The Terror and the Tortoiseshell – John Travis
I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time it is of the novel entitled ‘The Terror and the Tortoiseshell’ (A Benji Spriteman Mystery) by John Travis (Atomic Fez Publishing Ltd. 2010). There is no guarantee how quickly it will take to complete this review.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the novel, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
EDIT (6 hours later, 14 Apr 10): a more fulsome warning having now started reading the novel below. BEWARE SPOILERS!
EDIT (17 Apr 10): Having said that, I personally don’t believe there are any real spoilers in my review. This book has to be read and nothing I say below will spoil the reading experience. But Caveat Emptor.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
Prologue: The Ed Mahoney Incident
What’s this Travision? Am I reading aright? A Film Noir scenario with talking animals, missing Tortoiseshells, slinky Persians…. This seems to be a very weird scenario like crossing ‘The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ with ‘Rupert Bear’ and with Robert Mitchum. I can’t believe I’m reading this. Well, I do actually believe it, but I don’t think I would have read it in the first place if I hadn’t been already weaned into this strange world by first reading stories about Benji Spriteman in the Travis collection: ‘Mostly Monochrome Stories’ (which I real-time reviewed HERE)!
“…once the initial shock of seeing an Ape on a window-cleaning round becomes routine, you tend to ignore the little things.” (14 Apr 10)
Part One: What Happened
“…hoping against hope that one scene of terror wouldn’t be replaced by another…”
The Prologue ended “What on earth had happened?” and this chapter tells us in no uncertain terms: a genuine tour-de-force of how these animals reached human proportions, through a sudden transfiguration akin to that of a man to werewolf, but so different, so original… with mixed emotions mingled with unmixed emotions in the animals as they transfigured and then attacked (or not) and killed (or not) the humans – the humans they once loved or respected or hated…
Our main protagonist settles into his new office (once occupied by his master, J. Spriteman Esq) – J. Spriteman’s pet cat now a human-sized cat in the manner of his erstwhile owner. You know, I not only believe I’m reading this, I actually believe what I’m reading.
I am feeling my way in knowing how properly to review this book. Whether to describe the plot as well as to evaluate it. And whether to stop (as now) and deal with my findings at each end of a chapter… Or longer sections of text. Or what. Bear with me. (14 Apr 10 – two hours later)
” ‘Didn’t you hear? They busted the Zoo apart. Animals took it over. It’s full of people now, all caged up. Wild, huh?’ “
Well, those of you you know me and Steve Duffy’s “The Lion’s Den” etc. in ‘Cern Zoo’ will know this novel must be personally becoming very special to me. I need to take this novel step by step, savouring every moment.
Here, even our big Cat narrator’s taste has changed, say, from ‘Whiskas’ to prime steak. Watch them sprout! Agog for more. (14 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
Our big Tortoiseshell cat narrator – who still uniquely shows at least some sympathy with the remaining humans in the Zoo and elsewhere – cringes at the utter cruelty that other animals show humans in the Zoo and elsewhere. But there’s no stopping the process since the Big Change – and there is no stopping the prose that conveys these amazing scenes. This book is something special, I can already sense. Wonderful evocations of both the wildly strident cataclysmic events (with things in the new Animal ‘civilisation’ nevertheless being tuned into shape gradually like a rehearsing Brass Band) and, in contrast, the more subtle emotions of the narrator upon considering the home of his erstwhile master, the photo album, the man’s loves and memories, a home the cat takes over from him as his own… really poignant when compared to….
“I was just in time to see two large Cats dangling a man and woman out of a window on the seventh floor…” (14 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
“You had two choices – live with it, or go gaga.”
A period of consolidation or rationalisation by our narrator who finds himself still picking up the characteristics of his erstwhile master called Jimmy Spriteman. Humans are now called, interestingly from a Humean philosophical point of view, Humes – and there is a society now for prevention of cruelty to these Humes. Also there seems to be cross-dating between various breeds of animals and birds. I’m glad that it says ‘dating’, not ‘mating’! This book is so worked out, I can’t now believe that what is in the world outside this book is still real. In some strange way, the book is seeping into my mind more than most books seem able to do.
