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Saturday 30 December 2017

Live life, love life

We may think of departed loved ones at any time of the year, but the memories are often particularly poignant as we’re about to see in a new year with all its promise.

Words can console. Like music, poetry speaks to the soul, and reminds us we all share in the ‘human condition’ no matter what colour, creed or political or sociological persuasion.  

Our dear departed could be saying this:

‘I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep.
I want your ears still to hear the wind, I want you
To sniff the sea’s aroma that we loved together,
To continue to walk on the sand we walk on.
I want what I love to continue to live.’
- From 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Open the door into a new year, and live life, love life.

Wishing all who read this a peaceful and healthy new year, 2018.

Friday 29 December 2017

Book review - Romance

Ed McBain’s 1995 novel of the 87th Precinct, Romance, is up to his usual high standard, a bravura mixture of police procedural, social commentary, slick characterisation and humour.

It begins with Detective Bert Kling attempting to fix a date with Sharyn, a black Deputy Chief Surgeon. He’s concerned about the difference in their rank, not the difference in their colour; she’s merely wondering about the colour issue. They agree to meet. It’s a phone call, and we’re in omniscient point-of-view mode so we get the emotions of both characters; it works well. So, a budding romance...

Next, we’re in an interview between a detective and a concerned redheaded actress who has been receiving threatening phone calls. Soon, we realise that these two characters are acting in a play called Romance. It isn’t a very good play; subsequently, the actress in the play is stabbed. McBain has fun depicting the ‘arty types’ on both sides of the script, with plenty of back-stabbing.

‘Carella wondered if the smile was an actress’s trick. Or even an actress’s tic. He realised all at once that with an actress, you could never tell when she was acting You could look into her eyes from now till doomsday and the eyes would relay only what she was performing, the eyes could look limpid and soulful and honest, but the eyes could be acting, the eyes could be lying. (p188) Of course the same could be said of an actor; but Carella is busy interviewing an actress…

Actress Michelle Cassidy isn’t happy with the play or its author. She turns up at the 87th Precinct to inform Kling she’s been receiving threatening phone calls, just like in the play. Later, she is stabbed, though not fatally… Great publicity when the play is mentioned on the front page of the newspapers and in TV newscasts; then a murder happens and it’s a publicist’s dream though a nightmare for the detectives of the 87th.

Many of  regular the 87th Precinct gang figure in here, too: Carella, his wife Teddy, Ollie Weeks (‘the bigot of the universe’), Meyer, Lieutenant Byrnes, and Monroe and Monaghan (the homicide duo)…

Strange, how times change. ‘Nobody was quite ready to take offense back then…’ (p171) This was about something as ‘innocuous’ as calling women ‘girls’. I wonder what Carella would make of the offense brigade today on anti-social media? And as hinted at earlier, there’s evidence of racial tension as well as anti-Semitism. Maybe times don’t change that much, after all…

Great observation throughout, to be expected. ‘The dog immediately began barking at Kling, the way all little dogs do in an attempt to convince people they’re really fierce German shepherds or Great Danes in disguise.’ (p223)

It’s good to meet these characters again after a lengthy absence. Not everything is what it seems; there’s a twist on the obvious twist. The story neatly ends with Kling and Sharyn no longer on the phone but in a romantic - and sensual - situation.

Even Hunter (Ed McBain) died in 2005, aged 78.

Thursday 28 December 2017

Birthday memories, Dad...

Dad died in April 2000, aged 89. This is his birthday. He'd have been 106...

Gone, but not forgotten.

Sunday 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas - story - Inn Time

A somewhat longer version of this story is printed in my collected short stories volume 6: LEON CAZADOR, P.I. The story features Leon Cazador, who is a private investigator. ‘My allegiance is split because I’m half-English and half-Spanish,’ he says. ‘Mother had a whirlwind romance with a Spanish waiter but, happily, it didn’t end when the holiday was over. The waiter pursued her to England and they were married.’  Previously posted in my blog 19 December 2009.

Wishing all my readers a happy and peaceful Christmas!


Just my luck, snow had started to fall the day before I left and, by the time I drove my Seat into the mountains, it was lying thick. Not the most auspicious start to the Christmas holidays, I thought, as the windscreen wipers beat a monotonous rhythm.

