which is completely ruined by an appalling execution. Kerr has obviously done a lot of research on the history, politics, geography, geology, sociology and climate of the region and much of the novel consists of him regurgitating this research in enormous infodumps as the characters lecture each other interminably on all of these topics. It is stultifyingly tedious. I felt I ought to take notes and I had to keep reminding myself that there wouldn’t be an exam at the end of it.

Don’t bother reading Esau. You won’t enjoy it. Trust me.

Hard Freeze is Dan Simmon’s sequel to Hardcase. It is the mixture exactly as before. If you enjoyed the first book you’ll enjoy this one. If you didn’t, you won’t. Either way, you will have to read Hardcase before Hard Freeze will make any sense to you.

Ginger was the hunter of the family. Most nights Milo would sleep on the bed with us, but Ginger would spend the night outside hunting things. In the morning she would often refuse breakfast because she was full of fur and feathers. She would bring home the choicest kills for all of us to appreciate and we soon got used to being woken up in the wee small hours of the morning when she came in howling that very special howl that means, "Come here immediately and see what I’ve got for you!"

Birds, lizards, mice, rats and miscellaneous insects and arachnids – all were ruthlessly hunted down and killed and eaten. Her greatest triumph, from my point of view, was an entire bird’s nest complete with two dead birds; though she herself seemed far more proud of the chicken breast she hunted down and killed one Saturday afternoon at next door’s barbecue.

During one particularly productive week, she brought home three lizards, half a dozen mice, a rat, two wetas, four birds, a kitchen sink and a partridge in a pear tree. The pear tree was too large to fit through the cat flap, but she brought it in anyway. Milo and I were ragged and irritable with lack of sleep for we had been woken up at almost hourly intervals during the week to admire her trophies. Milo decided that something would have to be done.

At some ungodly hour the next morning I was woken by the familiar howling, but this time the voice was slightly deeper and more penetrating. Blearily I staggered to the back of the house where the cat flap was. Milo the great hunter was there to greet me.

"Look at that!" he said proudly and showed me a stick insect.

He was very good with insects. We had a large population of cicadas in the garden and during the spring and summer they would buzz their little hearts out, sometimes drowning the sound of the television. On several occasions I saw Milo sneak up on a cicada and grab it. Then he would sit there looking slightly bemused as it buzzed inside his mouth. Eventually it would get waterlogged and stop buzzing and he would spit it out onto the lawn. It would crawl away wetly, a sadder and a wiser insect. Meanwhile Milo would go and catch another one and do it again. I think he liked the vibration inside his head. Probably it echoed through the vast empty caverns of his skull (let’s face it, there weren’t any brains in there), and it just felt good.

I used to put scraps out for the birds. If ever Ginger was around the birds would fly up into the trees and hurl insults at her. But many times I saw Milo sitting benignly in the middle of the lawn while around him whole flocks of birds hopped and pecked and guzzled. They had him sussed straight away; they knew he was a wuss.

Once upon a time Michael Marshall was called Michael Marshall Smith and he wrote extremely strange and extraordinarily good science fiction stories. But now he has dropped a word off the end of his name and has taken to writing thrillers. The Straw Men is about a serial killer. Sarah Becker is the fifth girl to be abducted and former homicide detective John Zandt has every motive in the world to get involved in the case. Two years previously his own daughter was one of the victims.

The key to the crime is locked in the life of Ward Hopkins, a man whose past is mysterious. His parents have died in a car accident and as Ward empties their house and attends to the mundane details of death, the details of his own life are revealed as being utterly different from what he has always been told.

For a time the two plot threads run in parallel, but gradually they begin to converge. It is very much plotting by numbers – this is an incredibly manipulative book and everything slots into place (kerchung!) with the smoothness of precisely engineered machinery. And that is its saving grace. It is so cleverly plotted that I found I didn't really mind being manipulated. I was lost in awe at the sheer breathtaking brilliance of the structure. And it doesn’t hurt that the book is very elegantly written as well.

But it is all surface – a bright and flashy raree show with so many bells and whistles that it almost (almost, but not quite) manages to persuade you that there is something beneath the surface. Sadly there isn't. This is a read once and never read again book.

