Biggles Air Detective by Captain WE Johns

This is the first Biggles book I’ve ever read and I am genuinely impressed.

Obviously, Biggles is always going to triumph and isn’t going to be shot dead or shot down in his aircraft on Page 4, but nonetheless I have to say there’s a certain amount of ingenuity in some of these stories which allows Biggles (short for Bigglesworth) to succeed.

I was half expecting / fearing that Biggles would turn out to be a Bulldog Drummond of the skies but he’s not like that at all, at least not in these stories. He has a few pals – Algy, Bertie, and Ginger – and there are few female characters in these short stories, but he’s a respectful person who doesn’t like making guesses, who knows right from wrong, and is prepared to right those wrongs when he can.

Cross of Fire by Colin Forbes

This is an extremely long thriller at over 550 pages. It needs to be though as there are so many characters not all of whom are what they seem to be at first appearance.

The good people are: Paula Grey, Newman (who appears to be in a permanent bad mood), Nield, Butler, Tweed, and Marler. They have allies in France and Germany. These people are up against a would-be General de Gaulle named General Charles de Forge, who along with his supporters including Dubois, leader of a political party called Pour France, and Louis Janin, Minister of Defence is out to topple the government of France by fomenting an ever-increasing storm of hatred including riots in Bordeaux, Lyons, and Marseilles and attacks on Jews in the south of France. All these attackers are brandishing a burning Cross of Lorraine.

The story starts with two identical murders, one in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and the second in Bordeaux around 24 hours later. Both are committed by a mysterious assassin Kalmar. The story then moves at speed from London to Aldeburgh, Geneva, Basle to Paris, Bordeaux, Arcachon, The Landes. Gradually drawn into the story are characters you can never be sure about such as Jean Burgoyne, a mistress of General de Forge, Victor Rosewater a captain in Military Intelligence, Isabelle Thomas, girlfriend of a murdered British agent, Lieutenant Berthier who serves under General de Forge and his colleague Major Lamy. There’s also a second assassin called Manteau who keeps calling de Forge demanding money for the assassinations he claims he’s carried out, including the derailment of a TGV on a viaduct, a crash that kills both the President and Prime Minister of France.

There’s also a sinister English Lord, Dane Dawlish who owns a magnificent catamaran called Steel Vulture and has an unhealthy interest in the sunken village of Dunwich. This boat has been seen visiting Arcachon.

All these characters are skilfully woven into a coherent story by the author. The only item that jars slightly is that all the characters are extremely good at everything they do. They’re great shots, experts at self-defence, dress impeccably, can speak many languages and are attractive to the opposite sex. It’s like having a lot of James Bond’s (both male and female) all in the same novel. But that’s a minor quibble about an otherwise wonderful book.

Weasels in the Attic

This novella explores fertility, masculinity, marriage, and tropical fish in contemporary Japan.

There are three interconnected scenes in the book. The connection is the narrator and one of his male friends called Saiki. The Narrator has a wife and they want to have children.

In the first story, the narrator and Saiki visit a friend of Saiki called Urabe who lives above a failed pet shop with a lot of tropical fish. When they arrive, the two men find that Urabe is not only married but has a baby too, something Saiki was not aware of.

In the second story, the narrator and his wife visit Saiki who also has a new wife called Yoko and has moved to the country. They eat local rural food and discuss how to remove the weasels in the attic which are causing problems for Yoko and Saiki.

The third segment is also set at Yoko and Saiki’s house after they’ve had a baby together. There’s a blizzard and the narrator and wife have to spend a night in a room lined with fish tanks and the narrator has a weird fish-related dream. The book ends with a revelation to the narrator provided by a neighbour of Yoko and Saiki’s.

The Clothes They Stood Up In

This is a superb story from Alan Bennett. As I read this, I was able to imagine listening to an audiobook of this story narrated by the author and loving the inflections of his voice.

The story is about Rosemary and Maurice Ransome who come home from the opera to find their flat has been stripped bare, everything is taken including the casserole in the oven as well as the oven. The couple have to decide how to react to this sudden act and work out who they are without their possessions as well as making decisions about what to buy to replace their losses. What does the order of their purchases say about them?

Half way through the story they receive a letter indicating they owe money to a storage facility in Aylesbury about 40 miles away. Upon investigation, they find all their possessions have been laid out in the facility exactly as they were in the couple’s flat.

Who has done this and why?

Partisans by Alistair MacLean

This is a book mainly set in The Balkans in the middle of World War II. Three Yugoslavs set out from Rome to warn The Partisans about the German battle plan that will soon be launched against them. They are accompanied by a number of strange people who are not what they seem.

In fact, no one in this book is who they seem and it’s really quite difficult to work out who are the good people and who aren’t. Even an innkeeper turns out to be a spy. It’s a real mystery, which is unusual for Alistair MacLean as his stories are almost always action thrillers where sharply defined characters are willing to sacrifice their lives to save others or to find out a big secret.