The road climbed and twisted. Oncoming traffic lights glared, blinding. My heart lurched. I instinctively touched the brake. If I’d been driving a little faster in these conditions, I’d have hit the rear end of the parked car.

I let the engine idle. I was late and the weather was hell. Drive round and move on. I fished in the glove compartment for a torch, switched off the engine, switched on the hazard lights, shoved the shift into gear and ratcheted the handbrake another notch. I opened the door and stepped out.

The snow stopped.

The interior light was on and the windows were steamed up. Not the best place for courting couples. The electric window lowered and a young man peered out. ‘Thank God, you stopped,’ he said. ‘The car won’t go and my wife’s pregnant. We were going to the hospital!’

I shone the torch inside. She was half-lying, half-sitting on the rear seat. One hand rested on her bump, the other gripped the headrest post. She blinked and glanced away. ‘Sorry.’ I lowered the torch.

‘We need to push your car off the road or it’s going to cause an accident,’ I told him. ‘Then we’ll see about getting your wife to the hospital.’

‘Yes, of course.’

I walked to the back of the car. I pocketed the torch and braced myself, ready to push. The road surface was firm enough to give me purchase. ‘Handbrake off!’ I called.

After a few seconds of intense effort, the car started to move forward and gradually it turned off the road.

At that moment, a lorry bore down on my Seat, horn blaring, brakes squealing. The crunch was deafening, my car jammed under its front bumper. Sparks flew as the heavy vehicle dragged mine and slewed across the road. It demolished the crash barrier. Both vehicles tumbled over the edge, leaving only a flurry of snow in their wake.

My mouth was dry. I glanced at the expectant father. He stared in shock at the gap in the road barrier. I took out my mobile, but there was no signal. I enquired but the husband’s phone was inoperative as well, so we couldn’t alert the emergency services.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and flames briefly spouted up from the fallen vehicles. In the fleeting flash of light, I thought I saw something that gave me hope.

Now, the snow started up again, but this time it hit us horizontally, driven by the cierzo, the cold dry wind from the northwest. I moved round and opened the door, slumped into the passenger seat. I explained that we could sit in the car and slowly freeze to death, or try to get to some shelter. ‘Not the greatest options,’ I said, ‘especially in your condition, Señora…’

‘Maria Delacruz,’ she said. ‘My husband, he is Jacinto.’

I nodded. ‘Leon Cazador.’

‘But we don’t know of any shelter,’ said Jacinto. ‘I don’t recall passing any building.’

‘When the truck blew up, the flames highlighted a rooftop over there.’ I pointed down a rough track. ‘Maybe somebody lives there.’

‘They might have a phone!’ Maria said.

‘Very well, we’ll risk it,’ Jacinto said.
The sloping track led to a double gate with a chain and padlock, which opened to useful skills I learned some years ago. Jacinto whispered, ‘How’d you…?’

‘Don’t ask,’ I said.

For a further ten metres the track curved towards a two storey building, its roof covered in snow. The door sign read: Posado del Belén. Inviting enough. I rang the doorbell. The trees were snow-laden, the gardens virgin white. I hoped there wasn’t a frustrated writer acting as a caretaker with a penchant for axing doors. I was relieved there was no answer. I paced to a bay window; it revealed a lounge, an empty hearth. A window on the right showed a bar area, dance floor, stacked tables and chairs. ‘Closed for the season,’ I said.

‘What do we do now?’ Jacinto wailed, stamping his feet, an arm round Maria.

I picked the lock. ‘This way.’ I shut the door behind us and shepherded them into the lounge on the left. Logs were piled to one side. ‘Let’s get a fire going.’

It didn’t take long to warm the place. Maria removed her coat and lay on the leather sofa in front of the roaring fire. Jacinto and I raided the kitchens and found in-date lamb in the fridge and made sandwiches. While Jacinto heated some vegetable soup, I checked out the rest of the building, in search of towels and blankets for Maria.

The reception desk phone didn’t work. I pored over the guest book. The last visitors left two months ago. The inn didn’t have a musty smell and seemed to serve as a hotel, with eight double rooms, the furniture in all of them draped by dustsheets.

