Westlake as Holt: the Sam Holt books


Sometimes, well-established authors look at their careers and wonder. Times, markets and tastes have changed since first they succeeded, and they wonder if they could make it again in current conditions.
I’m far from being an author in that category, but to me that’s got to involve at least a subconscious degree of insecurity: am I still selling on the strength of my writing, or is it that I have a conditioned audience who will buy my books irrespective of their quality?
If the writer wants to test this question, they have only one option open to them and that is to agree a Protected Pen-Name. This is a pseudonym known only to the Author, their Agent and the Publisher that agrees to accept it. Not to anyone else at the Publishing house, not editors, nor marketing. To them, the Pen-Name is a genuinely new author, a first time writer, and he will be marketed in that fashion.
In 1986, Donald E Westlake, author of the Parker books and the Dortmunder Gang series, went down that route. Westlake was used to working under a variety of pen-names: the Parker books were published as Richard Stark and his early career in soft core dirty books used a less famous pseudonym.
Westlake chose the name Samuel Holt and decided to write a series of books, narrated by Sam himself. Taking a leaf from Travis McDonald, when starting his Travis Bickle series, Westlake wrote the first three Sam Holt books simultaneously, building up the mode and the stories to ensure that he could create a consistent voice for his new approach.
Westlake planned a total of six books, with a numerical theme to their titles, and in due course delivered his first three: One of Us is Wrong, I know a Trick worth Two of That and What I tell you Three Times is False. Each book took on a different type of crime fiction, and Westlake was satisfied with his work and began the second trio on the same basis.
Then One of Us is Wrong appeared and the whole thing blew up in his face. The publisher had let slip Samuel Holt’s real identity to his Marketing Team, and the books were in the bookshop credited to Donald E Westlake, destroying the whole purpose of the exercise.
Samuel Holt was immediately poisoned in Westlake’s mind. Having signed a contract for four books, he had to go ahead and complete The Fourth Dimension is Death, but Famous for Five Seconds, in which Sam would have met a former Astronaut, and Now I am Six and Clever as can be, about which every trace of its concept has vanished, were doomed never to be written.
The books went out of print as soon as they could, and Westlake refused to allow them to be reprinted until twenty years later when, looking at them again with a bit more objectivity, Westlake decided that the debacle was not Sam’s fault, and he should be allowed his hour in the sun again.
Sam Holt was not a detective. Samuel Holt – real name Holton Hickey – was an actor who’d become both famous and rich through playing a detective on television, Jack Packard, academic and amateur criminologist. Though Sam never supplies specifics, the impression he leaves is that Packard was a Murder, She Wrote style show.
Packard lasted five seasons and was still popular, but was ended because everyone involved with it felt it had run its course. That was three years earlier. During the run, Sam caught the acting bug but unfortunately has found himself typecast as Packard, with no-one prepared to give him any kind of acting job. At the age of 34, Sam Holt finds himself unemployable. He doesn’t need the money, but the lifestyle is pretty boring.
All of this is established in each book, in which Sam gets exactly nowhere furthering his acting career, but finds himself being surrounded by situations, the nature of which vary from book to book, in which he has to act the part of a detective. One of Us is Wrong takes the form of a thriller.


The story starts with two Chevy Impalas, each housing two men of Middle Eastern extraction, trying to run Sam’s Volvo off the Freeway to his death. When the Police want to know who could want Sam dead, he has no idea, but one comes to him soon after.
Three months earlier, Sam’s scriptwriter friend Ross Ferguson came to him in a panic. Some time earlier, Ross had arrived at his Mailbu beach house to find the murdered body of his ex-girlfriend, Delia, who’d been trying to sue him for Breach of Promise. Scared that the Police would jump to the obvious conclusion, Ross had taken Delia’s body out to sea on his boat and dumped it, never to be seen again.
His current panic was down to the receipt of a videotape, recorded on Ross’s inhouse system, showing him murdering her.
Sam and Ross, being in the business, can tell how it’s been faked, but Ross still won’t go to the Police and swears Sam to secrecy. There’s no other possible connection.
Getting Ross to confirm it isn’t difficult, but getting him to explain what it’s all about is so much harder. Because Ross isn’t just being blackmailed, he’s now a willing co-conspirator in what is being sold to him as a plot to use Ross’s land to access a heavily-guarded political opponent who’s to be kidnapped and taken back home – wherever that is – for a show trial.
You see, Ross has a project. This is going to be an international best-selling book, written from the inside. Ross can’t see beyond that, and Sam’s concern is putting the project under threat. Ross is smart, and besides, he knows how to tiptoe through this because of the number of tricky Hollywood negotiations he’s successfully completed.
Sam, on the other hand, sees two things. One is that Ross isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and the other is that it doesn’t matter even if he is, he’s still going to end up with a bullet in the back of his head, because that’s how guys like these cover their traces anyway.
One of Us is Wrong puts a pretty direct threat on the table. Even when that’s supposedly switched off by Ross, Sam has his doubts, and as things turn out he’s right to do so, but for a long time he’s trying to get his friend out of a situation he persists in failing to see as dangerous. As indeed Ross doesn’t get out of it, though not for the reason Sam’s been worried about all along (the scene’s a twist all right, but it’s one of the few points where Westlake lets himself down, not by making it so abrupt but by not letting the death have any impact on anyone, not even Sam).
I’ve also got to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with one aspect of Sam’s set-up, and that’s his two women. Sam’s a Native New Yorker whose career has taken him to Los Angeles, but he maintains a foot in both camps, spending summers and winters in LA, when NY is unbearable for its weather, but Spring and Fall in the Big Apple.
As a result he has a woman on each coast, restaurateur Anita Imperato in New York, scriptwriter Bly Danner in LA. The women, who are physical contrasts to one another, each know about their opposite number but leave the subject well alone. For the three of them, the arrangement works, for now and for some time, and Westlake leaves completely blank what might happen if either decided it was no longer for them. It simply wouldn’t work for me and whilst I’d normally treat such an arrangement non-judgementally, in this instance I can’t escape a degree of moral disapproval. I think it’s that, whatever emotion you attach to it, this is the bloke with two birds, having his cake and eating it at the same time that digs through the outer layer of skin. My impeccable liberal instincts can’t really approve.


