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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (sic in hominibus)

Monarch Of The Road

As I leave my office of an evening to go home, I can clearly see the bus stop towards which I am heading. It is just across the road and up the street.

The buses I catch are green and they stand out from the crowd. They are owned and operated by the Newlands Bus Company (aka Mana Coach Services). Several species of green buses use my stop, but only one of them (number 56 in fact) is of interest to me. Numbers 54, 55 and 57 travel through a maze of twisty little passages on their journey to exotic, far away places with strange sounding names. Churton Park, Grenada Village, Woodridge. None of these destinations will do for me. I require route number 56, Johnsonville Via Newlands, because this bus has the convenient habit of stopping just outside my house.

No matter what time I leave the office, there is always a green bus standing at the stop. It is too far away for me to see the number and therefore I suffer agonies of indecision when I see it. Would it be a good idea to hold on to my hat and run towards the bus, thereby risking life and limb as I dash across the road, zig-zagging between the cars and courier cyclists, or should I merely walk briskly, hoping against hope that the traffic lights will be in my favour?

And what are the odds that the bus I see before me, the handle towards my hand, is actually a number 56? Given that the green buses travel only on four routes, you might assume that the odds are 1 in 4. Were all other things to be equal, you would be right. But since it is well known that million to one chances succeed nine times out of ten, and that God’s surname is Murphy, there is actually a 99.9% probability that the bus I can see is a number 56. There is also an absolute guarantee that it will pull away from the stop and roar around the corner before I get to it.

I have tried varying my departure time from the office, but it makes no difference. Somehow the conspirators at the Bus Company always know when I am about to leave the office and they carefully arrange the traffic flow so as to make sure that their green bus will always be at the stop when I walk out of the door.

Having just missed a number 56 bus, I now have to stand at the bus stop and wait for the next one. Because this is the rush hour, the timetable guarantees that there will be another one along in ten minutes. Unfortunately the rest of the rush hour traffic pays no attention to the bus timetable and therefore the bus will be delayed. Should the weather be clement, warm and sunny, the bus will arrive in about twenty minutes. Should it be cold, wet and miserable I will have to stand there for an hour or more.

But no matter how long I stand and wait for a number 56 bus, I will always have to suffer the inordinate frustration of watching several green buses that are not numbered 56 pull up to the stop and then gleefully drive away again when I don’t get on them. On one never to be forgotten occasion, twelve buses that I couldn’t catch arrived before the one that I could catch deigned to show up. By that time I was soaking wet and suffering from terminal frostbite on all my naughty bits. So I sat next to a pretty lady and dripped on her all the way home. It helped.

I’ve been continuing with my Lawrence Blockathon. Despite the somewhat fetching photograph of Block on the inside back cover of some of his books, I’m starting to think that he’s really an infinite number of monkeys. Every time you turn round there’s a new Lawrence Block book on the shelves. Or possibly an old one. The size of his back list is staggering.

Small Town is not connected to any of his on-going series (of which there are, of course, an infinite number – well five, actually). It is set in New York shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. A serial killer is stalking the city. Block’s rather large cast of characters are involved in hunting the killer and/or reacting to the scary fact that a killer is at large. He cranks the tension up to a level that almost blows the safety valve off. Believe me; you won’t want to go to bed until you finish this one. It’s an archetypal page-turner.

The terrorist attack is not just a gratuitous bit of time-binding. It is central to the whole plot. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the story couldn’t exist without the fact of the destruction of the twin towers. I regard this as a very healthy attitude. I’ve been more than a little perturbed by the way the attack has overwhelmed the American psyche. It seems to be almost impossible to mention it without lowering the voice in respect, without paying lip service to the sub-text of how awful it was. It’s almost as though the event has been placed on a pedestal, to be spoken of only in hushed tones. Making use of it as a plot point in a thriller has an air of sacrilege about it. Well, I approve of that sacrilege. It puts the whole thing back into some kind of perspective and makes the event something we can talk about again in a normal tone of voice.

The novel is very gossipy. New York may be one of the largest cities in the world, but it’s still a small town (the book’s got a great title!). We all know about degrees of separation and New York isn’t immune to the phenomenon. The book is connected and catty, and full of humanity. There is high society; and low society as well. And a lot of very kinky sex. It’s got something for everybody and I loved every word of it.