In one wardrobe I found a cache of weapons and explosives, but I decided to keep the discovery to myself.

‘The baby,’ shouted Jacinto, ‘it’s coming!’

I raced downstairs and asked Maria about her contractions.

She nodded and wheezed, taking great breaths.

‘There’s still time to eat,’ I told Jacinto. ‘But you must abstain, Maria.’

A couple of hours later, I said, ‘Jacinto, now it’s time. Hot water. Towels.’ He got up and hurried towards the kitchens. It was a few years since I’d delivered a baby, but I told myself it was like riding a bike. As long as no wheels came off, I thought.
Maria gave birth to a lovely boy, without any complications. I’d left Jacinto with his wife and newborn while I cleaned up and took the towels and cloths to the kitchen.

I was on my way back to the lounge when the front door was opened with a key. Most civilised, I thought. Two men and a woman stood in the doorway. I was surprised to see anybody; their expressions reflected more shock than surprise.

They exchanged glances with each other then the woman demanded, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Her voice echoed in the lobby.

‘Hola,’ I said. ‘We took shelter from the storm.’ I gestured at the half-open lounge door that emitted a warm glow. ‘It was an emergency.’

‘Emergency?’ she said.

‘We’ve just delivered a baby – come and see.’

With some reluctance, the three of them followed me inside.

‘We’ve got visitors,’ I said.

Jacinto stood up and Maria hugged her son to her.

I eyed the woman. ‘Are you the owners?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Melita Reyes and this is my husband, Beltran and my brother-in-law Casimiro.’ She looked at the empty plates.

‘We’ll pay for what we’ve used,’ said Jacinto.

Melita smiled. ‘No need – it can be our gift.’

Her husband tugged at her sleeve and gruffly whispered something. She shook her head. ‘You go with Casi,’ she said, dismissing him.

The two Reyes brothers turned and left the lounge.

‘I’m just going to the kitchen,’ I told Melita. ‘Do you want a drink?’

She sat on the edge of a seat and studied the mother and child. ‘No, thank you,’ she said without looking up.

I eased the door back and was in time to observe the brothers climb the stairs. I sighed, because I knew where they were headed.

There was an alcove under the stairs. I pulled out from my ankle holster the lightweight Colt Officer’s ACP LW automatic. The Astra A-100 automatic was amidst the burnt-out wreckage of my Seat. I had an uninterrupted view of the door to the lounge and the foot of the staircase. I waited.

Ten minutes later, Casi and Beltran descended the stairs, their hands full. I stepped out, my gun levelled on their chests. ‘Is this the new version, eh? Instead of frankincense, myrrh and gold, you bring the babe explosives, detonators and bullets…’

‘What are you talking about?’ Beltran snapped.

Melita emerged through the doorway. As she noticed my weapon, she reached inside her parka.

‘Don’t,’ I warned. ‘I’m a good shot.’

‘You cannot shoot all three of us.’

‘I don’t want to shoot any of you, but I can’t let you leave here, either.’

‘This is our property, Señor. You have no right to…’

‘You’ve no right to blow people up, either.’

‘It is what we believe in,’ said Beltran gruffly.

‘Then it’s about time you got a new belief system.’

‘We want self-determination and territoriality,’ said Casi. ‘This is how we will get it.’

‘No, it isn’t,’ I said.

‘We fight injustice and tyranny,’ said Beltran.

‘Franco’s been dead over thirty years. Open your eyes to the world. If you and Melita ever decided to have children, no dictator is telling you to restrict yourselves to one child. You’re free to follow any religion or none, without persecution. If you’re law-abiding, you need not fear the knock on the door at three in the morning. You have drinking water on tap, and shops filled with food and clothing. You can read any material you wish without censorship. Need I go on?’

‘The government tramples on our aspirations!’ snapped Casi.

‘Your bombs kill innocent people,’ I said.

‘They’re not innocent. They work for the government!’

‘Those Guardia Civil men and women were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were not government tyrants.’ I gestured at the lounge doorway. ‘Inside there is a mother and baby. Innocents.’

‘What would you have us do?’ Melita said, her tone sombre.