Westlake was determined that each Sam Holt book should cover a different aspect of crime fiction, so I Know a Trick worth Two of That was written as a twist on the buddy-buddy story, the Maltese Falcon avenge-your-partner format.
In New York, Sam is contacted surreptitiously by Doug Walford, his old cop car partner from Long Island, looking to be hid for a while. Doug’s a PI, in over his head with some heavy guy who’s flagrantly not linked to the mob. That’s because he’s their shabbas goy, the one whose absence of ties means he can do things the mobsters themselves can’t. Doug’s a nuisance, a long way from getting anything that can lead to anything let alone prove anything. He’s kidding himself that he only needs a few more months, if he can stay out of sight. But people like Frank Althorn don’t let nuisances become more than nuisances. Sam shelters Doug, but at a party in Sam’s NY townhouse, Doug dies in the toilet.
The coroner rules it suicide, brought on by depression. There’s no evidence to contradict that, except what Sam knows, and what his reporter friend Terry Young and a couple of other read out of what Doug was like at the party. But it takes Bly Danner, back on the West Coast, to identify why Sam can’t let it go. Doug was killed by someone at Sam’s party. The killer was either a friend of Sam’s or someone brought by a friend. It’s a case of personal betrayal, and Sam has to find – and cut out – the guilty person. If only to clear the shadow of suspicion that otherwise will hang over the rest of his friends. Which includes Anita.
The culprit, ultimately, is the only one it could reasonably be, not that they’re the actual murderer, and Westlake leaves at least enough of a trail after the end of the book, in the hands of the professionals, to suggest that maybe yet the death can be brought back to the man who ordered it, but that’s no more the point of the story than the whereabouts of the real Maltese Falcon was too Sam Spade. Sam Holt has cleared his head of suspicion.


Though there was an element of locked-room mystery about the second Sam Holt book, Westlake developed the full-blown thing for What I tell you Three Times is False. Sam’s been persuaded by Anita to give his time to a Cancer Commercial, though it’s Bly who flies out to the isolated Caribbean rock where it’s to be filmed, in facilities that used to belong to a very proprietorial Colombian drug baron.
The pair are flow in in the teeth of a storm that kills the pilot, stranding everyone on the rock until it subsides, days later. Everyone here is the two Producers who know own the island, one servant, one Director and four actors, each associated with a particular famous detective; Sam’s out of his class here as Packard, since the other three are Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Charlie Chan. The line up is completed by the star’s wife and companions.
During the first night, Daphne Wheeler, companion to ‘Miss Marple’ is found dead, apparently of suicide after a vituperous quarrel at dinner. But ‘Sherlock Holmes’ spots the little clues that pinpoint this as a murder, triggering an investigation that puts the three operational detectives on the spot of having to be what they only pretend to be.
Westlake sidelines ‘Miss Marple’ possibly because this is a Ten Little Indians-style set-up, and an Agatha Christie creation might be too at home. For Daphne is only the first of, eventually, five victims, though one of these is only put into a coma, not killed. Westlake deftly plays the absurdity of second-hand contrast and collaborate, with ‘Sherlock Holmes’ gearing up to announce to everyone that he has solved the mystery, which will make for ideal publicity for his forthcoming revival series as the Great Detective.
Unfortunately, this is Sam’s book, and Sam takes the wind out of his sails with a vengeance by identifying the real culprit, whose motive has to be read to be believed.


The Fourth Dimension is Death was a straightforward murder mystery, with Sam being called upon to carry out his most intense and sustained investigation, in order to clear his own name. A struggling actor called Doug Walmsley who is Sam’s lookalike has been portraying Packard insultingly for a series of TV commercials, and Sam travels to New York for depositions in the lawsuit. Walmsley turns out to be obsessed with Sam and taking what is a normal suit personally. He confronts Sam physically twice, both times getting the worst of it. Sam’s next encounter is with the Police: Walmsley was beaten to death outside Sam’s townhouse.
Homicide likes Sam for the murder, and two unsympathetic detectives, trying to pressure him, say too much to the Press, leading to stories that he’s not cooperating, and is getting away with it because he’s a celebrity.
That brings down a civil suit from Doug’s mother, charging Sam with violating Doug’s human rights by killing him. It places Sam in an impossible situation, especially if he ever does wish to work again: he has no option but to investigate Walmsley and his background to find the real killers. And to do so, he has to go undercover, keeping his whereabouts unknown, especially from the New York Police, who won’t take kindly to an amateur doing their job, especially an actor who played a detective.
That gives Sam a second motive for staying incognito: if he is found out before he solves the case, he’ll be a laughing stock and he’ll never work again on that score either. So he goes down the pipeline, following Doug Walmsley, hoping that the tide will spit him out at the same place. Only, when it does, there’s a gun waiting…
As a Westlake fan, over and above the Dortmunder Gang books, I collected the four books in their reissued form and, given that the story’s pretty interesting, I wanted to give the books a few good words to complement the good words in them. Westlake does a good job of not sounding like Donald E Westlake, and whilst the Sam Holt quartet are not the best of his work, they are entertaining enough for it to be regrettable that there weren’t the originally-planned six.
It’s a shame that that publisher couldn’t have been introduced to Tiny Bulcher…