“Then a stupid rumour started: a Hume had been seen in the vicinity of the Zoo prior to the explosion.” (15 Apr 10)
” ‘…they cry, Fish, you know. Don’t ask me how I know, but I do.’ “
In this review, I can’t describe every twist and turn of the events as they continue evolving. Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve yet made it clear how funny this book is. Since starting it, I’ve been going round with a smile on my face. That’s not to diminish the ‘terror’ and the poignancy of what the reader feels underlying it all. And in this chapter, we meet some kittens who have not changed – such relatively rare animals now called Olds. And the Spriteman Detective Agency is about to be re-inaugurated by its original owner’s pet Tortoiseshell (our narrator whom I now regard as a personal friend of mine). (15 Apr 10 – two hours later)
David Hume (1711 – 1776) on the Reasoning of Animals:
HUME: Travision for Human (or Sappy) in the book (15 Apr 10 – another 4 hours later)
“Horace had lived in a box in one of the back rooms of the library for over fifty years.”
Horace is a tortoise. Now a talking one, of course, exploring books to solve the Nature of the Big Change – not David Hume’s philosophy (as I had predicted) or even Darwin – but Arthur Machen’s ‘The Terror’. You know, this is getting better and better. Meanwhile…
“The in-tray was full of paper, the streets were full of animals. / And the Spriteman Detective Agency was in business once more.” (15 Apr 10 – another hour later)
Part Two: Down to Business
Just been back to the Prologue to re-bone before I continued reading this exquisite Film Noir scenario in the enticing world changed by ‘The Terror’, where Benji Spriteman and his assistant, a Persian called Taki, are now busy with Detective Agency cases. Did I say ‘enticing’? Darkness and cruelty can be thus enticing when in the rights hands of a fiction creating a reality that in turn re-creates the same reality but one that is proud enough and artful enough to be seen as a fiction when all the time it’s realler than you and I…all leavened, here in this chapter, for example, by probably the funniest last line in any chapter in the history of literature. And the most intriguing comparison between the respective Natures of Cats and Humes… (16 Apr 10)
“The further we went, the more exclusive the breeds became, the clothes more refined.”
Once more, I must force myself to avoid re-telling the story! This is a review, after all, not a précis exercise for my O Level exam. I don’t need telling again. I promise.
Rest assured, however, that I won’t leave you alone till you decide to read this book for yourself. This chapter is full of details, interesting characters, bizarre crimes to investigate, social inter-breedings – all anthropomorphised Travisthetically. You can only know what I mean, by putting your tongue into this particular hume-bowl. A novel that’s sure to become a classic and will also become a major cinema film. There is no doubt in my mind about that. That’s me being serious. As always. Proud if this turns out to be the first detailed review of this landmark book.
Inter alia, an ASBO Mouse in this chapter and a slow build-up of a major mysterious crime relating to extremely cruel killings of Sappies…or did I dream that bit? (16 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)
” ‘You never know when things are going to change.’ ”
You know, I don’t know whether or not it’s me (I’m not good at plots at the best of times, as my wife will attest) but, as with most crime and spy fiction, in my experience, I’m very easy to confuse. But it doesn’t seem to matter here. I simply know that there is a part of me that is following things intrepidly on a level beyond my conscious self, following it in spite (or because?) of the many names of characters and the commingling events and slick innuendos and dark intentions perceived and re-perceived and mis-perceived – and, meanwhile, the book’s language style is so perfect for these types of events and feelings, it doubly doesn’t seem to matter that I’m becoming lost in Benji’s world. But what’s HFC stand for?
” ‘You know, I don’t know why I said that.’ ” (16 Apr 10 – another 4 hours later)
“Turning to the mirrored wall, I gave my paws a lick and had a good clean, flattening down my fur and removing the stickiness of the sundae.”
Benji’s relationship with the official police (as the plot also thickens stickily) continues to be skilfully portrayed in this brief chapter. (16 Apr 20 – another hour later)
“Besides, the buses intrigued me – I’d heard they went anywhere you wanted them to, like oversized taxis.”