Not Comin’ Home To You is Block’s dramatisation of the Charles Starkweather murders that horrified America in the 1950s. Starkweather was a nineteen year old psychopathic serial killer who murdered a dozen or so people almost at random. Many of them were killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of his victims were complete strangers. One man was asleep in his car. Starkweather wanted the car and shot the man nine times in the head! Block’s brilliant book tries to give some kind of explanation for this killing spree. I’m not sure he completely succeeds (who can really explore the mind of somebody so divorced from the mainstream of humanity?) but it’s a brave attempt and a very convincing one. Sometimes Block is so talented that it’s scary – he has an enviable ability to think the unthinkable and make it (almost) palatable.

Starkweather went to the electric chair in 1959. His girl friend, who was at the very least a passive partner in the killings, was sentenced to life imprisonment and was paroled in 1977. Block doesn’t stick slavishly to the facts of Starkweather’s life and death (in the novel the Starkweather character is executed in the gas chamber; I have no idea why Block found it necessary to change that fact). Block is writing fiction, not fact, and sometimes the truth can be dramatically inconvenient. Nevertheless the high spots (low spots?) of both the reality and the fiction do have a rough correspondence. Block is extremely good at making literary use of the grim undertones of America’s more shameful episodes. Not Comin’ Home To You is a tour-de-force.

As a contrast to all this grimness, The Burglar In the Rye is another episode in Block’s on-going series about Bernie Rhodenbarr, the owner of a second hand bookshop who is a burglar on the side. The Rhodenbarr books have one and only one purpose – to make the reader laugh. Every single novel in the series has the same plot. Bernie burgles somewhere, finds a corpse, is suspected of murder and has to clear his name and find the real killer. Along the way there is a lot of very witty dialogue and funny bits of business. The books are seldom laugh out loud funny, but they are stuffed full of smiles.

In The Burglar In the Rye, Bernie burgles the hotel room of Andrea Landau, the literary agent of the notoriously reclusive writer Gulliver Fairborn. Fairborn was the author of a book that changed the life of every teenager who read it (including, of course, the youthful Bernie). Bernie is convinced that he will find letters from Fairborn in Landau’s room. Given Fairborn’s reclusive nature and pathological hatred of publicity, the letters are bound to be worth a fortune at auction for the insight they will give into Fairborn’s life.

However as usual, all that Bernie finds is Landau’s corpse, and the game’s afoot!

Given the title of the book, the reclusive nature of Gulliver Fairborn, and the fact that Fairborn is the author of a life-changing novel, it is quite obvious that Block is indulging in some not so gentle leg-pulling of J. D. Salinger and his seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye. There are a lot of wonderful jokes at Salinger’s expense for those who have ears to hear them. But that’s just the sub-text; you can enjoy the book just for the story if you are so inclined. The Rhodenbarr books always have lots of story as well as lots of jokes (and interestingly the jokes are often filled with literary references that are usually wickedly witty). The Burglar In the Rye is one of the strongest books in the series and I recommend it unreservedly.

A few days after that particularly long interval between buses I stood at the bus stop and counted three number 54s, two number 55s and a 57 as they went past. Again I was cold, wet and very fed up. The next green bus that arrived was numbered 55. I crawled on to it.

"When is the number 56 due?" I asked the driver.

"That’s me," he said, looking somewhat surprised that I had asked the question. "I’m a number 56."

"Then why does your sign say 55?" I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "It’s all part of the Bus Company conspiracy to frustrate Alan Robson," he said. "I’ll change the sign when I get round the corner. Look – here’s the TV screen showing the image from the secret monitoring camera, so I always know where he is."

He glanced down at the screen and his face went white. He looked up at me again.

"Oops!" he said.

"You’ve been keeping the number 56 buses a secret from me have you?" I raged. "So how come they do occasionally turn up? Is there a flaw in the system?"

"No," he said miserably. "The telepathic scanning ray that monitors all your thoughts and feelings lets us know exactly when to send a bus along. We carefully time it to arrive just a few seconds before apoplexy blows the wax out of your ears. But the ray must be on the blink again. I thought I’d been getting a lot of static in it lately." He thumped his left ear very hard a couple of times and shook his head.

"Ha!" I told him, "It’s the silver foil inlay in my hat band that’s blocking the beam. I knew something like this must be going on and so I took the appropriate safety precautions. I’ve beaten you at last! I’ll have a ticket to my house, please."