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The Last Englishman: an Arthur Ransome biography


Several years ago, I bought a copy of Roland Chambers’ 2008 biography of Arthur Ransome, The Last Englishman, in paperback. The book was written in the wake of the release of formerly classified papers documenting that the writer of Swallows and Amazons had operated as a British Intelligence Agent in Russia during the Revolution. I disliked the book, and especially its author’s attitude towards Ransome, and out it aside, intending to write about it. It’s been at least five years, if not more, without my returning to it, but I’ve pulled it from its position in hiding and re-read it, and am giving my opinion of the book before I confine it to the outer darknesses of a sale on eBay.
I was introduced to Arthur Ransome, via the last of the Swallows and Amazons books, when I was still in single figures. I still have the original green bound hardback set, all but two of them bought for me secondhand from Shudehill Book Stalls. I have, and have read at least three times, Hugh Brogan’s comprehensive Biography of Ransome, and his own, unfinished Autobiography. The contrast between the man’s life and the children’s fiction for which he is known is fascinating, and I am unashamedly a fan.
Roland Chambers very definitely isn’t. The Last Englishman, a title appended to Ransome during his time in Russia, has very little value as an emblem of the book, whilst its sub-title – prominently displayed on the paperback cover and decidedly sensational – is The DOUBLE LIFE of Arthur Ransome, capitals in the original.
Where Brogan was writing about the life of the Swallows and Amazons writer, a man with a fascinating and complex background in great contrast, Chambers offers a much narrower compass. He is only concerned with Ransome the Reporter, the witness to the Revolution, the man who worked for British Intelligence yet was considered by a great many to be an out-and-out Bolshevik.
Ransome’s years leading up to 1917 are only of importance in establishing his character (defective) and personal circumstances (self-inflicted), and the post-Russia years, including the Swallows and Amazons series is waved by as being totally irrelevant, though this doesn’t prevent Chambers from following the theme that runs through the book.
Because there is not very much in The Last Englishman that isn’t already in the Brogan biography. The only substantive difference is in emphasis. Plainly put, Chambers loathes Ransome, and whatever the writer says or does is wrong. There is no consideration of context nor attempt to present the circumstances that lead Ransome to take an attitude: simply by taking one at all he is at fault. Where Brogan may have been said to be too sympathetic, his Biography presents Arthur Ransome in his own light: who he was, what he thought and felt, and why. Judgement is reserved for the reader. Roland Chambers is delivering the Prosecution Speech in a Trial where the Hangman has set up the gallows before the verdict.
Obviously, this book goes into what seems to be a mass more detail about events in Russia in 1917 and afterwards. But for all this, I learned very little that I hadn’t known. Chambers is mainly concerned to present Ransome as, at his very best, shallow. The reporter is alleged to be stupidly impressionable, particularly in his adoption of the Bolshevik cause. Brogan reports this course through Ransome’s eyes, as a patriotic Englishmen observing at first hand the disintegration of one of his country’s allies in a major war, concerned for the effect on Britain and, on a pragmatic assessment, presenting the Bolshevik’s as the only source of stability. Chambers draws the like at accusing Ransome of being Bolshevik himself, of believing in all aspects of their political creed, and especially its viciousness and brutality, but the distinction between the true believer and the ‘useful idiot’ is deliberately blurred.
Chambers’ attitude is clearly the Trollopian one that ‘one cannot touch pitch without being oneself defiled’. That Ransome does not present whole-heartedly against the Bolshevik menace, that he doesn’t denounce it at every opportunity, that he doesn’t highlight massacres and executions damns him for all time.
That Ransome’s value lay in his having close contact with all the major figures of the Revolution, and that skating them at every opportunity may have potentially damaged that connection does not even enter Chambers’ thinking or, if it does, is ruthlessly suppressed.
But it’s the same everywhere. Ransome is mocked for his Bohemian period, bears the sole responsibility for the failure of his first marriage, and is in the wrong over every aspect of his relationship, or non-relationship with his only daughter: it is apparently perfectly alright for Ivy Walker to refuse to allow Tabitha to go on a Norfolk Broads holiday with her father by telling her that Ransome means to drown her, or for Tabitha to write to her father flatly telling him he is burnt out and will never write anything decent, before Swallows and Amazons. Ransome alone is responsible for this.
And Chambers is dismissive of the books for which Ransome gained his fame. They are a hollow, unrealistic fantasy that take no account of working class lives, nor War and there’s nothing about the Bolsheviks in them, which in Chambers’ eyes is utterly damning. Despite the fact that Ransome had never wanted to be a Reporter, that he saw that period of his life as an intrusion that threatened his true ambitions, he should instead have allowed his Russian experiences to dominate his every thought and word since: how dare he be allowed to forget?
The Last Englishman is a mean-minded book, the work of a writer who has determined to dislike his subject and to attack everything he did or thought. There is a measure of praise, balancing things out, but it is limited, only occasional and unconvincing: clearly, Chambers heart is not in allowing Arthur Ransome any triumph.
That, more than anything, is why, having finally re-read it, I shalln’t be holding on to this book. I’m not blind to Ransome’s contradictions, nor his failings, but I’m also aware of his qualities, and I can balance these out. Roland Chambers can’t or won’t. His stance is that of the men in England who wanted Arthur Ransome imprisoned or executed as a Bolshevik, and yet somehow never actually went ahead and did it when they had the opportunity: one gets the feeling Chambers wouldn’t have hesitated.