Nelson de Mille is a Vietnam veteran and in his new novel Up Country, he revisits part of his own past. The story begins at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, thirty years after the war ended. Paul Brenner’s old commanding officer meets him there and tells him a terrible tale. Evidence has come to light that a young lieutenant in the American forces in Vietnam was shot by his captain. It seems that the captain was involved in some kind of illegality and he shot the lieutenant to protect himself. The evidence, if any remains, is hidden somewhere in Vietnam and Paul is asked to go back and see what he can find.

The bulk of the novel concerns Paul’s journey through modern day Vietnam as he rediscovers his past and meets old friends and old enemies (and sometimes they have changed sides when he wasn’t looking). The details of the old murder soon emerge but what is not at all clear is exactly why these things happened and why they should matter now, thirty years later. Paul simply cannot understand why his government appears to be assigning such a high priority to this old and forgotten crime.

The reason, when it is finally revealed, is a shocking one.

De Mille actually fought in the war and recently returned to Vietnam, where he travelled to the old battlegrounds and met the old soldiers. These experiences add depth and reality to the novel and it held me captivated from beginning to end. De Mille brings the country and the people vividly alive. I could smell the smells, feel the humidity, rage against the bureaucracy and fear the violence that still simmers just beneath the surface. It is a stunning accomplishment. There have been a lot of Vietnam war novels but none of them have demonstrated the historical perspective that this one has. None of them related the past to the present (and perhaps the future) with quite the insight that this book shows. It is fully rounded, fully realised, and utterly superb.

Ever since Carl Hiaasen started preaching and stopped being funny, I’ve been looking for someone to replace him. Now I’ve found Tim Dorsey, and I don’t need Hiaasen any more.

Triggerfish Twist is set in Tampa, Florida. Jim Davenport has just moved in to the neighbourhood and bought a car which honks its horn every time he turns right. After he has this repaired, it fills up the air bag every time he turns on the radio. However he becomes a local hero when he manages to kill a notorious bank robber. It’s a shame that he gets fired from his job, but Serge Storm, a loveable homicidal maniac whose idea of a drug high is to stop taking his medication, quickly befriends him and things soon get worse.

The book is full of impeccable bad taste, lots of bad drugs, bad sex, and bad violence. It is unbelievably gross and explosively hilarious.

After fourteen years of being educated by Ginger, Milo finally caught a mouse. Actually I suspect it was senile and had died of old age and decrepitude. He probably found it lying somewhere and he only pretended to us that he caught it – but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He was ever so proud of himself.

"Look! I got a mouse! Isn’t it the best mouse you ever saw?"

Ginger watched all this with mounting horror. Mice were hers! How dare he encroach on her territory. She sat in his blind spot awaiting her moment. Then she spotted her opportunity. Her paw shot out as fast as lightning and she hooked a claw into the mouse, dragged it away from Milo, popped it in her mouth and then ran out to the back of the house and ate it. It was all over in a fraction of a second and Milo blinked and missed it.

"There was a mouse here a minute ago. I remember it distinctly – it was a wonderful mouse! Where’s it gone?"

He looked terribly bewildered, and he spent the next hour or so sniffing here and there in a bemused way, searching for his mouse.

But now that he’d finally learned to hunt, he realised it was in his blood. There was more hunting to be done; and on some nights, when it was fine and there wasn’t an ‘R’ in the month, he would desert the warmth and comfort of the bed and go hunting for prey.

One bleak morning at 3.30am I was woken by the familiar howling and I went to investigate. There was Milo, proud as a peacock. He’d hunted down and killed a slice of bread. There was the corpse, eviscerated on the kitchen floor. I praised him to the skies. Milo the Mighty, great hunter, great warrior. He lapped it up. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

A few days later I was again woken by the howling. Milo really was making the most of this hunting thing. But when I went to examine what he had brought home this time, I found that he looked a little dejected and there was nothing to be seen. There was only one logical conclusion to be drawn. The bread must have put up a fierce struggle and escaped!

But Milo didn’t despair and he didn’t give up. About a fortnight before he died, he really got the hang of this hunting business, and he scored his ultimate triumph. He brought home a slice of toast. Nunc dimittis.

Neil Gaiman’s new novel Coraline is ostensibly a children’s fantasy novel. It will hold you enthralled.

