Swansea Terminal, By Robert Lewis

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The Independent Culture

I grew up 20 miles from Swansea in a town called Bridgend, which was recently identified as having the worst heroin problem per head of the population of anywhere in Europe. When they're not doing smack, the locals like a drink too. I say this because, at first glance, Swansea Terminal may look like a late addition to the glut of novels about smackheads and other addicts that suddenly became popular in the wake of Trainspotting. In fact, it's based very much in truth, even if the truth is blended with the familiar stylings of Raymond Chandler and presented as belonging to the unlikely genre we now call "Welsh noir".

"The shores of Swansea and the Gower are full of wrecks," our narrator, Robin Llewellyn observes at one point. "All kinds of wrecks." Indeed there are. There's the Helvetia, the Norwegian cargo ship that sank off the coast of Rhossili back in the 1880s, and which Robin stops to consider while waiting for a bus. There's Scotty, the Glaswegian heroin addict whose bust-up with a drug dealer puts both his and Robin's lives in danger. Then there's Robin himself. In Lewis's previous book, the critically acclaimed The Last Llanelli Train, Robin made a living as a private investigator. Now he's a middle-aged, homeless alcoholic, lurching from one pub to the next in the hope that he'll be allowed to stay long enough to sink another pint of lager.

In an effort to finance his descent into alcoholism, Robin takes on a surveillance job for Becca Blethyn. Poor Becca has a few mental health issues. Swansea's answer to Forrest Gump, she fixates on men she insists are her boyfriends, and has a habit of forgetting things. So when she offers Robin a wad of cash to spy on her latest "beau", he finds it impossible to resist. What he isn't counting on is Becca's brothers Tomos and James. Tomos has a distinct whiff of violence about him, while James is big in security. Neither is the sort of man you'd want to meet in a dark alleyway.

When the brothers come looking for him, Robin strikes a deal no self-respecting, sober man would consider for a moment. And so begins a crime caper with echoes of Ealing comedy, shades of James Ellroy and even a touch of Samuel Beckett. "My joints weren't working, my belly was full of bile, and my mouth was full of cold ashes", Robin confesses at one point. "I kept going, though." As bleak as it sounds, this is a compelling concotion, laced with dark humour and strangely life affirming. Robin can't go on, but he does, and we go on rooting for him right to the very end.

Serpent's Tail, £7.99

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