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Knight’


After the long years devoted to the final two parts of the Solar Cycle, Gene Wolfe entered the Twenty-First Century with a two-part epic fantasy, inspired by the fabulist Lord Dunsany, set in a world of seven levels, built from mythology. The first of these was The Knight.
I have never read this book as an individual volume, but only as part of the 900 page plus collected volume, published as The Wizard Knight, from which it will be clear what name the sequel bears. Perhaps because of the sheer heft of the collected volume, which matches the single-volume omnibus of the Book of the New Sun, Severian of the Guild, for thickness, I have always found the book a daunting prospect, and have never taken to it.
The Knight takes the form of a long letter – a very long letter indeed – written by a young American boy whose name we don’t learn in this volume, to his older brother, Ben. The letter, which is written an unspecified number of years later, is an account of the younger brother’s adventures after disappearing during a hike from their cabin. Along the way, we learn a few passing details of the boy’s life in America: that the pair have lost their parents, their father when the boy was practically too young to remember him, the mother when he was still at school, that there is some friction between the pair, seeming to be based in Ben having to take responsibility for his younger brother, and that the boy spends a lot of time at the cabin to keep out of the way.
But the boy is of course a classic Wolfean unreliable narrator, in this case because of his youth, his naievete and his inexperience. The boy, as the title indicates, finds himself in a classic Dunsanian environmental, in a medieval age of peasants and merchant but, most importantly from his perspective, Kings and Dukes, feudal Lords and Courts and Knights.
The boy is determined to be a Knight, and takes the name of Sir Able, fully Sir Able of the High Heart, which is the only name by which we know him in this first part.
The story is episodic and rambling, which is another reason I have difficulty with it. Though I have tried to read Dunsany, many many years ago, his fantasy fiction belongs to an older age. It is a higher fantasy that I don’t respond to, a fantasy born of connections to our everyday Earth that never have (or in those days needed) explanations. So Sir Able leaves the cabin for a hike and somehow ends up in Mythgarthyr, the middle of the seven worlds and the closest equivalent to this Earth, between the Fire realm below of Aelfrice, and the Air realm above, of Skai.
What then follows seems to obey no narrative purpose except to move Able onwards through a series of situations as he pursues his goal. Where he goes, and how he moves from place to place never feels like a progression, just a collection of things that happen.
The first of these is almost a static situation, as the young Able – still a stripling physically, fitting his actual age – is more or less adopted by a former warrior, Bold Berthold, whose brain has been scattered by a severe head injury. Berthold believes able to be his real brother, presumably dead, and helps him survive in the forest.
But then Able is taken into Aelfrice, by the Mossmaiden, Disiri of the Aelf, with whom he falls in love. Disiri beds him, but in a physical parody of the notion that losing ones virginity turns you from a boy into a man, Able wakes up a big, strong, strapping man, physically tall, strong, limber, phemonenally accurate with the bow. So much so that Able henceforth is superhuman. He’s still an American teenager, and there are times when he demonstrates that his brain hasn’t developed along with his body, because he frequently talks like an American kid – a noble Knight who ends half his sentences with the word ‘Sure’ is both a deliberate incongruity and and unintentional pain in the arse after a while – and his physical ability to push people round leads to his throwing his weight around and threatening to push people around.
Able certainly sees this as defending his honour and status as a Knight, in those moments when he’s not being utterly modest about himself, but he comes over as not much more than a bully in several of these instances. And whilst he can be decently modest, especially when comparing himself to the achievements of more conventional Knights, it’s noticeable how many times he reports to Ben how people, especially his betters, praise him in terms that you might think we’re overblown.
Along the way, Able collects an itinerant bunch of followers, who continually appear and disappear. In no particular order, these include his servant, peasant’s son, Toug, his other servant, the one-eyed sailor, Pouk, his half-crippled peasant servant Uns, his two Aelf servants and handmaidens, Uri and Baki, his Dog, if Dog he really be, Gylf, who can talk, and his cat, Mani, who can also talk. Uri and Baki are constantly trying to get Able to have sex with them, though he is dedicated to Disiri, who he expects never to see again, and Duke Beel’s daughter, the Lady Idnn shows a disturbing enthusiasm for throwing herself at (or under, if he’s not careful) him because he’s this fine figure of a masculine specimen.
Yet that is supposed to be the point. Able is put in a position to fulfil all his fantasies, yet is out of his depth all the time. But, to tell the truth, Sir Able of the High Heart is too much the superhuman for me. Perhaps that is only Wolfe being true to Dunsany, but it renders him unreal, and far too simple a character to sustain him at the centre of a more than four hundred page narration that ends with the slaying of a dragon.
The second book of this extended tale is even longer.

Considering John Crowley: Ka – Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr


A new John Crawley book is an event for me, since years pass between them, so I was excited to hear of the publication of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr. Better yet, the book was published in decent time to be a birthday present to myself. I looked forward to it.

