The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

July 24, 2012

Quick bytes


CAPTURE, by Roger Smith. Somewhere on the Internet recently I came across a discussion about what constituted or defined neo-noir. This book is my idea of what neo-noir is all about: the same sick, twisted, desperate, going-down-the-tubes characters found in original noir plus the faster pace and action usually found in thrillers. In this latest release, Smith somehow manages to conjure up a character, Vernon Saul, who is evil incarnate. What kind of man can sit back and watch a child drown, his inaction solely for the thought that he might find an angle to gain some kind of power over the grieving parents? And yet the reader cannot help but sympathize with the abused child that preceded the man Vernon became. There is a line delivered by William Peterson in the 1986 Michael Mann film, MANHUNTER, that perfectly sums up my feelings toward Vernon Saul:
My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable... As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.
CAPTURE is bit more of a psychological character study than Smith's previous novels, but the tension ratchets up, chapter by chapter, to a shattering and satisfying denouement. RECOMMENDED.

THE KINGS OF COOL, by Don Winslow. If this book is your introduction to Don Winslow's work, you're starting in the wrong place. Back up a book and read SAVAGES first. Yes, THE KINGS OF COOL is a prequel so you ought to be able to start there, right? Um, no. This origin story of Ben, O, and Chon is best viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, so to speak. The plot premise is similar to SAVAGES: Interlopers want to cut in on our trio's marijuana business. Winslow determinedly takes the story in a different direction than SAVAGES though, finding new ways to delicately gut the souls of his characters. Not quite as fresh nor as savagely (see what I did there?) sharp as its predecessor, THE KINGS OF COOL still delivers on its title. RECOMMENDED.

A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, by Wiley Cash. The author uses first-person accounts from three characters: a county sheriff, an elderly woman, and an eight-year-old boy, to turn a simple tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time into a Greek tragedy. With a genuine sense of place and fully rounded characters, the reader is pulled into a small town where too much faith in a fundamentalist, snake-handling preacher leads to heartbreak for one family. The prose is graceful, the story powerful and unforgettable. Here's a link to the first chapter. Read it and tell me what you think. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

MISS PYM DISPOSES, by Josephine Tey. If this is the first Tey you read after enjoying her wonderful DAUGHTER OF TIME, you're in for a shock. It only takes three words to sum up this tale of wrongdoing at an all-girls' school: Tedious and obvious. On the other hand, if you think SPELLBOUND is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie, you may very well enjoy this book.

THE GIRL IN THE CELLAR, a 1961 release by Patricia Wentworth, has an unforgettable opening chapter that will delight any fan of modern day thrillers: A young woman regains consciousness, but with amnesia, in a dark cellar with the corpse of another woman. After that terrific tease the pace drops to a crawl. The plot creaks through the tropes of Golden Age mysteries, though it is too slight overall to say it lumbers. Strictly for those who want their fictional murders kept offstage and no chance of an increase in the heart rate.

NICEVILLE by Carsten Stroud. I loved the first 50 pages of this book. I might have loved the rest of it if I enjoyed paranormal, gothic, oogie-boogie goings on, but I generally don't. If you do, jump on this one, but be ready to juggle numerous plot lines and characters that eventually intertwine. Give the author his due: he isn't just cranking out the same-old-same-old here, he's trying something a bit new in form and construction. It's a fine balancing act that, for me, was only partially successful. This one starts out with a boy gone missing. Instantly gone missing. As in, here he is and in the next millisecond, he has vanished. And it's on video, not tampered with. From there, the mysteries and oddities become abundant.

July 2, 2012

ABOLITION OF MIDNIGHT by John Higgins

One of the most refreshing stories we received in this year's WGI was John Higgins's fifth-place entry, ABOLITION OF MIDNIGHT.  What set this story apart was that instead of striving for nouveau grit or cutting edge as so many authors are doing, the author paid effective homage to the classic English mystery.

ABOLITION OF MIDNIGHT
by John Higgins

 “Better get over to Cheriton now, Merton. Take Sergeant Blake with you. Let me know if you need a forensics team.”

“It’s only an attempted, Super.”

“Stately home robbery? Lot of publicity? Can’t be seen not to be taking it seriously. But take an unmarked car. No point in alerting the press too soon.”

Inspector Merton and the sergeant set off, reaching the outer gate in twenty minutes. The notice said Cheriton Hall—Admission to House and Grounds £15—Concessions £12—Grounds only £4. The barrier was down and alongside it another notice saying House closed for maintenance, but they were expected and the barrier was raised immediately.

