Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce<br></br>The Prince of Wales by John Williams

Private eyes, druids and whelk stalls
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Bloomsbury, £9.9/ Bloomsbury, £9.99

The crime writer David Williams (no relation to the John Williams under review) initially found publishers highly resistant to the novels he set in his native Wales. He was told that "Nobody commits crime in Wales!" While that may be a typically metropolitan attitude, it's true that the character of Wales fights against its use as a backdrop in same the blood-boltered fashion as Edinburgh or the north of England.

But here we have two talented Welsh writers who tackle their Celtic locales head on, albeit in very different fashions. Both bristle with sardonic humour: Malcolm Pryce delivers a hilariously surrealist take on a Chandleresque private eye in a land of druids and whelk-stalls, while John Williams goes for a synthesis of thriller and literary fiction, teeming with dangerous Cardiff low-lifes and some complex riffs on notions of identity.

Of the two, Last Tango in Aberystwyth is the more distinctive novel, mining the same vein of black humour as its predecessor, Aberystwyth Mon Amour. (Pryce's invocation of art-film directors only adds to the bizarre juxtapositions). In this book, we meet again the wise-cracking Louie Knight, whose trench-coated manner on the mean streets of Wales last time made for a very funny book which also functioned as an ingenious mystery. In its successor, we encounter quite as many off-the-wall characters (does Wales have this many eccentrics?), as Louie becomes involved in Aberystwyth's "What the Butler Saw" film industry.

Academic Dean Morgan checks into a hotel and is mistaken for a druid killer. His life takes an even more unfortunate turn when he falls for the porn star Judy Juice. It's up to Louie, the town's only private eye, to uncover an unlikely cocktail of corruption and concupiscence. If the book lacks the freshness of its predecessor, the off-kilter imagination that made Aberystwyth Mon Amour such fun is firing on all cylinders again.

The earlier books in John Williams's Cardiff trilogy - Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub, and Cardiff Dead - mined a seam of dark humour more aggressively than The Prince of Wales. This is still a pungent trawl through a Cardiff underworld that most of us would do well to stay away from. Bobby Ranger is that rarity, a female pimp, keen to track down the father who abandoned her. A local hack, Pete Duke, is looking to dish the dirt on shady entrepreneur, Leslie St Clair. All three are to have their lives changed irrevocably. The venue for this event is the eponymous ex-cinema, now a theme pub.

It's no wonder that tough American writers line up to shower praise on John Williams: his prose has the same no-mercy take on life at the extremes. But it's unlikely that either Pryce or Williams will end up on the Welsh Tourist Board's list of recommended reading.

Comments