I admit to a certain amount of puzzlement over its title, or rather it’s sub-title. ‘Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr’ suggested nothing more than cheap Seventies fantasy fiction, sub-Moorcockian stuff, pale shadows of Tanelorn and The Eternal Champion cycle. Of course it wouldn’t be anything like that, not from Crowley, or if it held any such element, it would be reflected from a hitherto unseen direction.

As I do in all such things, I avoided learning anything about the book in advance other than its title, and a small image of the cover. Until, that is, the day of my birthday, when I took the book out of its Amazon packaging.

That was my birthday in November 2017. Today, I have finally finished the book, in a series of widely separated bursts taking me three weeks short of a year. It’s not a bad book, by any means. It is well-written, in Crowley’s usual, lyrical manner, but from the moment I read it’s blurb, and discovered Dar Oakley to be a Crow, an immortal Crow, I found myself unable to connect with the leading character at all, and in none of my slow bursts of progression have I discovered the essential enthusiasm for the Crow and what happens to him.

The form of the book is that this is Dar Oakley’s story, as told to a contemporary human male that we instinctively connect with being Crowley himself. For the longest part of the book, some two-thirds or so of the novel, the narrator confines himself to occasional commentary on the stories he is repeating, or summarising. He is, for this period, nothing more than an intermediary, a translator from Crow into American English.

But as the present of the narrative extends into modern times, to the American Civil War and beyond, the narrator comes more to the fore. Dar Oakley makes a connection with a human, not his first, but perhaps his most substantial. This is Anna Kuhn, who loses her husband and brother-in-law in the Civil War, who becomes blind but, at the same time, infallibly perceptive of her surroundings, like Matt (Daredevil) Murdock, and through some form of transfer from the Crow, becomes a prominent spiritualist medium.

The narrator knows of her through his mother, herself an ardent spritualist. Kuhn has the feel of an historical character but she is fictional, albeit as a reimagination of Emily Dickinson. Her son becomes a hater of Crows, of Dar Oakley in particular, and a great Crow-killer, who eventually kills himself and Dar Oakley – not the first of our prominent crow’s deaths, but the last to be depicted in this book.

This leads us into the fourth and final part of the novel, named for its sub-title, and brings us to the period in which Dar Oakley, now wishing to die and die permanently, communes with our narrator. The latter has lost his wife Debra to a ‘new’ but unspecified disease, and he too is suffering from a terminal disease, also unnamed (my inference is cancer, or some related condition, but then I would incline that way, given my history).

Ultimately, he and a woman named Barbara, a sufferer from diabetes, decide upon a joint suicide, in Dar Oakley’s presence, enabling the Crow to guide them to the Door of Death and enter them into a land where the Dead live, where the narrator will once again find his Debra. But Death rejects them, and there are sent back to live, which is the point on which the book ends.

I’ve no doubt that this is a very good book. It has received very favourable reviews. But from the moment I read that it was about a Crow, my mind took against it, and I have never been able to get into the book.

It’s not that I have anything against beast-fable, which is how I would categorise Ka: though it is years since I last read any, I have, in my time, been a devotee of Watership Down, William Horwood’s Duncton Wood and The Stonor Eagles and I still have, somewhere in a plastic bag underneath another plastic bag, that copy of The Wind in the Willows, bought for me by my parents when we still lived at Brigham Street.

So as far as I am concerned, the fault with Ka, if there is a fault, is with me, not John Crowley or Dar Oakley. But I have finished it at last, and as I will not read this again, I will be putting the book up for sale on eBay this weekend. It is not the only book I have started but not yet finished: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem lies suspended and that was for Xmas 2016, so I do need to get a move on.

Sometime next year, I think it will be time to return to Little, Big, and beyond it, Aegypt. I am sorry to have failed with this latest book.

Lost in Translation


Another giant has been lost to us, Anthea Bell, translator supreme, aged 82. She has a list of incredible credits to her name, but the one that I and many millions like me will respond to is Asterix the Gaul, where she and her translation partner, Derek Hockridge, produced absolute gems in creating what were, in many cases, original Asterix gags and puns to substitute for French humour that just would not translate, and in one glorious case had Rene Goscinny himself smiling and admitting wistfully, “I wish I’d thought of that.” What better tribute can any translator receive?

Tom Holt – The World of J W Wells & Co


When I downsized from a four bedroom house to a pokey little flat, a large part of my book collection (apart from those that didn’t make the transaction) had to be parked in corners, in plastic bags, out of the way and, unfortunately, out-of-sight. They were all books I wanted to keep, even though at any time it would have been a major hunting expedition to find out where they were, always assuming I could remember that I still owned them.
But sometimes, when the mood strikes to re-read such books, the years of separation can leave you finding that their qualities aren’t quite what you remember them to be, and that the time you have spent away from each other makes them no longer suited to your wants and needs of today.
I have always has something of an ambivalent relationship with the works of Tom Holt. In the wake of Terry Pratchett, lots of people started wanting to read comic fantasy and comic SF. Some of them proved to be insufficiently talented to sustain an idea over more than two or three books. Robert Rankin, who’d actually started before Pratchett but who didn’t get seriously going until in the immediate wake of the great man, was even more prolific. Some, like Andrew Harman, seemed to exist only because Pratchett couldn’t write more than two books a year (this may be unfair: I never read any Harman myself but those who did…)
Tom Holt falls into the long-lasting category. I bought his debut novel, Expecting Someone Taller on spec and loved it, enjoyed Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? even more and then found my enthusiasm waning steadily over the next four books, until the effect travelled backwards and I found myself eyeing the first two up as part of an overall approach that simply didn’t travel well.
So I moved the books on and, apart from the odd and occasional library borrow, didn’t bother.
One of those books, Here Comes The Sun, contained a decent gag I promptly purloined and re-wrote to make it (in my mind) even funnier, and a brilliant joke of the A-B-X variety that I would have stolen in a heartbeat if I could have found any way of changing it to make it less blatant a rip-off, which wasn’t possible without making the joke infinitely less funny.