This is a meaty chapter, compared to the previous one. What HFC stands for is now clear to me and I literally spluttered when I realised. And Benji, our narrator, sort of pays a high price for the discovery afterwards. Very cinematic, trash-canned and hard-boiled. Very legs eleven. The Mystery of the Sappy Murders continues, in spite (or because) of now possibly knowing too much instead of too little. Knowing too much than is good for any reader. (16 Apr 10 – another hour later)
“What happened next was a strange amalgam of farce, bloodbath and organised bun-fight.”
A raid on the HFC followed by Benji’s aggro with his police ‘buddy’: double-crossed with clumsy ploy like – aptly today – Ashes to Ashes. No planes, just animals on the ground.
“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” — David Hume
David Hume on the Reason of Animals: “Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.” http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-c/hume01.htm (16 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
I feel sorry for Benji. I haven’t got it in my heart to tell you about it, but he heard it first from a bird he fancied. Sorry, a cat he fancied.
As an aside, I must tell you that there’s a newspaper in Benji’s world (one that is not too hot on spelling). Today it’s running an article – as well as news on the HFC raid – about a ‘religious’ group that takes the works of Arthur Machen as gospel. What a hoot! I never take fiction literally. (16 Apr 10 – another hour later)
“While I had been occupied the city had turned ash grey…”
Poor Benji continues to be done over since the raid on the HFC and he blames his police buddy. I’m only scratching the surface of the plot here (without raising too much spoiling-dust) and, furthermore, I don’t think I’ve yet emphasised enough the cornucopia of great, sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious, characters in this story. The plot is their plot. (17 Apr 10)
“The floor was covered in dust…”
The image of ‘The Terror’ as it has changed inter-breeding relationships reaches here the most imaginatively grotesque proportions both in material fact (with one’s own bare eyes) and inferred philosophication. Benji is called urgently to a disused grain warehouse and I’m sure what met him there made him weep for his police ‘buddy’ in spite (or because) of his earlier gravest misgivings about him. I did not see him weeping, however. Only inferred it. (17 Apr 10 – an hour later)
“Talk about using a bulldozer to bury a Sparrow.”
Side-splitting first-real-drink-after-the-Change rite-of-passage with Benji getting drunk on eggnog. A yellow taxi becomes a double-decker bus? Miaow. A comic lull before the Terror resumes, I guess. [Is there any reason why the word ‘terror’ has ‘error’ embedded, I wonder with a degree of expected irrelevance?] (17 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later).
“A thin beam of white light passed my left ear, the beam full of small motes of dust.”
You know, this is one helluva chapter. Akin, in some way, with an epiphany, and I can only think of “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in ‘Wind In The Willows’ as anything with any feasible comparison to it. An epiphany that is both scatological and eschatological. An important moment not only in this book, I guess, but also, without putting too fine a point on it, potentially important in all general literature. (17 Apr 10 – another hour later)
“The sky was far too low…”
Some narrative tusslings with previous plot events by Benji – with, to my mind, at least a hint in one place about ‘retrocausality’ (a new buzz word personally for me in view of my recent studies of implications relating to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider). (17 Apr 10 – another 30 minutes later)
A very brief chapter in an elevator. One that I dare not divulge the nature of for fear of possibly letting some sort of cat out of the bag. A complete surprise to me. (17 Apr 10 – another 15 minutes later)
Part Three: The Country of the Blind
” ‘Didn’t you notice the clue I left?’ “
And I am afraid you who who are reading this review before you read the book must also enter the Country of the Blind. Well, at least for a while. Meanwhile, why has Benji reminded me of Mr Polly?
” ‘It was a bit oblique I suppose,’…” (17 Apr 10 – another hour later)
” ‘It started as a hunch…’ “
And for you, it ended as such, too. Meanwhile, in general terms, many sensitive implications (or hunches) as to the philosophical interface between Animus and Hume. (17 Apr 10 – another 30 minutes later)
” ‘I got nowhere with it.’ “
While in the Country of the Blind, I’ve been extrapolating (separate from but relevant to this book) upon the entire pure mid-Ash chemtrail-less blue sky beyond my window here today. It seems somehow right thus to muse upon this sky without aeroplanes as we enter territory with this book where even angels may fear to tread. ‘Dark faucets’ or Blue Wells? (17 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later).