Coraline is the kind of girl who loves a challenge. She is brave and intelligent and full of determination, virtues that stand her in very good stead when she ventures through a door that shouldn’t be there and finds counterfeit parents with buttons for eyes who have no intention of letting her go back home to the real world and her real parents.

It is a slim and very spooky book. It won’t give your children nightmares when you read it to them, but it may give nightmares to you. What is real? What isn’t? We are in deepest Philip K. Dick territory here and Gaiman’s lightness of touch with the surface story makes the darkness beneath it all the more disturbing.

Alan Furst has made a reputation as a writer of political thrillers centred around the near east of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. His new novel Blood Victory is more of the same.

In 1940, the Russian refugee writer I. A. Serebrin arrives in Istanbul. He is on the run from Nazi occupied France. He is recruited into an operation run covertly by the British to disrupt the flow of oil from Romania to Germany.

It is all fairly predictable, I’m sorry to say. Eric Ambler did the same kind of story forty years ago and he did it much better. Alan Furst’s previous novels stomped all over Eric Ambler territory with hob nail boots on – but because he did it so well, I was quite happy to forgive him his trespasses. Not this time. This time he loses in the comparison.

Fallen Angel is a new novel by Australian horror writer Kim Wilkins. The bulk of the novel is the story of the poet John Milton, in the throes of composing his magnum opus Paradise Lost. Living in his household are his three daughters: Anne, Mary and Deborah. Unbeknown to John Milton, his daughters have entered into a pact with an angel (perhaps a fallen angel?) and the angel’s influence on their lives has quite profound influences (albeit second hand) on the composition of the poem.

It is a beautifully handled conceit. On the one hand Kim Wilkins brings the reality of living in seventeenth century London brilliantly to life. She deals convincingly with the reality of Milton’s household, with the lives of his daughters (for they were indeed real people). On the other hand, seamlessly interwoven with this reality, is the equally convincing fantasy of the involvement of the girls with the angel. History and fantasy, fantasy and history – Wilkins blurs the boundary. It is a stunningly brilliant book.

And then, not long after his triumph with the toast, a hooded shape leaned over Milo holding a scythe. The face deep in the hood was in total blackness except for blue, gleaming almond shaped eyes.


"Go where?", said Milo. "I'm happy here."

TOO LATE. HERE YOU ARE, said the Death of Moggies.

"That's what I said," Milo replied. "I'm happy here. Wha... Where's the sunshine? Where's Alan? Who are you? What are you doing in my yard? I'm going to tell Alan. He'll fix you."


"No," protested Milo. "I have things to do, sun to sit in, mice and bread to catch. I have to catch up on my sleep. And I have to watch that Ginger. Grrr, look. That darn Ginger is eating my food. I'll fix her. Whoops, my paw went right through her nose. Hey, I don't hurt anymore!"

THAT'S RIGHT, NO MORE PAIN. UNLESS YOU CHOSE ANOTHER LIFE. The Death of Moggies sounded a little uncertain about this last statement. He knew all about death, but he found life a little puzzling.

"Mrrr," said Milo. "I think I'll just have a snooze and think about it. I'm not sure I could ever have another home as good as this one. Poor Alan, how will he manage without me?"

YOU HAD GOOD KARMA. The Death of Moggies was quite certain about this point. ALAN WILL BE PLEASED ABOUT THAT.

"Too right," said Milo. "Meow."


I am very grateful to my good friend Nancy Peterson who eavesdropped on the conversation between Milo and the Death of Moggies and who reported back to me what was said. Thank you very much, Nancy.

James Lee Burke Half of Paradise Orion
James Lee Burke Purple Cane Road Orion
James Lee Burke Cimmarron Rose Orion
James Lee Burke Bitterroot Orion
James Lee Burke Two For Texas Orion
James Lee Burke The Convict and Other Stories Orion
Robert Rankin The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies Of The Apocalypse Gollancz
Philip Kerr Esau Pocket
Dan Simmons Hard Freeze St. Martins
Michael Marshall The Straw Men Harper Collins
Nelson de Mille Up Country Time Warner
Tim Dorsey Triggerfish Twist Harper Collins
Neil Gaiman Coraline Bloomsbury
Alan Furst Blood of Victory Random House
Kim Wilkins Fallen Angel Gollancz

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