It was probably another of these occasional library borrows that led me to The Portable Door. This was another bog-standard Holt effort: take on all-round no-hoper/loser/wimp/put-upon schlub who will never be capable of achieving anything and especially not getting any remotely attractive girl to tolerate his presence for more than a nanosecond, add a female version who is not so overt a loser but who is nevertheless hostile, plain, bad-tempered, at odds with life, and who will inevitably succumb to no-hoper as prelude to a thoroughly unsatisfactory life together, and then drop some fantasy set-up around them. In this case, magic.
Paul Carpenter and Sophie Pettingell are both taken on as underclerks at J W Wells & Co despite neither having any employable ability, and are set to work together doing meaningless and repetitive tasks. Paul has already fallen in love with Sophie, despite her having no pleasant characteristics whatsoever. Neither of them know what J W Wells & Co do.
Ardent followers of Gilbert & Sullivan will have already recognised the reference to The Sorceror and will consequently not be surprised when the company turns out to be one of the leading Partnerships in Practical Magic in the world. Paul and Sophie both have unlikely natural abilities that way, and besides, they’ve both signed contracts that tie them to the firm for Life (not necessarily just their own) on pain of very unpleasant and unwelcome reprisals.
What Holt does, relying on his background as a Probate and Taxes Solicitor, is to squeeze Magic down into an office world, complete with its own version of office politics. But that’s been the other prong of his style from the outset, to portray all manner of utterly fantastic situations through the dulled-down lens of mundanity, or rather mundanity squared, since this is mundanity out of which all the bits you might enjoy have been sieved.
The Portable Door has a great many flashes of imagination that it’s hard not to admire, the roll-out and hang against any wall, step through to where/whenever you want door of the title being one of them. But ultimately the book suffers from the absence of any character that you feel any sympathy for, and Paul is the worst of the worst.
That might seem difficult, given that he is the ‘hero’ (this status will taken on uncomfortably prescient qualities in later books), and the villain is a real bastard, and not the only one either. Even love-object Sophie doesn’t present anything that would cause you not to walk away from her rapidly if you came across her in real life. How did I describe the archetypal Holt hero? all-round no-hoper/loser/wimp/put-upon schlub who will never be capable of achieving anything? And to that self-aware that he is an all-round no-hoper/loser/wimp/put-upon schlub etc., and seemingly determined to expend every effort to stay that way, and it makes for one balls-ache of a character.
Even the ending, where Paul not only saves the day but wins the girl who’s been just as much in love with him as he with her all along, can’t be allowed to be even as much as that. Holt has not only taken Gilbert & Sullivan’s John Wellington Wells but the company’s infallible, life-lasting love philtre, and heavily implies that Sophie’s taken that.


I don’t know whether Holt envisaged a series from the first, but The Portable Door was the first of six books, written almost-consecutively, featuring J W Wells & Co, and the first three were all about Paul. In In Your Dreams, Sophie is got out of the way pretty early, the relationship manifestly not working, leaving the wounded Paul to continue his nondescript and unwilling way around the firm’s various Departments. He finds himself deeply embroiled in a plot by the Queen of the Fey, aka J W Wells Partner Contessa Judy di Castel’Bianco, to replace humanity with her people which he also thwarts, mostly by accident, despite having been bred for the purpose of thwarting her.
The defenestration of Sophie, early on, does feel like a cheap manoeuvre, though it’s actually a plot-device to keep Paul discontented. Sophie does return to him at the end, but she has genuinely had that part of her that did love him stripped out of her memories. Holt does provide an almost touching ending based on this, as Sophie volunteers to take the love philtre in order to love Paul as he wants, but Paul, in one of the few genuinely decent characteristics he displays, refuses to let her: to loved someone and be loved in return, yet know that this is only because of magic, is unbearable to him: he cannot do that to her, even though she is willing.


Which brings us back for Earth, Air, Fire and Custard, which has a plot of deliberate complexity, involving multiple manipulations, time-travel, several deaths on Paul’s part and the discovery that neither he nor Sophie are anything like what they think they are, and that they are far from being the excuses-for-human-beings with a magical overlay that they think they are. Even though Paul embraces his nature to be a hero and is actually responsible for the ultimate victory, not to mention his and Sophie’s escape from J W Wells & Co, to become multi-millionaires in New Zealand (is that actually possible?), he’s still far from likeable, can’t follow more than one-tenth of the plot and wants to understand even less, and he and Sophie only end up back in love with each other thanks to both getting a double-dose of the love philtre, which is horribly cynical way of going about things, but about the only feasible way of getting a happy ending.
That was it for Paul and Sophie, though their son was destined to appear in a later book.