‘Give yourselves up. Renounce violence. If your aims are just and legitimate, fight for them by peaceful means. Don’t create orphans and widows.’

Beltran laughed. ‘You’d have us surrender, for the sake of that one baby in there?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and why not?’

‘It’s absurd!’ said Casi.

‘Is it? Just over two thousand years ago, another baby boy came into the world to spread the word. Peace to mankind. His word’s been diluted over the centuries, maybe, but it still holds true today, tonight. This is Christmas Day, after all.’

‘It’s just a baby,’ said Casi.

Beltran pursed his lips and looked at his wife. Her eyes were moist and she nodded briefly. Then he lowered the weapons and bags to the floor.

‘Your weapon, please.’ I held out my hand to Melita.

Carefully, she took out the revolver, gave it to me and I shoved it in my pocket.

Casimiro swore. ‘This is stupid! We’ve sworn to fight together till…’

‘Until one or more of you are dead?’ I said and shook my head. ‘Your so-called cause has gained you nothing but it has killed over eight hundred people, including women and children, and maimed hundreds more, ruining so many lives. Lives that are for living…’ I could easily have been talking to godless killers, but I’d seen the look in Melita’s eyes when she sat with the mother and child, and I believed her maternal instinct had been deeply stirred.

Melita glanced at the lounge doorway again then moved over to her brother-in-law. ‘Bury the hate and love life,’ she whispered. ‘It’s a good belief system, I think.’ She laid a hand on his arm. ‘Please, Casi.’

Casimiro glared at me then flung his bundle to the floor. I flinched as the bag made a noise but nothing exploded. Melita hugged him then went back to her husband.

‘What will you do with us now?’ she asked.

‘Give yourselves up when the snow stops.’

‘Very well.’

At that moment, Jacinto stepped out of the lounge. He trembled as he stared at the discarded weapons and explosives. ‘Madre de Dios!’

I nodded. ‘Maybe this time there won’t be any death of the innocents. Let’s go in and look at the Christmas child.’


Spanish translation note: posado= inn; Belén = Bethlehem; rey = king; reyes = kings; Madre de Dios = Mother of God.

Leon Cazador, P.I. Available as a paperback and e-book here

Thursday 21 December 2017

Numbers don't add up!

As I pass the 200,000 page-views, I’ve noticed some strange figures. Maybe that milestone isn’t as significant as I first thought. 

Yesterday, I appeared to have in excess of 9,000 page-views – in one day! And yet the count for any individual day’s post or for the week doesn’t come anywhere near that total.

The ‘audience’ count tells a different picture:

France – 1254
Brazil – 1494
Belgium – 1219
Philippines – 717
Kuwait – 430
Ukraine – 75
US – 11
China – 5
UK - 3
Turkey – 3

As for individual posts, my entry for 20 October 2013 – Halloween – a sepulchral place totalled 666…! Horrifyingly significant?

So now I’m not so sure that that milestone is ‘real’… A pity, as it would be nice to think that all those page-viewers were actually interested in the various books I’ve posted about!

Sunday 17 December 2017

Almost 200,000 page-views!

Today, there are just under 200 page-views left to attain a significant milestone - 200,000 page-views for the blog.

Many thanks to all who have viewed the various blogs and keep coming back.

I appreciate your comments, too!

Thursday 14 December 2017

Book review - A Graveyard for Lunatics

Ray Bradbury’s 1990 crime novel A Graveyard for Lunatics is the second in a trilogy, preceded by Death is a Lonely Business and succeeded by Let’s All Kill Constance
The cover depicts a detail from Goya's The Madhouse at Saragossa, 1794.

It’s 1954 and the young narrator is a scriptwriter for Maximus Films, a character that echoes Bradbury’s own worship of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Adjacent to the vast film studio complex is Green Glades Cemetery.  Here, one rain-sodden night he witnesses a revelation.

‘I heard a ghost sigh somewhere, but it was only my own lungs pumping like a bellows, trying to light some sort of fire in my chest.’ (p9)

The revelation was a lifelike dummy of the dead studio head J.C. Arbuthnot, who died twenty years ago in a car crash. He enlists his best friend Roy Holdstrom (an inventor of science fiction sets, monsters and special effects) to solve the mystery. On the way he meets wildly eccentric characters, among them a drunken ham Shakespearean actor, J.C., who states, ‘I do not dare, sir. I am.’.