 The house manager greeted them at the main entrance, and inside the Duke himself was waiting. They set off towards the library.

“Can you tell us just what happened, your Grace?”

“No need to be formal. We were alerted by Mrs Armstrong, who is head of the cleaning staff. She was making her usual rounds this morning. Got to the library at half past eight. She was suspicious about the display case holding Lady Isabella’s Psalter, so she called up the conservator on duty. Then she looked round the rest of the room carefully and found the satchel with the real Psalter pushed behind the drapes at the north window.”

“Was it just the Psalter that was moved?”

“Yes, nothing else. All the electronic alarms were switched off while the cleaners were in, and at some point between closing time and nine o’clock when they left the building the case was opened and the replica exchanged for the Psalter itself.”

“Within easy reach from outside if the window was opened.”

“That’s right.”

“But it wasn’t taken.”

“Right.”

The Inspector was puzzled. “What would the value be?”

“Priceless,” said the Duke. “”I was offered five million for it last month by an Indian billionaire. Couldn’t accept, of course. It’s not mine to sell.”

“How come?”

“The nation took it when my father died. In lieu of death duties. Belongs to the British Library in theory. And they’ll probably want to take it down to their building in St Pancras after this has happened. So nobody in Devon will be able to look at the most important mediaeval relic of their county’s history without buying an overpriced rail ticket to London or sitting in traffic jams all day.” It was obvious the Duke had strong views about the transport system.

“Tell me about the replica.”

“We sell them in the shop. £275.”

“You can’t sell many at that price.”

“You’d be surprised. But mostly it is catalogue sales by post. We brought it out two years ago and we must have shifted over two hundred.”

“Are there any missing from stock? Or was this one brought in from outside?”

“We haven’t checked yet.”

“How easy would it have been to recognise it as a replica?”

“For you not very. For anyone who has been familiar with it over a period quite easy. You get a feeling for these things. Mrs Armstrong thought something was wrong as soon as she opened up the room, and you couldn’t describe her as an authority on mediaeval manuscripts. That was why she checked round rather carefully.”

The library was some way from the main hall, through several reception rooms with no walls unadorned with pictures or mounted stags heads. It consisted of a long gallery leading to a high window assembled from small leaded panes and looking out over a lawn and fountain. The walls on both sides of the gallery were lined with shelving rising at least ten feet, several thousand books caged in behind padlocked wire doors. When were any of them last read, the Inspector wondered. Most of them were anonymously leather-bound and looked unentertaining.

The drapes which had concealed the package were fully fifteen feet high. In the centre of the room was the display case for Lady Isabella’s Psalter. A hinged flap covered the case with a notice asking visitors to keep the case covered when they moved off. Today the Psalter itself was open at the twenty-third psalm, with lambs gambolling in the middle of the capital letters to assure visitors that the Lord would take care of them.

“I presume this is the replica,” said the Inspector.

“Of course,” said Kirby, the house manager.

“Where is the real thing?”

“In the safe in my office. Oh, don’t worry. We handled it with gloves. I double as head of security. But we hope you won’t need to dust it for fingerprints or anything. Not without consulting the conservators.”

“How about the satchel?”

“Over here.” He pulled back the drape on the left, revealing something half way between a school satchel and a designer handbag. “We left it exactly where we found it. Somebody could break the window from outside and grab it. Alarms would go off, of course, but it would take at least a minute for anyone to get here.”

 “But nobody did break in. It was intact this morning.”

“Yes.”

“I wonder why they didn’t come.”

“Perhaps they were expecting to pick it up from inside today. Just come in, pay admission and pick it up. But in that case you would expect them to hide it a bit better.”

“Excuse me, your Grace,” came a timid interruption from a young man at the door. “The caterers are at the front gate. Do we let them in?”

“Any objection?” asked the Duke. “We are hosting a Jubilee event tomorrow, after the Olympic flame goes through the town. A lot of charity workers. And your own Superintendent, of course. It’s the sort of thing we get let in for when you have the right amount of space.”

“If they stay out of our way. I want everything to seem normal until we know more about this.”

“Okay, Barnett,” said the Duke. “But have somebody stay with them while they are here. Keep them out of the rooms on this side.” The timid young man slid away, as unobtrusively as he could.

“Meanwhile,” said Inspector Merton, “could I have a list of everybody who might have been in the library yesterday evening?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Are they all well known to you? Any recent recruits?”

“Ask Mrs Armstrong. I think she has taken on some temporary cleaners. Their references will have been well checked, I imagine. The temps are staying in the staff hostel, so we could ask them to come in early if you want to talk to them. Otherwise they don’t come in till four o’clock.”