Metroland by Julian Barnes

This is Julian Barnes’s first book and it’s in three parts.

The first and third sections are set in Metroland – a strip of suburbia in outer London – in 1963 and 1977 respectively. The middle section is set in Paris in 1968.

The first section chronicles the development of a friendship between Christopher and Toni, two boys at an all-boys school who as adolescents make fun of the adult world. They love and art and French writers and show of their knowledge of these subjects whenever they can. They determine not to live the traditional life of Metroland and buy a house, get married, and have children.

In 1968, at the age of 21 Christopher goes to Paris to continue his studies, has his first love affair, misses all the major events of that year of uprisings, and meets his future wife Marion.

Back in Metroland in 1977, we find Christopher married to Marion with a young daughter Amy. Toni continues to try and live the ideals of his younger days and chides Christopher for giving in and becoming like the people they used to make fun of in their younger days.

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

The original text for this book first appeared in Punch magazine but was turned into a book and published in 1892.

Weedon Grossmith drew the illustrations that illuminate this book.

This is the diary of Mr Charles Pooter who takes himself too seriously and is rather self-important. He has a habit of having small accidents – he hits his head on window frames, smashes mirrors, and slips over when wearing his best clothes. He picks arguments with other people lower down the social scale in his perception over unimportant matters on a regular basis and becomes the butt of many a joke.

The style of writing is so good that these apparently mundane events seem all the more absurd when you read them – why would anyone write down such apparently trivial happenings?

His long-suffering wife Carrie supports him as best she can, whereas his son Willie Lupin Pooter regards him with disdain.

This book generated the word Pooterish which means taking yourself far too seriously and believing your importance and influence are greater than they actually are.

Pigs have Wings by PG Wodehouse

I really do appreciate the Blandings Castle books of PG Wodehouse.

The characters are larger than life and magnificent in their individual traits.

Here both of the pigs vying for the Silver medal at the Fat Pigs event at the local agricultural show are stolen at different times but are returned in the nick of time before the police get too heavily involved.

Lord Emsworth’s butler, Beach, has a niece, Maudie, who in her younger days was well known to Galahad Threepwood (Lord Emsworth’s brother), but is hired to look after The Empress of Blandings. She was jilted at the altar by Lord Emsworth’s neighbour Sir Geoffrey Parsloe-Parsloe and means to vent her feelings to him about this event, but ends up falling in love with him. This happens just after Sir Gregory is dumped by Gloria Salt to whom he’d recently become engaged with the proviso he lose at lot of weight which he doesn’t want to do.

Gloria really wants to marry Lord Orlo Vosper but he’s in love with Penny Donaldson who accepts his proposal of marriage after Penny sees her beau Jerry Vail being affectionate towards Gloria Salt in a London restaurant when Jerry things Gloria can help him obtain 2,000 pounds towards the start-up costs of a gentleman’s gymansium and health club.

Add into all this intrigue the regal presence of Lady Constance Keeble, who treats most of her family members with disdain, Cyril Wellbeloved the pig-man for Sir Geoffrey Parsloe- Parsloe who likes a drink and used to be employed at Blandings Castle, and the much put upon Sebastian Beach, the butler at Blandings who is required to steal pigs, deliver messages, and provide drinks to various members of the household in his pantry.

Marshlands by Andre Gide

This is autofiction, a form of fictionalized autobiography. Autofiction combines two mutually inconsistent narrative forms, namely autobiography and fiction.

The protagonist of Marshlands is a writer who is writing a book called Marshlands about a reclusive character who lives in a tower and can fish out of his windows.

The narrator or protagonist is someone who is the opposite of reclusive, someone who has lots of acquaintances to whom he talks about Marshlands and other people behind the scenes are talking about Marshlands too and tell the narrator what they think about the book.

Even the reader can write part of the book by adding to the table of remarkable sentences on Page 88, making each reader’s version of the book unique. Isn’t that the idea, that each reader completes the book they’re reading almost always in a different way?

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 7

Our room is a lovely blue colour with sunlight coming through a window high on the wall, so we must be in a cellar somewhere. Four beds, two in a bunk bed, and two separate, round beds are present. There are two litter trays at opposite ends of the room, along with a large, round white bowl full of fresh, brown kibbles. There are photos of sunflowers on the walls and some fresh flowers in a vase lend a perfumed smell to the room.

Miep smiles at us as we admire our surroundings.

“Kitties, my understanding is that you can understand what I’m saying, somehow, so I live in there,” she pointed through the door into another room, “and I will be around most of the time to take care of you. A crow will tap on the window soon, so you can go outside and meet him as there’s a flap for a cat in the door.”