With bad grace, he sold me one.

A few months ago I was extremely impressed by a Michael Dobbs novel that dramatised the political career of Winston Churchill before and during the second world war (Winston’s War). So I’ve been searching out Dobbs’ other novels. They are mostly out of print but I dug around in the second hand bookshops and managed to find most of them. They are an odd mixture…

Dobbs first came to prominence with House of Cards. It tells the tale of one Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip of his party in the House of Commons. He is a cold, ruthless and manipulative man with political ambitions. The novel tracks his scheming as he ascends the ladder all the way to the top.

Dobbs is perfectly placed to write this kind of novel. He has been an advisor to two Prime Ministers and what he doesn’t know about the cynicism of politicians isn’t worth knowing. House of Cards is perhaps the ultimate novel about the workings of politics as seen from the inside. Urquhart’s manipulations ring terribly true and when the BBC dramatised the novel a few years ago it garnered much praise. Dobbs continued Urquhart’s story in two more novels but they pale in comparison to the overwhelming brilliance of House of Cards. The last novel in the trilogy (The Final Cut) is glacially slow, utterly predictable and ultimately extremely dull.

Goodfellowe MP marked the start of a new series. Tom Goodfellowe has recently resigned as a Minister following the death of his son and has moved to the back benches. However he continues to be a thorn in the side of the Government. He lives in London’s Chinatown and when one of his neighbours asks him for help, Goodfellowe agrees, even though the person making the request is not a constituent! Unbeknown to Goodfellowe, his altruism makes him fall foul of Freddy Corsa, a newspaper magnate with delusions of grandeur. Corsa sets out to ruin Goodfellowe financially, politically and sexually. The game gets very dirty indeed.

It’s all metaphor and allegory of course. Dobbs is asking how far the fourth estate can go in its political questioning. How much journalism is crusading and investigative and how much is simply cynically self-serving? How slippery a concept the truth becomes when political power is up for grabs and fortunes are there to be made and lost.

This really is an astonishingly good book. It is Dobbs doing what Dobbs does best; examining politics from the inside. The sequel, The Buddha of Brewer Street is also very good though slightly less satisfying because the issues are not quite as close to home. The theme (as the title implies) concerns China’s ongoing suppression of Tibet. Goodfellowe befriends the Dalai Llama and when the Llama dies he takes part in the quest for the Llama’s reincarnation. It’s a worthy book, at times a fun book and a moving book, but ultimately it’s a shallow book because it never really comes to grips with its theme and this trivialises it to a certain extent.

The third book in the series, Whispers of Betrayal, is simply dire. It’s a thud and blunder terrorist pot boiler which never comes alive. It’s simply writing by numbers.

Last Man to Die is a boringly clichéd second world war novel. It could have been written by anyone at any time in the last fifty years. Dull, dull, dull. I don’t know what Dobbs was thinking of.

It seems to me that Dobbs suffers from the same disease that afflicts many SF writers. He can’t resist the lure of the sequel, and even when no sequel is called for, he continues to milk the character and situation until nothing, or less than nothing, is left. I suggest you read the first two books in each of his series and ignore anything that comes after them. I also suggest that you ignore his singletons – the fact that they have no sequels shows you how weak the original must have been.

I’ve just been struck with a horrible insight. Michael Dobbs is the Piers Anthony of the political novel.

John Le Carre’s new novel Absolute Friends is almost propaganda. Le Carre pulls no punches in his denunciation of America’s post-9/11 policies. He writes with a poison pen tipped with vitriol. They’ll probably never let him into the country again! I doubt that he will care.

The novel covers an enormous span of time – it starts in the dying days of the British Raj and finishes in the early years of the twenty-first century. Ted Mundy is the son of an Indian Army officer. The first disruption of his life is caused in 1947 by the partition of India after independence. One day Ted Mundy is living in India. The next day he is living in the brand new country of Pakistan.

His father is cashiered from the army and leaves under a cloud (though Mundy doesn’t find the reason for this until many years later, after his father’s death). They return to England and Mundy attends school and later university.

In the 1960s, Mundy finds himself in Berlin. It is a time of radical politics. There are riots in the streets. The spectre of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists stalks the streets. Revolution is a word on everybody’s lips. Mundy meets Sasha, one of the movers and shakers of the radical movement.

