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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (dies festus)

Alan Becomes A Couch Potato

I really was on my hols. Four glorious weeks stretched ahead of me across Christmas and well into the New Year; and I had nothing to do but read and socialise the kittens. For four weeks Porgy and Bess and I played with each other every day (in between books, of course) and took an afternoon nap when we were tired. Kittens live at two speeds – on and off. When they are not active they sleep. When they are not sleeping they race around the house at the speed of light plus one. It is terribly disconcerting to leave the kittens in a room, then walk to the other end of the house and find the kittens already there, with nothing but a sonic boom and a blast of Cerenkov radiation to mark their passage.

Two kittens is the ideal number. One for each ear. Stereo purring is one of natures more relaxing sounds. Invariably when the kittens climbed on top of me and slept on my shoulders, purring enormously the while, I would fall asleep as well. Believe me, there is no sleep so satisfying as a kitten induced catalepsy.

But of course there were still books to read.

Browsing through a bookshop one day, I picked up a book of short stories called Now’s The Time by John Harvey. The immediate attraction, when I read the blurb, was that the stories were all set in Nottingham, a city where I had lived for nearly twelve years. I was curious to see how much of the city I remembered came across in the stories. The stories are all police procedurals (to a greater or lesser extent) and the hero is a Detective Inspector called Charlie Resnick. He is separated from his wife and lives with four cats and listens to jazz music (a man after my own heart). A jazz theme pervades all the stories and each story gives a vivid slice of Nottingham life. I found the book quite enthralling, partly because of the frisson of recognition that I got as Charlie Resnick walked the same streets that I had walked, and drank in the pubs I had drunk in, and partly because they were, quite simply, brilliant examples of the short story genre. Other detective novel writers (such as Ian Rankin) have produced the occasional short story collection but by and large these have merely proved that they should stick to writing novels. Not John Harvey – he is a master of the form and every single story in the book is brilliant.

After that, of course, I had to read the novels. It would appear that Harvey has written ten novels with Charlie Resnick as a protagonist. I visited every single bookshop in Wellington (including all the second hand ones) but managed to find only two of the novels. In Cutting Edge a series of savage murders and assaults are centred around the hospital. Someone seems to have it in for the hospital staff and Resnick is faced with a mass of clues that, initially at least, seem to lead nowhere. In Still Water, the battered body of a young woman is found floating in a canal. She seems to be the latest victim of a serial killer and to begin with it is not Charlie Resnick’s case. The Serious Crime Squad is investigating. But a second body is found and this person is known to Hannah, Charlie’s lover. Hannah knew the victim and knew that her husband was fiercely jealous and free with his fists. Perhaps there is less to the cases than meets the eye. Resnick is involved now and the investigation leads him into some very strange territory indeed as he probes questions of guilt and innocence, the nature of love and the nature of abuse.

The books were brilliant – they held me on the edge of my seat. There were eight more novels available about Charlie Resnick and I couldn’t find any of them!! Fortunately there was always I ordered the remaining novels and over the next few days they trickled slowly in.

Lonely Hearts has Charlie investigating a string of seemingly unconnected murders. Not until he discovers that all of the dead women had advertised in the lonely hearts column of the newspaper does he finally come to realise where he should be looking for the killer. In Rough Treatment, two burglars turning over the home of television producer Harold Roy get more than they bargained for. They know exactly how to dispose of the money and jewellery, but a kilo of cocaine is a bit outside their league.

A book reviewer in The Times had this to say about John Harvey and his novels about Charlie Resnick:

The label Queen of Crime has been liberally applied to those women writers considered a cut above their competitors; yet there has been no comparable King of Crime. But if the title is to go to the male writer who is at the summit of his form and writing some of the best crime fiction this side of the Atlantic, the crown is John Harvey’s.

I can’t say better than that.

Harvey has also written a non-Resnick book. In a True Light concerns the exploits of a forger called Sloane. He makes a very nice living painting fake old masters. Eventually he is caught. After serving his sentence, he returns home to find a letter from a woman with whom he had a passionate affair in his youth. They are long separated, but now she is dying and she wants to see him again. On her deathbed, she confesses that she had a daughter (called Connie) and Sloane is the father. Mother and daughter are long estranged. She implores Sloane to find her and make peace between them.