The fourth book – You Don’t Have To Be Evil To Work Here, But It Helps – needed another useless protagonist, for which Holt duly provided Colin Hodgkinson. Colin is built from Holt’s standard mould but is far less a hopeless drip than Paul Carpenter, and when he encounters the girl who is his true love, he’s actually capable of positive action, up to and including asking her to run away with him to Vanuatu – as a first date.
And the circumstances of J W Wells & Co had altered, in that the loss of the four Partners Paul had disposed of along the way, three dead and one permanently exiled to the Isle of Avalon, had led to the firm being taken over by mysterious new managers who talked a more modern kind of management bullshit, all proactive personal plans and where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years-time?s.
The impetus for the story is that Colin and his love Fam (short for Famine) are true lovers whose true love is thwarted, leading to dire consequences for the universe and Space/Time, i.e. complete collapse. The new owners of J W Wells & Co are trying to set things right by bringing Colin together with his destined true love, JWW junior Cassie Clay, specialist subject contracts for the selling of souls to the Devil. When all else fails, Colin and Cassie are dosed with the love philtre (in between Colin asking Fam out to Vanuatu and her answer, which complicates matters).
The twist is that Colin and his true love are not the fifteenth reincarnation of the star-crossed pair, and last chance to balance the books (either by the ‘true love’ route or else by breaking the cycle by Colin’s Dad selling his son’s soul to Hell) but rather the original – with Fam, not Cassie – with the reincarnations being preincarnations: if there’s no future, spread out into the past.
It’s a clever set-up and both the problem and its solution are executed in a rather more elegant manner than in any of the three preceding books, but the story ends with the practical end of J W Wells and Co and it’s replacement with a new firm in which the partners are Connie, Cassie and the near ubiquitous Benny Shumway.
But given that the book is directly about love, it’s interesting to see Holt’s take on the subject. Of course it’s cynical: love, like everything, is more trouble than it’s worth, especially as it’s worth nothing to begin with, and is only an unfortunate consequence of chemical reactions that get in the way of doing anything fun, so best avoided. Both Connie and Cassie are determined to stay away from it, and from the complications that arise from having to deal with another person. They expound upon this, individually and collectively, at extended length so often that I’m convinced they’re expressing Holt’s beliefs rather than his characters. We all argue the more passionately for what we personally believe: either that or Holt is supremely talented at propounding arguments with which he has zero sympathy, and given the consistency of his ‘heroes’ natures and the lack of more serious – or even varied – fiction from him, I don’t think it’s defamatory to say I incline to the former opinion.


After four consecutive J W Wells books, Holt took time off to write a novel about a firm of lawyers who are actually all werewolves (which led to great raucous laughter on the part of my former wife), but he immediately reverted to that world with The Better Mousetrap, whose ‘hero’ was Frank Carpenter, son of Paul and Sophie and a time-traveller who’d inherited very few of the characteristics of either parent and was, surprisingly, proactive, efficient and likeable.
The book is set in the post J W Wells & Co era, though there is a similar firm involved, Carrington’s belonging to Amanda Carrington, goddaughter to Dennis Tanner, formerly of the bankrupt firm. It’s only three years since Paul and Sophie have been despatched to New Zealand to live happily ever after (except that they don’t) as well as filthy rich, but Frank Carpenter is in his mid-to-late twenties and though he’s from twenty-six years in the future, he seems to prefer this year for no adequately defined reason.
Frank, you see, has inherited the Portable Door and is using it for the inverse of an insurance scam. That is, his services are employed by Insurance Assessor George Sprague in cases where incontrovertibly legitimate claims in eight figures might otherwise have to be paid out. In return for 10% of the savings, Frank will use the Door to go precisely where and when he is needed to prevent the insured event, be it a fire, a motorway pile-up or the death of a valued employee of a leading firm of magical practitioners.
Which brings up to Frank’s co-‘hero’, Emily Spitzer, five foot nothing of skinny blonde pest control operative at Carrington’s, pest control, as has long since been established in this series of books, meaning slayer of unwanted magical infestations like spiders, trolls and dragons.
The problem is, someone wants Emily dead, enough to apply a Better Mousetrap to her. This is a magical trap that not only kills its victim but every dimensional manifestation of it in toto, not that we get to see that side of it. For the purposes of the book, it just means that if it’s thwarted, it shifts gear slightly and completes its job. Nothing can defeat a Better Mousetrap. Except a Portable Door.
Once Frank saves Emily sufficiently well to get her away, we get the usual falling-in-love bit. For someone so determinedly negative about love, Holt seems to introduce it regularly without any of the tedious real world business of conversation, dates, romance or even getting-to-know-one-another: it’s first sight or nothing.
The plot revolves around the somewhat mundane intention of Amanda Carrington, a ruthless individual, to corner the world bauxite market. The plan is complex but ultimately it’s the convolutions that matter, not what they’re in service to, and what makes The Better Mousetrap the most enjoyable book thus far, apart from the fact I actually laughed out loud twice, is that its protagonists are actually nicer, and better.
Holt tries hard to tar Frank with the usual brush, and Frank goes along with this to some extent, but he’s inherently more determined to set things up with Emily, who is too close to being the J W Wells competent career girl to be a complete loser. And ultimately, the ‘profession’ Holt sets Frank up in prevents him ever being that much of a loser.
To begin with, in Sam Beckett fashion (the parallel is even made explicit at one point), Frank saves things. He heads off death, destruction, disruption, gradually making the world a better place. He tries to pretend he’s only doing it for the money, or for something to do, but it is the only thing he does, and whilst he’s pulling in over a million pounds a job, he never spends it on anything. And what he does requires considerable skill to calculate precise interventions.
In short, Frank Carpenter is a Good Guy.
Of course, Holt can’t resist on shitting on Paul and Sophie every chance he gets, despite their being offstage. They’ve been together for twenty-nine years but they’ve been miserable throughout it. They’ve been granted Eternal Youth when what would have been better for them was Eternal Middle-Age. And they’ve abandoned Frank completely, walling themselves off in some completely inaccessible place courtesy of the Door, where they’re permanently seventeen and can never be reached again.
Except that they turn up just before the end as schoolchildren, aged fourteen/fifteen, just to be paraded as pathetic. Holt really has it in for this pair and it’s unedifying to say the least.