Mrs Armstrong was positive that none of her regular staff could have been involved, and as it happened none of them had been assigned to the library wing that night. Inspector Merton left his sergeant to talk to the security staff, while he was driven to the staff hostel in Cheriton village to interview the two women who had been working in the library itself, a Mrs Capling and Miss Kyrszyk. Both very upset to hear about the Psalter. No, neither of them had opened the Psalter display case. Yes, they had been in sight of each other all the time while working, though Mrs Capling seemed a little hesitant about that. Yes, they had returned to the hostel at ten last night and had been there ever since. Miss Kyrszyk in particular seemed ready to say an enthusiastic “Yiss” to any question the Inspector asked, and he wondered if her English was good enough for her to have understood anything he said.

Returning to the Hall, the Inspector talked to the Conservator, the house manager and then to the Duke again.

“I’m really puzzled why no attempt was made to take the Psalter last night. Your security patrol did not spot anybody in the grounds who might have been scared off. But I have a hunch, sir. I would like you to open the house to visitors again as usual.”

“Can do.”

“And have you another copy of the replica?”

“Certainly.”

“Put it in the satchel and put the satchel back where it was. Let the room supervisor keep a discreet eye on it and let us know if it is touched. The supervisors have two-way radios, I assume.”

“Oh yes. What if nothing happens?”

“In that case I’ll have a couple of men covering the library window from outside all night. My hunch is that something went wrong with the timing and the thief may come tonight. Make sure your own security patrol knows we are going to be there but behave quite normally.”

** 

At two minutes after midnight Sergeant Blake and a police constable hiding in the sunken garden area near the library wing heard the noise of breaking glass, followed by the whine of the house alarm and the sound of running feet. Sergeant Blake used his radio to alert the dog handler. The sound of barking told them where to go, and soon they were shining their flashlights on the face of a frightened man holding a leather satchel. The dog was called off, cautions administered, and the culprit taken to the police station, where he eventually gave his name as Jeremy Capling. It would have been pointless to lie, since it was on his driving licence in his pocket.

The next day, after a telephone call and lengthy conference with a lawyer who turned up very quickly, he admitted to the break-in, but claimed he had been drunk and had no intention to steal anything. As to the suggestion that he was working on behalf of a wealthy Indian industrialist, that was quite ridiculous. Libellous, almost. He was released on bail, which was immediately supplied. Meanwhile the Duke told Mrs Armstrong to sack Mrs Capling from her post as cleaner. There was no proof that she had placed the Psalter in the satchel, but nobody had any doubts. Particularly not after the police had discovered a text message from her on Capling’s mobile.

“So what went wrong? Why didn’t Capling come on Sunday night?” asked the sergeant.

“Ah, that’s because he was never in the army.”

“I don’t follow.”

“His wife had found out that the ground patrols change their shift at midnight. For just a couple of minutes there is nobody out of doors. So that was when she told him to break the window. Just after midnight. On Monday. Meaning early on Monday morning.”

“Midnight. Monday. So he thought she meant Monday night and turned up twenty-four hours later. But how does the army come into it?”

“Midnight doesn’t exist for a soldier; it has been abolished. There is no twelve pm or 2400 hours or 0000 hours. You use a 24-hour clock running from 0001 to 2359. There is no time between 2359 and 0001. Any event or arrangement has to be assigned to one side or the other. After all, you don’t want the infantry to launch the attack on Monday while the artillery give covering fire on Tuesday, do you? So if Capling had ever been in the services he would have checked what his wife meant by midnight.”


THE DROWNING OF JEREMIAH FISHFINGER by Ian Ayris

Ian Ayris has it, whatever "it" is that a writer possesses which draws readers to his work and compels them to unlock their empathy for his characters. Earlier this year Ian floored me with the quality of his first novel, ABIDE WITH ME. He did the same with this tale, taking the familiar story of child abuse and infusing it with a poignant inevitability.

I appreciate Ian's generosity in permitting me to publish his story here, because there is no doubt in my mind that many a zine would like to have claimed this one. This story took 3rd place in this year's WGI, but is, in my opinion, unquestionably a winner.

THE DROWNING OF JEREMIAH FISHFINGER

by Ian Ayris

Jeremiah Fishfinger began life between the wars, the youngest of six, three boys and three girls, a strain on their parents, every one. His father - a boatman and a bully - worked all day on the Royal Victoria Dock. He would come home from work, drunk and loud, and beat the children with a bicycle chain. And as he did so, Jeremiah's mother kept to the kitchen, scrubbing the sink till her hands bled.