Rather shocked by these revelations, Sloane eventually agrees. He finds Connie in America, at the bottom of a spiral of drink, drugs and crime. Sloane himself is a criminal, but comes to realise that there are crimes and there are crimes. Where do you draw the line in the spectrum and why?

Lawrence Block’s Burglar Who… books are light hearted, instantly forgettable, completely traditional whodunits written to an exact formula. The hero, Bernie Rhodenbarr, runs a second hand bookshop by day and is a burglar by night. In the course of his burglaries he often discovers dead bodies. He is accused of the murder and spends the rest of the book solving the murder and clearing his name. Eventually Bernie solves the crime to his own satisfaction and calls all the suspects together in a library (or similar), says something along the lines of "I suppose you are wondering why I gathered you all here…" and then unmasks the killer who immediately breaks down and confesses to the crime.

It’s utter fluff, but so beautifully done that you have to enjoy it. But be warned – it took me less than a day and a half to read all four books. They vanished like candy floss.

Sparkle Hayter’s books aren’t much heavier. Robin Hudson is a reporter for All Network News (a thinly disguised CNN). She stumbles across corpses and solves the mystery in a fairly traditional manner. The attraction of Hayter’s novels is the sheer wit and gusto with which she tells the (usually rather trite) story. Her prose positively sparkles (sorry) and is very, very funny indeed.

Dan Simmons has published a new collection of science fiction novellas. Stupidly, he has called it Worlds Enough and Time. Since there exist at least two other books by two other authors with exactly that same title, I feel that he is asking for trouble. I bet he loses a lot of sales as people glance briefly at the title on the shelves and say to themselves, "Oh – I’ve already got that."

If they do, they’ll miss a treat. Dan Simmons is a remarkably skilful and entertaining writer. The five novellas in this collection were all new to me, and four of them were heart-breakingly brilliant. The fifth is a story set in the same universe as his Hyperion novels and since I disliked the later Hyperion novels quite a lot I found myself biased against this story before I even started to read it. I think that prejudice coloured my response too much. It’s probably just as good as the other stories, I just didn’t notice.

I hesitate to define Philip Kerr’s new novel Dark Matter as science fiction, but if it isn’t science fiction I’m really not at all sure what it is. It is indubitably a detective novel, but the detective who investigates the crime is Sir Isaac Newton. The story opens in the year 1696. Christopher Ellis comes to the Tower of London as assistant to Sir Isaac Newton. Newton is Warden of the Royal Mint (which resides in the Tower) and he has accepted a commission from the King and Parliament to investigate and prosecute counterfeiters whose false coins threaten to bring down the rather shaky economy.

While Newton and Ellis investigate the counterfeiters, they come across a mysterious coded message on a corpse that is discovered in the Lion Tower. The message, together with certain alchemical relics suggest that this is more than just an ordinary murder. As Newton gets closer to the truth about the counterfeiters, more murders take place (and more messages are discovered). Newton and Ellis discover that counterfeiting is only the surface of a dark conspiracy that threatens the throne itself.

The book is a brilliant tour-de-force. At one and the same time, Kerr tells an exciting and fascinating tale and at the same time throws a lot of light onto the tortured, enigmatic character that is Sir Isaac Newton. How much is fact and how much fiction? How much is science fact and how much is science fiction? How much is historical fact and how much is historical fiction? It’s all mixed up together and it doesn’t pay to try and separate out the threads. The book is far too good for that.

A Pound of Paper is an autobiographical sketch by John Baxter, the Australian science fiction fan, writer and book addict. He tells (very entertainingly) of searching the world over for books to add to his collection. Along the way he meets such notables as Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss (and asks them to autograph books for him). Everybody who loves books, everybody who collects books, everybody who has ever been in the position of having enough money to either buy a book or buy lunch (but not both) should definitely forego lunch and buy this book immediately.

For the last few months this column has consisted largely of an extended essay on the merits of James Lee Burke. I’ve pretty much run out of things to say about him now, so I’ll confine myself to saying that Lay Down My Sword And Shield is a mildly entertaining novel about American politics and the Civil Rights movement.