Time passes. Mundy grows older and becomes a little more respectable. He is back in England now, working for the British Council. On a cultural mission to the East, he meets Sasha again. Sasha is an agent of the East German government, but he has become disillusioned with his political masters. He uses Mundy as a conduit to the West and for many years is the West’s most valuable agent-in-place. The flow of information is two way – Mundy’s shady masters use him to feed disinformation back to the East through Sasha.

But governments fall and walls come down. The reunification of Germany and the end of soviet communism turns enemies into allies. Sasha and Mundy lose touch again. But it isn’t long before a whole new generation of terrorists start to preach a whole new revolution. Their message is more religious than political but their methods are not new and neither are their ultimate goals. Despite the cynicism with which Mundy and Sasha now view the world, neither have really lost their youthful idealism. They meet again and join together again. Perhaps there is one last chance to realise their radicalism. America’s reaction to the fall of the twin towers horrifies them. Perhaps the fascists are winning.

But the times have changed, even if Mundy and Sasha have failed to change with them. Despite their political sophistication they do not appreciate the cynicism with which their masters are using them. The ending of the book is nasty, brutal and short.

Absolute Friends is one of Le Carre’s very best books. It is extremely insightful, not to say thoughtful and illuminating. I remember those days of high ideals in the 1960s (Ted Mundy is of my generation) and Le Carre has captured those Cold War times and their aftermath perfectly. As a generation hindsight has shown us to have been manipulable and malleable. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Le Carre shows us the cynicism and political pragmatism beautifully. And his extension of that nastiness into the new century is nothing short of breathtaking (and is a very cynical act in itself). We’d like to think we’ve matured, but we haven’t. If anything our lords and masters have got worse! It’s a bleak book and it doesn’t hold out much hope.

Joe Lansdale’s Sunset and Sawdust is thematically linked to his earlier novels The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line. Together they form a loose trilogy which documents life as it was lived by the poor whites and even poorer blacks in East Texas during the depression years. The new novel opens with Sunset Jones blowing out her husband’s brains with his own pistol. He was raping her at the time. Somehow she gets away with murder, and even more surprisingly, she is appointed to take over her husband’s job as constable of the small sawmill town of Camp Rapture. The bodies of a baby and a woman are discovered buried in the fields of a black farmer. The bodies are covered with oil. Sunset feels obliged to investigate the murders. The investigation exposes her to the greed, corruption and moral laxity of life as it is lived by the movers and shakers of the world. And the narrow, extremely prejudiced and often shallow world view of those at the bottom of life’s heap just makes it easier for the bosses to get away with things. It isn’t an insight that she likes (nobody likes to see how the world really turns). She is the last person who would ever have thought of herself as a crusader. Nonetheless that’s exactly what she turns out to be.

The novel’s strength lies in Lansdale’s ability to draw a convincing picture of life in small town East Texas. He is so convincing that you can smell the tar and the feathers, you can taste the bugs and feel the sweaty heat. You don’t read this novel – you live it. And even though you are living a nightmare, it is one hell of an experience.

Every Newlands bus comes equipped with a fearsome electronic device which will, when properly placated with a hi-tech card and the correct magic spells, disgorge a ticket and deduct the cost from secret total recorded in a microchip that is buried in the bowels of the card. If the total reaches (or falls below) zero, the machine becomes sulky and refuses to do business with you. Should this happen, one simply crosses the conductor’s palm with green crinklies. The conductor then enters an incantation into the machine which will cause it to add more money to the total in the microchip.

These procedures are fraught with peril.

In order to purchase a ticket, the wielder of the card must wait until after the conductor has entered the destination into the machine. At that point (and only at that point) waving the magic card over a sensor on the top of the machine will cause it to print a ticket and deduct the cost. Should the card approach the sensor before the conductor has finished entering the destination, the machine beeps fiercely, red lights flash, sirens go off, the bus ticket police appear and the hapless passenger is summarily executed.

In order to add money to the total on the card, exactly the reverse procedure is followed. The card must be placed on the sensor before total is keyed in. Should the card approach the sensor after the conductor has begun to utter the incantation to update the total, the machine beeps fiercely, red lights flash, sirens go off, the bus ticket police appear and the hapless passenger is summarily executed.

Woe betide the passenger who gets out of sync with the machine. The bus ticket police show no mercy.

Stephen Baxter’s new novel Coalescent is (almost inevitably, I suppose) the first of a trilogy. It’s hard to see where he will go next – the novel seemed quite complete to me – but doubtless Baxter knows what he is doing.