We both miaow in thanks. Miep leaves us be and we both use the facilities and eat a snack.

“It seems nice here,” I say after being respectful towards the Dutch kibbles.

“Yes, it does, and a cat flap is such a luxury,” replies Gemma who has reclined on the top bed of the bunk beds, “I wonder what that Euro Crow or whatever it’s called will give us for a first assignment?”

“Well, it should be a straightforward one, shouldn’t it, to ease us into our surroundings? As we are in unfamiliar surroundings,” I reply. I jump onto one of the round beds. It’s springy to the touch. I head to my carrier and pull out my books and the blue blanket, draping it over one corner so that it acts like a floppy roof. I can have some privacy when reading my books as though I’m reading under the couch at home.

I admire the bookshelf and see that our friends in Holland have been incredibly thoughtful regarding the books they’ve provided us.

“Gemma, come and see these books. They’ve provided us with some wonderful volumes.”

She jumps down and scampers over to the shelf.

“Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, all stoic philosophers, no Nietzsche that’s good, can’t stand him, Dante’s Inferno, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – I will read one of the philosophy books now. I will leave the books on the siege of Stalingrad and the battles of the Crusades until later.”

I was about to reply when there was a tapping at the window. A crow with a metallic tag on its claw was pecking at the glass and waving at the same time. Quite a feat of balance, if I say so myself, especially on a window ledge.

Gemma turns: “Well, that looks like the Euro Crow, Freddie, showing off for our benefit, providing a show as a welcome.”

“We should say hello. His name is Henk, so I’m going to say hello to Henk and not call him Euro Crow.”

I trot out of the room and down the sunrise yellow corridor to the red cat flap in the green door – someone in this house like bright colours – and then position myself to go through it. I’ve not done this before, so I head butt the flap gently and then push with my front and back paws at the same time. The flap shoots up and then hits me on the head on its way down, but I get through just the same. The flap swings a few times and then Gemma appears, looking at me with a squint.

“It’s better to use your paw, Freddie, not your head. You might hurt yourself if you’re not careful. You did it the dog way.”

When Gemma mentions me in connection with dogs, it’s not a compliment, so I smile ruefully and accept her advice.

The crow flies down to meet us. He looks at me.

“You are Freddie, yes?”

“Hello, yes, I’m Freddie. How are you?”

“I’m fine, as you say in England, unlike your weather, but I’m thrilled to meet you Freddie. I’ve seen many of your videos. And you must be Gemma.”

Gemma does quite a good job of appearing only a little icy, like a large ice cube or an icicle hanging from a gutter. “Yes, I’m Gemma. How many of my videos have you seen?”

I watch her quizzically, as I wasn’t aware she’d appeared in any.

“I have seen none of your videos. What videos do you do, exercise videos, you seem fit?”

A glacial stare appears on Gemma’s face, so I ask,

“Gemma was joking. It’s Henk, isn’t it? I’m curious which videos you’ve seen of mine because I wasn’t aware of appearing in any.”

“What? You’re joking, Freddie, you’re in the top 10 in Holland…”

Gemma puts a paw up to her mouth. I think to suppress a smirk – so that IS why I will have to be dyed another colour.

“…the one with the crows on the bench, the one on the swing, the one on the slide, and the one where you are encouraging a squirrel on a slide. He’s good, a genuine celebrity in the Vondelpark, because of the way he keeps landing on his face in the soil, but gets up again and has another go. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again and he does and lands on his face again. Amazing…persistence you refer to it as in England.”

“Or stupidity,” says Gemma, looking at the wall in the garden with a creeper clinging to it like it owned it.

“Is the squirrel here?” asks Henk.

“It’s not, no,” says Gemma. “It’s perfecting its flying technique daily in its local park.”

“Tell him to come here. We have a longer slide in one of our parks. He’d fly a lot further.”

“But still land on his face, though,” says Gemma, almost smiling.

“Right, well Henk,” I say, “what’s the plan for tomorrow?”

“Well, the plan for tomorrow is straightforward, orientation tour in the morning with you in the basket of Miep’s bicycle and then the first assignment in the afternoon, to follow a diamond courier who we suspect of giving diamonds to the mafia.”

“Oh mafia, straightaway, that’s a nice, easy start,” says Gemma, looking at me with slight concern, “are these the mafia who could make us an offer we can’t refuse?”

“The plan there,” says Henk, “is that no one will know you’re following anyone until the 2nd or 3rd day, so we should get some of the more sensitive targets out of the way first, as they won’t know they’re being followed by a pair of cats.”

“Makes sense, I suppose,” I say. “What information should we report back to you, the address, and what else?”

“The address and any other information, such as how long the meeting took, how many people were at the meeting or in the house, any names you overhear, we know you are very good at listening at windows Freddie, so we feel sure you’ll provide information that humans couldn’t provide as you operate by stealth, is that the right word?”