I can lift the news blackout slightly at this point. As Benji speculates upon how he is to get entry into the misspelt newspaper’s offices (for reasons you will eventually understand even if I don’t!), he first meets up with Lieutenant Dingus, one of those remarkable characters I mentioned earlier, this an “undersized, squinty-eyed Basset Hound in a dirty brown raincoat…” (17 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
“Did he real out his hœk once too often?”
Recent chapters have become more staccato. The hard-boiled plot even more complex (for me). But the whole book now seems to be an extended epiphany, if such a literary phenomenon can exist! One thing among many things I have not yet mentioned are the other firms and businesses that are gradually taking over the post-Terror block of offices where the Spriteman Detective Agency is situated. The one in this chapter has cats in leotards doing aerobics. Now if a novel can flaunt such asides, without affecting its more serious extended epiphany, then, surely, we have here one helluva great novel. I keep my powder dry, however, until I’ve finished it. About two-thirds through at this point.
“You ever seen a Porcupine, Benji? You know how they kill their prey? They run backwards into their victims!” (17 Apr 10 – another 45 minutes later)
” ‘You were saying something about being back where you started.’ “
I won’t keep you awake at night worrying about whether I’ve fitfully lost the plot. That’s life. That’s fiction, too. And so it should be. Meanwhile, smells in this novel seem important. And Terror as a catalyst for discerning Truth and Error? Man and Animal as chemicals that need mixing properly for dross to become gold? I sense this book itself is a new Hermes Trismegistus.
“Needless to say I didn’t sleep well that night.” (17 Apr 10 – another hour later)
” ‘It’s a strange world we’re living in, chum. Want some coffee?’ “ (17 Apr 10 – another hour later)
“Parting the blinds, the rain-streaked glass showed a black city, block-upon-block of heavy charcoal shadow.”
Why are window blinds called blinds when blindness is not easy to part? Ligottian Corporate Horror, as Benji commences his long signalled breaking and entry to the misspelt newspaper’s office. (17 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)
Much discussion and resolution of clues and findings following the encounters at the Newspaper office. Much mutual cogitation like a roulette of spinning collisions, to the extent that Benji thought: “Between us, we could have milled flour.” (17 Apr 10 – another hour later)
” ‘Yeah, museums – old dusty places full of stuffed animals that nobody gives a damn about.’ “
In spite (or because) of the staccato nature of the last dozen or so chapters, there seems to be a long-term rhythm of mystery, solution, mystery, solution, mystery, solution… interspersed with surprises, larger-than-life characters, recognitions, memories, and synergies of detection … with undercurrents of significance in varying degrees of graspability, ‘stuffed animals’ in a ‘dusty museum’ seeming to be one such undercurrent worth some time spending for the serious reader to dwell upon. And you, I know, by reading this review, can surely be no mere casual reader of this book. I’m glad you are keeping me company, even if there is just one of you. Please let me know you are there if you get the chance. Review to be continued tomorrow hopefully. (17 Apr 10 – another 45 minutes later)
“Grey, weather-beaten and set well away from the roadside, it’s the kind of building you could walk past every day of your life and only notice when it wasn’t there anymore.”
A brilliantly described showdown at the Museum with the emergence of more wonderful characters only rumoured about before. How all this fits into the plot would be a spoiler, but I’m not likely to spoil anything because (as I’ve said before) I’m never the best person with plots! Smells are here even more important. And, if I’m not too much mistaken, this chapter has the book’s first appearance of a Bloodhound…. Someone will tell me if I’m wrong. (18 Apr 10)
“The walls were painted battleship grey, there were cigar stains on the ceiling…”
Comedy-sized cigars, at that. Hilarious and thought-provoking interrogation scenes in the police station following earlier narrated events about Benji et al in this novel, i.e. concerning the Mystery of the Sappy Murders and the HFC etc (you still don’t know what HFC is?) And a tough criminal in a nappy… Made me wonder, are some animals constructively incontinent?