The novel tells two parallel stories. In present day England, George Poole’s father has just died. As Poole sorts out his father’s house and possessions he discovers, much to his surprise, that he has a twin sister. He has no memories of her. She seems to have vanished from the family home when she was a very small child. Some kind of religious order based in Rome seems to have been involved in the disappearance. The Roman connection is a little disquieting for there is a Poole family legend that that they are descended from a woman called Regina who lived in England shortly after the last Roman legions had left. Escaping from the chaos of post-Roman English life, she somehow managed to make her way to Rome where she founded a religious order. The parallels are too obvious to ignore. There is, of course, no documentary proof of the family legend (it was all too long ago). Nevertheless, Poole sets out to find his sister and explore the family legend.

Mingled with the story of Poole’s search for his sister is the back story of Regina’s life and times. The novel moves seamlessly backwards and forwards between the two tales. The historical scenes are particularly well done. Baxter brings the times thrillingly and convincingly alive. And when the two plot threads combine at the climax of the novel, the ending is truly shattering and satisfying. This is one of Baxter’s best books yet and I will be very interested to see where he takes the tale from here. I just hope he doesn’t succumb to the temptation to take it into weird metaphysical directions. He’s done that far too often in the past and generally when he does it, his books lapse into utter incoherence.

Piratica describes itself on the cover as A Daring Tale of a Singular Girl’s Adventure upon the High Seas Presented Most Handsomely by The Notorious Tanith Lee.

I don’t think I can do any better that description. Sixteen year old Artemisia Blastside hates her school (the Angel’s Academy for Young Maidens). She yearns to return to the happier times of her childhood when she roamed the high seas with her mother who was a notorious pirate.

She seizes a chance to escape from the school and she takes to the road in search of her mother’s old crew. She finds them surprisingly easily (why haven’t they been taken and hanged at Execution Dock?). She soon comes to realise that her memories are not what they seem to be. But she is determined not to let reality get in the way of living. And so she leads her crew through the haunts of highwaymen and smugglers and pirates as she does her best to live up to her mother’s ideals as the feared and famous Piratica! It’s a great book.

The Doomsday Machine is a science fiction detective novel. Zachary Nixon Johnson lives on Earth in the year 2058. He is a private detective with a supercomputer called HARV hardwired directly into his brain. He is hired by Ona Thompson, the richest woman in the world, to find out who murdered her sister. Ona is one of four (now three) genetically engineered sisters. They were called (unimaginatively) Ona, Twoa, Threea and Foraa. They have been cloned from super-charged DNA and they are stronger, smarter, more beautiful, more alluring, more magnetic, more everything than the average human being. They are indestructible. And they are purple.

With a plot summary like this, it is obvious that you are not meant to take the story seriously. And despite the pulp plot, pulp cover, pulp blurb, pulp "characters" and excruciatingly pulp writing, it is indeed a hugely funny book and I enjoyed it immensely.

And the novel opens with the words: It was a dark and stormy night…

Who can resist a novel that starts like that? Not me!

As well as having a ticket machine, Newlands buses also have a broom sitting just behind the driver’s seat. This serves two purposes. When it is clutched at the bristly end, the driver can use it to poke recalcitrant doors closed without actually getting up out of the seat (many Newlands buses have doors that open; few of them have doors that close). When it is clutched at the non-bristly end it can be used to sweep up the pieces of passengers who have been dealt with by the bus ticket police. There is a certain elegance to the fact that a single low tech device can solve two such tricky problems.

Truly it has been said:

Caesar aderat forte
Brutus aderam
Caesar sic in hominibus
Brutus sic intram

Lawrence Block  Small Town Harper
Lawrence Block  Not Comin’ Home To You Carroll & Graf
Lawrence Block The Burglar In The Rye Bantam
Michael Dobbs  House Of Cards Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs  To Play The King Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs The Final Cut Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs  Goodfellowe MP Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs  The Buddha of Brewer Street Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs  Whispers of Betrayal Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs  Last Man To Die Harper Collins
John Le Carre Absolute Friends Hodder and Stoughton
Joe R. Lansdale Sunset and Sawdust Knopf
Stephen Baxter  Coalescent Gollancz
Tanith Lee  Piratica Hodder
John Zakour and Lawrence Ganem  The Doomsday Brunette DAW
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