Sympathy for the Devil, By Howard Marks

Mr Nice investigates a nasty case

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Tuesday 31 May 2011 00:00
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Howard Marks, notable Welsh boyo and escapologist (freed from a US penitentiary after serving seven years of a 25-year sentence), has turned to one of the great urban myths in this complex thriller. The central mystery is based on a well-publicised event: the disappearance of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, whose car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge in 1995.

The book in no way offers a solution to the mystery of Richey's fate. Marks creates entirely fictional characters, chiefly a sassy female detective who returns to Cardiff after a ten-year absence. Among her first assignments, Catrin Price is faced with numerous reported sightings of Owen Face, lead singer of a rock band who disappeared at the Severn Bridge. Catrin must also tackle the drug-fuelled destruction and death of Rhys, former boyfriend and talented copper fascinated by the disappearance of Face.

Into this brew are stirred other spicy ingredients: mysterious rituals, dope parties in the docks. It soon transpires that Face may have been tied up in bondage activities. Stranger still, bodies of his fans are being discovered and there have been abductions connected with shamanistic rituals.

The interconnections twist and turn, with an interesting episode in a laboratory which utilises Marks's considerable experience as a drug-dealer. The plot moves from urban jungle to the pre-industrial country of ruined cottages and tangled woodlands, and that predatory natural world which urban characters find so hard to face.

In pursuit of the singer, Catlin takes up with a very modern Welsh hero: the charismatic Huw Powell, who displays a bewildering connoisseurship of psychedelic motivators and smokes only the "Dom Perignon of hashish". He was once a member of the constabulary, but then turned his talents for surveillance into television reality shows. In the newly glamourised Cardiff Bay he has a dazzling new building where hidden speakers play Andean pipe-music. Underneath all this busy plotting runs an elegiac theme which gives this book a wider dimension. Ulysses returns to a drug-fuelled, media-crazy Ithaca, a place changed beyond recognition like so many decayed seaports of Europe. Their top-dressing of architectural modernity can't conceal rotting hinterlands. Marks has, I think, written more than he knows about his homecoming.

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