“In any busines – any world even – there has to be a pecking order.” (18 Apr 10 – two hours later)
” ‘ So you ratted on Fido.’ “
Some more dénouement – playing each end off the middle, grassing, greasing one’s palm with silver, whining, waffling, being set up, being stood up, unreliable sources… (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
“He’s interesting, funny, unpolluted, in a way, like some Old Cat who just happens to be standing on two legs.”
More revelations in this plot-thickening’s unravelling by a kitten reader like me who’s not learnt how spools of wool are wound. Well, I never understood ‘The Big Sleep’ at the best of times. My mind must be like a hibernating slow-worm’s. (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
A very brief chapter of rubberneckers and ambulance chasers – and more. I feel deeply for Benji as he faces tragedy and even dark explications regarding the Country of the Blind. It is possible to feel deeply for an animal, after all. Before reading this book, I never liked animals, pets etc. Cats, in particular. In spite (or because) of my mind’s crazy confusions (perhaps in my mind alone), I’ve learnt something new about myself, it seems. New is good. (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
Part Four: Last Sappy Standing
“The three of us stared at the bizarre object on the table like it was some grotesque art exhibit.”
You know, that quote indefinably encapsulates a thought that’s been going through my mind already. Throughout this novel, there are some very imaginative constructs and ideas-in-action (about which I have not given the game away in any detail during my review) – things when you encounter them as a reader will further enhance the overall genius of this book. I give you my personal guarantee. (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
“The small worm of tension in my stomach was turning into a cobra, curling through my ribcage, rib to rib…”
Further suspenseful dénouement-in-action – and more of those ‘constructs’. And a cliffhanger unlocking… (18 Apr 10 – another 30 minutes later)
“…using the wall for support, the touch of the cold stone chilling my pads.”
Ditto 36. Its rhythm increasing. (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later)
“Immediately my spine turned into a Popsicle.”
Serious dénouement-in-action – with potential whodunnit-crystallization supreme…. (18 Apr 10 – another 20 minutes later).
“Call me an old ham, but I’ve always loved old crime novels – the plots, the sub-plots, the twists and turns..”
Indeed. And here, with this substantial, unstaccato chapter, we have a fine Hitchcockian climax simply bursting with Travisthetic constructs and plot-germs…. Ingenious plot. Even I can tell it is ingenious. Animals and Men both in synergy and negative symbiosis. A mammal eusociality on one hand. A blinder of a crime novel on the other. Full of smells, bloodings, grey dust, poignancy, hilarity, epiphanies, role-playing, dadaisms and hybrid-philia / -phobia. Not finished yet… (18 Apr 10 – another 45 minutes later)
Epilogue: (Another) New Beginning
” ‘You are aware this is a Pet cemetery?’ “
A superb closure. Nothing much more needed to add. Except: “The ground where the Zoo had been was now an official meeting place of sorts for the Machenites”. I would like an honorary place there, too, for a Hume called Hume. And I’d add — this is a classic novel which, given the right exposure, should become that classic in all eyes, not just a few.
“Reaching into my pocket, I removed the book and placed it on top of the ashes.” (18 Apr 10 – another 30 minutes later)
Thursday, 15 April 2010 8:42 am :: http://weirdmonger.blog-city.com/dfl_col
With regard to the perhaps important significance of ‘The Terror and the Tortoiseshell’ to the CERN ZOO (Nemonymous Nine) mythos, I should disclose that John Travis once had a story in Nemonymous (in issue two with his acclaimed story NOTHING).
Also, I once collaborated on stories with John some years ago – and three of them can be found on the internet, as linked from the link immediately above:-
The Soujourn of Strangers (in the light of Tortoiseshell, what’s the significance of the rabbit?)
Friday, 16 April 2010 9:23 am :: http://www.britishfantasysociety.org/for
Sunday, 18 April 2010 3:15 pm :: http://www.atomicfez.com/?page_id=90