When Jeremiah's father would eventually pass out in the armchair, his own tears blinding him to the barbarity of his actions, Jeremiah's mother would gather the children to her breast and salve their pain with buttered crumpets and assurances that their father really loved them very much indeed.

But Jeremiah knew different, and fought back with spiteful words, sneering and snarling, until he felt the back of his mother's hand on more than one occasion. As he lay awake at night, his father's snoring filling the house, his mother's sobs breaking his heart, Jeremiah would dream of what it would be like to be blind, to live in a world of complete darkness. And then, when he felt himself right on the edge of comfort, he would close his eyes, ever so slowly, and dream of colours.

It is a wonder Jeremiah survived to his eighth birthday, but he did. September the seventh, nineteen-forty. And on that day, young Jeremiah looked to the skies, planes like birds, rising and falling, bursting asunder like the colours in his dreams.

Jeremiah's brother Charlie, the eldest Fishfinger, was sent away with the soldiers to fight in North Africa, Ernie, the next along, to Burma. The two eldest girls, Sophie and Mary, turned lathes in a munitions factory on the Commercial Road, and little Annie found herself in a sweet factory in Limehouse making Blackjacks.

Being on the docks, Mr Fishfinger carried on his important work, loading and unloading, moving things here and moving things there. He volunteered as a fireman from the first days of the war, carrying a small child from a burning building in Custom House, and gaining a reputation as a man reckless and brave. He was the last to leave the exploded munitions factory on the Commercial Road where Sophie and Mary worked, his face streaked with grease and black and blood - his daughters lost.

The funeral of Sophie and Mary took place in the drizzling rain at St. Margarets and All Saints Church, on the Barking Road. Mrs Fishfinger sobbed into the shoulder of her husband, and Jeremiah looked on from behind a tree as his sisters were buried, wondering what it would be like to suffocate under so much earth.

Mr Fishfinger had lost a piece of his heart the day the munitions factory went up – he said so – and from that moment on, he ceased to beat little Annie. Indeed, it seemed as if a part of him had softened. He would hold Annie close, open himself to her tentative advances, and whisper into her ear she was his special girl. In his work as a wartime fire-fighter he became ever more fearless. Flames dare not touch him and huge lumps of masonry fell about him as if the grief he suffered shielded him from further pain.

Still he beat Jeremiah with the bicycle chain, but it was with a heavy heart and a stilled tongue.

Jeremiah jumped off the Southwark Bridge just short of his tenth birthday whilst playing with Johnny Cottle from across the street. Johnny jumped in to save Jeremiah, and was drowned. Mr Smithson, the haberdasher, pulled Jeremiah out and pumped the water from his lungs with big iron fists. And Jeremiah hated him for it.

The young Jeremiah continued to spend his days alone, spotting aeroplanes and sifting through the London debris for something he could make sense of.

Mrs Fishfinger was killed in forty-four when the Woolworths on the Bethnal Green Road took a direct hit from a V2. Jeremiah was twelve years old. Mr Fishfinger broke down at the death of his wife, and laid aside his bicycle chain for good. He continued his fire-fighting work until a concrete slab of street ripped his legs apart when a hitherto unexploded bomb went off on the East India Dock Road.

So, with little Annie working in the sweet factory in Limehouse ten hours a day, Jeremiah was left alone with the father he hated, the father he had to care for, to wash, to cook for, to clean.

Day after day.

Day after day.

And the fire burned.

Jeremiah was able to quell his hatred by locking himself into the day to day duties of his life - boiling the potatoes and peeling the carrots for dinner, scrubbing the front step, keeping the windows gleaming and bright. If not for this, Jeremiah would not have been able to block out the disgust that overwhelmed him as he washed his father in the tin bath in the kitchen. Even the occasional incontinence, though he felt his father's shame, could be dealt with, mechanically, without fuss. But by far the worst were the drunken penitent looks from his father, one slurred word of tearful remorse about the beatings and the treatment meted out in days gone by, and Jeremiah would feel his blood begin to rise, the walls that kept him together begin to shudder and shake.

Charlie Fishfinger returned to the family home in March of forty-five, exhilarated by his wartime exploits at El Alamein and Monte Cassino. Ernie arrived back a few months later, a victim of the Japanese prison camps, his body and mind too badly broken ever to recover.

Charlie was a local hero. He had medals, and a mop of hair and a shoulders-back steady gait the girls swooned over. But he couldn't stand to be in this house of misery. Meanwhile, Ernie sat in his mothers old armchair, opposite his broken father, and spent his hours wide-eyed and mumbling.