“Yes, stealth is a good word for that, but how do you know about me listening in at windows?” I ask.

“The word goes out around the crow network about things like this and we crows are good at listening, but we seem to be more conspicuous somehow and people notice us. Plus, we aren’t able to keep silent for as long as you English cats.”

“Yes, that’s right,” says Gemma. “We cats can lurk for hours, can’t we, Freddie?”

“We blend into surroundings well,” I say, “and our markings help, like a sort of camouflage, and as you say, people often see cats on window ledges and think very little of it.”

“That’s great,” says Henk, “I will leave you to rest after your journey and I will see you tomorrow.”

“How will we get back here from wherever we end up tomorrow?” asks Gemma.

“We will ask you to wear a collar with a locator on it and then come and pick you up and debrief you when we come back here. Or if you are very good at directions, you could come back here on your own.”

“It depends on the time,” I say, “and where we end up. Is it possible we could have to catch a train or a tram?”

“Well, a train I doubt, as we reckon all these diamonds stay in the city, but a tram is a possibility, so you might have to take that into consideration when following them. Stay close when there’s a stop nearby and always be aware of where the tramlines are.”

“Do these couriers ever use bicycles?” asks Gemma.

“We don’t believe they will,” says Henk, “but again you can’t rule it out in a city of bicycles, in which case you will have to follow as best you are able.”

“Yes, I’m sure we could scamper after them. It would just make it obvious that we were following them, at least I think it would,” says Gemma.

“But how many people think a cat is following them?” asks Henk. “You’d have to be paranoid to think that, plus most people wouldn’t notice, especially if they were carrying a valuable quantity of diamonds with them.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I reply. “If it was me carrying diamonds, I’d have them in front of me at all times on a bike, perhaps in the basket.”

“That would be very sensible, Freddie,” says Gemma, “and I suppose they wouldn’t be travelling far, these couriers. The other thing is that we’d see bikes outside their office, wouldn’t we?”

“We would, but there’s a free bike sharing system in Amsterdam, isn’t there Henk, so we’d have to watch out for these racks of bikes too.”

“Yes, Freddie, that’s right. Thank you for bringing up your concerns. You’ve obviously been studying things closely. It might be beneficial if we assign a parakeet to you who can show you where the courier goes to if you can’t keep up with them because they take a bike or a tram. You can then take over from the bird. Arnie would be best. He likes English football.”

“A parakeet?” says Gemma, “isn’t that a fancy name for a budgie?”

“The budgerigar is a species of parakeet,” I explain. “They came here as pets but settled in the wild as the city offered enough food for them to thrive, even during cold winters.”

 “Really?” says Gemma with a hint of irony.

 “Arnie sounds like a wonderful addition to the team, Henk,” I say without a hint of irony. “We might not need him, but he’ll add a different perspective to events.”

 “Credit to you two for coming up with these concerns,” replies Henk, “you are educating us already. Is there anything else you would like to talk about?”

“Not for me,” says Gemma. “I want to have a sleep now. It’s been a bit tiring today.”

“That’s everything for now, Henk,” I say. “We’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

“OK, sleep well, Freddie and Gemma and I feel sure you will enjoy the orientation tour tomorrow on Miep’s bicycle. She will go nice and slowly, so you get a good view of everything.”

With that, Henk flies off and we trot back inside with Gemma showing me how to negotiate the cat flap with a minimum of fuss and impact on my cranium, for which I thank her profusely.

Back in our room, more kibbles and books have appeared, and the litter trays have been cleaned. Gemma and I look at each other and are impressed. She jumps onto the bottom bunk and falls asleep almost immediately on top of the blue quilt. I carry the blanket from her carrier and place it over her so she won’t be cold. I am glad she is here, as I would feel vulnerable without her. 

I inspect the new books and admire the selection from Gogol to Alexander McCall Smith. This is exciting. First though, I must finish Whose Body by Dorothy L. I try to like books. I really do, and I try to have a good word to say about them. With this book, it’s a bit too much like Bertie Wooster being a detective, with a similar background of wealthy people, privilege, and well-connected friends. The actual murder is contrived, as is the way they placed the body where it’s found. I don’t understand why a murderer would go to all the trouble, carrying a dead body over rooftops, and placing it in someone’s bathroom via a window. Also, the murderer must have had superhuman strength and nimbleness to do this like an orangutan. The confession at the end just covers up the fact that no one could deduce how this murder was committed. Having the murderer explain their modus operandi is a lazy way of writing. This is my opinion. I’m pleased to say there are no mystery books in the bookcase, so I hope to provide more positive book reviews in two or three days, depending on how challenging our observations of the Amsterdam underworld turn out to be.

With this, I curl up under my new favourite blanket and fall asleep.