It’s clear that these books are Bradbury’s reminiscences of his time when a young teenager hovering around the periphery of the movies. His early influences were King Kong and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

‘It was like having an affair with Kong, who fell on me when I was thirteen. I had never escaped from beneath his heart-beating carcass.’ (p4)

Bradbury would spend many a day in front of the studio gates of Paramount and Columbia hoping for autographs. He’d watch film stars come and go at the Brown Derby restaurant – and all these places figure in this novel. One of the tragic characters, Clarence is clearly modelled on himself, though older.

‘Instantly my soul flashed out of my body and ran back. It was 1934 and I was mulched in among the ravening crowd, waving pads and pens… pursuing Marlene Dietrich into her hairdresser’s or running after Cary Grant Friday nights…’ (p15)

This book is dedicated to a few folk of his acquaintance, among them some deceased: Fritz Lang and James Hong Howe. And his friend Ray Harryhausen, who was alive when this was written. Roy Holdstrom is modelled on Harryhausen, and the character Fritz Wong is an amalgam of Lang and Howe. The narrator’s investigator pal Crumley is named after the crime writer James Crumley. Manny Leiber (who intended cutting Judas from a Biblical film because he didn’t want to make an anti-Semitic movie!) may well be named after fellow science fiction author Fritz Leiber. There may be other allusions I’ve missed.

The tale is typical Hollywood scandal and cover-up. Nothing new there, then. Fittingly, Crumley states, ‘Sometimes dead folks in graves have more power than live folks above…’ (p186)

The beginning contains some excellent imagery and writing. It starts with the narrator observing there were two cities within a city: ‘one moved restlessly all day while the other never stirred. One was warm and filled with ever-changing lights. One was cold and fixed in place by stones… Maximus Films, the living, and Green Glades Cemetery, the dead…’ (p3)

‘Ten thousand deaths had happened here, and when the deaths were done, the people got up, laughing, and strolled away. Whole tenement blocks were set afire and did not burn…’ (p3)

And: ‘From here Dracula wandered as flesh to return as dust. Here also were the Stations of the Cross and a trail of ever-replenished blood as screenwriters groaned by to Calvary carrying a backbreaking load of revisions, pursued by directors with scourges and film cutters with razor-sharp knives…’ (p4)

Besides transposed reminiscences and mystery, there’s humour: they were looking at a huge display of coffins. ‘How come so many?’ I asked.
‘To bury all the turkeys the studio will make between now and Thanksgiving.’ (p37)

And when turning up at the Brown Derby, the maitre d’ accosts them:  ‘“Of course, you have no reservations?” he observed languidly.
“About this place?” said Roy. “Plenty.”’ (p59)

Lastly: The actor J.C. asks, ‘Was Christ manic-depressive? Like me?’
‘No,’ I said lamely, ‘not nuts. But you’re in the bowl with the almonds and the cashews…’ (p183)

When they confront ‘the Beast’, the lengthy description is poignant. ‘… a face in which two terribly liquid eyes drowned, swimming in delirium, could find no shore, no respite, no rescue… So the eyes floated, anchored in a red-hot lava of destroyed flesh, in a meltdown of genetics from which no soul, however brave, might survive. While all the while, the nostrils inhaled themselves and the wound of mouth cried Havoc, silently, and exhaled.’ (p63)

While Bradbury didn’t shy away from acknowledging the grim underbelly of the world in this book and others, yet he preserved an incorrigible innocence too, encapsulated by Constance, a faded movie star, telling him: ‘How lucky to be inside your skin, so goddamned naïve. Don’t ever change.’ (p131)  She also makes the observation, ‘That’s no hospital. It’s where great elephant ideas go to die. A graveyard for lunatics.’ (p140); hence the book’s title.

Whimsical and sometimes silly, with a plot that barely hangs together for all those depicted years, it’s still a worthy addition to the Bradbury collection, and as hinted at above there’s much to admire. However, if you’ve never read any Ray Bradbury, this is not the best place to start.

Ray Bradbury died 2012, aged 91.