And so the war ended. A new-found sense of hope filled the streets. A new day had begun.

But not for Jeremiah Fishfinger. Not for him. For him the scars would not heal, his heart was too ravaged, the cracks too deep. Charlie soon left to train the Hottentots in Botswana, whilst Ernie slept safe and sound behind the asylum walls.


It was six years almost to the day since Jeremiah jumped from the Southwark Bridge. Six years of a life shattered beyond hope.

Jeremiah's father faltered and stumbled from the front room – the place he'd bedded down in since the night his legs were ripped off by the flying slab of concrete - his whole weight bearing down on two wooden crutches, pain carved into his face. When he neared the table, he swung himself into his chair, and laid the crutches down, his entire face oozing sweat.

'Morning, Jeremiah,' he said, stern and functional.

Jeremiah continued to stir the porridge on the stove, his back to his father, his knuckles screaming white around the wooden spoon.

'I said, morning, Jeremiah.'

Jeremiah inclined his head slightly to view his father from the corner of his eye, making sure he continued the same rhythmic stirring of the porridge.

'Morning,' Jeremiah said.

Satisfied the order of things had been set for the day, Jeremiah's father settled himself at the table, and fell into a reverie, his head lowered to his chest.

And the porridge steamed and the porridge bubbled.

Jeremiah thought of little Johnny Cottle, all those years ago, struggling for breath in the water. And he remembered his eyes as they remained open, pleading, scared and unseeing, as little Johnny sank to the bottom of the river.

'Don't let that porridge burn, boy,' Jeremiah's father said.

Burn like the streets. Burn like the planes that fell from the sky. Burn like Mary and Sophie. Burn like Mum. 

'Did you hear me, boy? Did you hear me?'

Burn. Like. Mum. 

Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle.

Jeremiah scraped the wooden spoon one last time around the inside of the pot, and turned off the gas.

'That's it, boy. Now hurry yourself before it gets cold.'

Hurry? Hurry? There was all the time in the world. For what is time but the passing of days? Days in which your loved ones perish, your heart breaks, and your dreams shatter. Time, time means nothing when you are watching fragments of the world go by through the eyes of a grief-torn child.

Jeremiah poured the porridge into the three bowls set out beside the stove. He watched as the porridge glooped into place, until it glooped no more. He watched as the steam rose from the bowls in dancing pirouettes then disappear forever.

Jeremiah knew the time was not long.

'Boy? Boy?'

Not long, Dad. Father. Oh father of mine.

Little Annie pranced into the room, hair tied back, the same old life-giving smile upon her face. A one of a kind, Annie. A beauty. An angel from on high.

'Morning, Dad,' she said, giving her father a kiss on the top of his head, taking her place at the table next to him.

And the darkness that was upon that man gently lifted in the presence of his only daughter, as if blown by a summer breeze.

'Morning, my darling,' he said.

Jeremiah set the bowls on the table, and sat opposite his father.

Boil and bubble. Toil and trouble.

Jeremiah scooped spoonful after spoonful of porridge into his mouth, not swallowing, not tasting, just filling the empty space.

'Eat your porridge properly boy, or I'll ram it down your throat.'

Jeremiah wanted to laugh. The stupid man. The stupid, evil man.

Jeremiah ate faster, filling his mouth entirely before looking up at his father and slowly swallowing the pain.

'Boy!'

Little Annie jumped, her spoon tumbling onto the table. She picked it up, and carried on eating, her head down, dreading what was to come.

But those days were no more. Her father had no legs. The bicycle chain hung limp in the shed from a rusting nail. Little Annie spooned her porridge mechanically into her little mouth, the delight of the day now in shadowed in fear.

Jeremiah finished first, his face red with pain, his throat burnt.

'Come round here, boy,' his father said.

But Jeremiah did not.

Little Annie took her bowl to the kitchen sink, tears cutting tracks down her cheeks, her heart pounding. And then left the two broken souls to themselves, for she could feel their pain no longer.

Alone in the house, sitting across from the table – a table once filled with loved ones now gone – sat but two.

Son stared at father, father at son, neither one a word left to speak.

Jeremiah's father cried inside for his wife and his two girls, and for not being able to love his youngest son. Jeremiah stared at his father blank, and felt nothing.


The first time Jeremiah Fishfinger had been swallowed up by the dark waters of the Thames, he'd been nine years old. He'd been dragged home by his father, and beaten to within an inch of his life. And now, six years later, he placed a note gently on the kitchen table for little Annie, left the house quietly, and headed for the Southwark Bridge once more, the bicycle chain trailing behind him, scraping red in his wake.