Alan Judd’s novel Legacy is a spy story set in the heart of the cold war. Charles Thoroughgood is recruited to MI6. His old school friendship with Viktor, a Russian diplomat living in London, is seen by MI6 as a perfect mechanism to use to try and recruit Viktor as a spy. So even while he is still undergoing training and learning the tricks of the spy trade, Charles is also taking part in his first real operation and becomes Viktor’s case officer.

There is a very authentic feeling to the book. Those of us who grew up in the dark years of the Cold War will easily recognise the accuracy with which Judd re-creates those paranoid times. The book has "classic" written all over it.

A Fine Dark Line is a Joe Lansdale’s thematic sequel to his earlier novel The Bottoms. It isn’t a true sequel (the two books have no characters or scenes in common) but nevertheless Lansdale is still nibbling away at the same themes of racial and social inequality.

The book is set in 1958, in Dewmont, Texas; the heart of small-town America. Thirteen year old Stanley Mitchell discovers a trove of passionate love letters hidden in a rusty box near an old, burned out house. Inspired by the letters, he investigates their background and finds a murky story of love and murder a generation before. It crosses the tracks from high society to poor white trash; from black to white and back again.

Lansdale is a wonderfully evocative writer. You can taste, feel and smell 1958 America (it’s almost as good as listening to Elvis Presley again for the very first time) and he understands what drives the dark underbelly of American society. He isn’t afraid to expose much of which America should be hugely ashamed (though I doubt that it is). This is at one and the same time a damning indictment and a genuinely beautiful love story.

It had been a great holiday. I’d thoroughly enjoyed being lazy, doing nothing but read. But all holidays must end; I went back to work and the normal daily grind began again.

I took a taxi to the airport to catch my first flight of the new year. I was going to Auckland to run a Linux course. I went through the security gates and into the aircraft and made myself comfortable. It was fifteen minutes after the scheduled departure time and they were still boarding the flight - but that is quite normal for Air New Zealand who have a somewhat cavalier attitude to the strictures of the timetable. I have often considered nominating their timetable for an award for the most creative fiction published in New Zealand during the year.

Eventually, half an hour late by now, a voice came over the speakers.

"Cabin crew arm your doors and cross check."

There was a brief flurry of activity around the door to the air bridge and then we taxied slowly out to the runway where we waited for a while, engines throbbing with anticipation. Then the captain made an announcement.

"While we were taxiing to the runway, the plane developed a small fault and I'm afraid we are going to have to return to the air bridge so that the engineers can check it out."

We taxied slowly back to the air bridge.

"Cabin crew prepare your doors for arrival."

It had been the shortest aeroplane journey I had ever made! Mysterious thumps came from underneath the aircraft as relays of engineers hit it with increasingly large hammers as they tried ever more urgently to find and fix the fault. A man in a fluorescent yellow jacket went into the cockpit to talk to the pilot. An announcement was made. "Well I'm sorry everybody, but it seems that we have a major problem on our hands and I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you all to disembark."

We filed off the plane and as we re-entered the terminal a loud voice announced:

"Due to engineering requirements, Air New Zealand flight 446 to Auckland has been cancelled. Will all passengers uplift their luggage from carousel number one and proceed to the check in counter to be reassigned to a new flight."

My travel gremlins were working well. The rest of the year was looking promising. Three and a half thumb-twiddling hours later, I finally managed to fly to Auckland, kittenless and bereft.

John Harvey Now’s the Time Arrow
John Harvey Cutting Edge Mandarin
John Harvey Still Water Arrow
John Harvey Lonely Hearts Arrow
John Harvey Rough Treatment Arrow
John Harvey In a true Light Heinemann
Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling No Exit Press
Lawrence Block The Burglar In the Library No Exit Press
Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian No Exit Press
Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Thought he was Bogart No Exit Press
Sparkle Hayter What’s a Girl Gotta do? No Exit Press
Sparkle Hayter Nice Girls Finish Last No Exit Press
Dan Simmons Worlds Enough and Time Harper Collins
Philip Kerr Dark Matter Crown
John Baxter A Pound of Paper Doubleday
James Lee Burke Lay Down My Sword and Shield Hyperion
Alan Judd Legacy Harper Collins
Joe R. Lansdale A Fine Dark Line Mysterious Press

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