Which finally left May Contain Traces of Magic. It’s one last visit to the J. W. Wells universe, with a no-names reference back to In Your Dreams, but otherwise unconnected. Chris Popham is a sales rep for JWW Retail, magic suppliers, driving a company car whose SatNav talks to him, because it’s an imprisoned demon. Demons are trying to break through. Chris’s friend from school, Jill, operates a senior Government unit combatting demons. He lives with their mutual friend Karen (though Karen isn’t a real person, just a collection of unpleasant cliches, as if Holt couldn’t be bothered to make her even nominally into a character).
May Contain Traces of Magic has a similarly convoluted plot, based on the notion that demons break through into our plain because they need to feed on human emotion – usually the pain, fear and terror engendered in the last fifteen seconds of having a demon coming at you. However, some demons have worked out that a more symbiotic relationship, feeding on the ordinary, everyday emotions of just dealing with life, and especially love, is a far better, more sustainable bet, not to mention less prone to have demon hunters after you.
Somehow, Chris finds himself being pursued by demons, convinced he knows how to locate the leading dissident. Chris is an average rep, spending most of his time on the road, whee he feels most comfortable.
He lives with Karen, who spends most of her time offstage. They were at school together where she was in love with him, but Chris was in love with Jill, with whom he has much more in common, and who he sees once a week, as a friend. Karen was his rebound when Jill turned him down.
A crucial scene takes place in the past in the school’s girl’s toilet when Jill kills a girl called Ellie-something, who turns out to be a demon, but then so does everybody at some point or other, including Chris, during a confusing end-sequence which sees the events in the toilets changed again and again.
Ultimately, Chris realises that he does love Karen, although that comes over as being just because Holt says so, because there’s fuck-all evidence for it, despite his presenting her as an attractive, intelligent and still in love with Chris even after the removal of a decade’s worth of demon conditioning. No, given that Karen has been presented for well over 300 pages as a cardboard cut-out harridan, this sudden attempt at a reversal comes over as a blatant contrivance. Convenient, yes, convincing, I should coco.
Despite all that, I did enjoy May Contain Traces of Magic as I did The Better Mousetrap, but not enough to wish to retain either book.
Writing this essay, it has struck me that what I’ve been doing is a variation upon my occasional ‘Some Books’ series. The main difference is that this sextet are much more recent, as well as being books that I enjoyed enough to want to purchase and keep. To find myself turning against them, and with such vehemence, surprises me greatly. Only a few years since I last read them enjoyably, I can see nothing but manifest flaws, even in the ones I like.
Everyone, from Douglas Adams onwards, who has written comic SF or Fantasy comes at it from slightly different but an ultimately common perspective. Essentially, the unreal, the fantastic and the impossible is made comic by juxtaposing it with the ordinariness of life, the commonplace, the everyday feelings and reactions of the unfantastic. I used mundanity above, but perhaps the better word is banality. Only Terry Pratchett has gone seriously beyond this, but the common currency is to fill up the cracks with ordinariness. Instead of heroes, wizards, goblins and monster in the classic heroic roles, we ourselves in all our banality and pettiness, are shown taking up these roles, and even the talented are shown as being as dull, mean, selfish and hopeless as the rest of us.
Tom Holt, from the outset, took this approach to heart and has continually ladled it on with a trowel. In the case of Paul Carpenter and Sophie Pettingell, whilst there was undoubtedly comedy to be made from the idea of Magic as a Solicitor’s Partnership, Holt went OTT to the point that Paul’s trilogy is now next to unreadable for me, and I am querying why I ever enjoyed these books at all. This goes so deep that the world of the sextet, even in the last two, much better balanced books, the atmosphere is contaminated.
So, now there’s a six paperback space in a plastic carrier bag, not that I’ll have any difficulty in filling it, without even resorting to eBay to replenish stocks…

An Intense Month…


… has seen me working on the Second Draft of the newly-named And You May Find Yourself virtually every day leading to the completion of the same this evening. I’m also working on a brief for my colleague who’s going to do the cover, but once that’s been passed onto him, I want to give myself a bit of quarantine time, leave the characters for a while, then go back and start a Third Draft.

I’ve got the story into shape, I’ve settled the timeline, some scenes are pretty near sacrosanct – a lot of crucial scenes were worked and re-worked mentally before I even started writing any of them down – and others need looking at, a bit more patiently. I’ll probably try re-writing some of these, instead of polishing, cutting, adding, rearranging.

And You May Find Yourself is a sequel, but it’s also an inverse of Love Goes To Building On Sand. The one was based on things that did happen, reinterpreted in a fictional form, but this is based on things that never happened, and is in essence a Road Never Travelled. I’ve no plans for a third book featuring the same characters, although I do know things that happen in their future.

So, with a bit of luck, I should have this published no later than February 2019, though Xmas would be nice: clear the decks for something else once New Year’s Day is upon us. I’ve enough part started projects to choose from. I’m looking forward to spending some fictional time with other people after two years with my alter ego.