Malcolm Pryces first novel, Aberystwyth Mon Amour, was a surprise hit in 2002. A deliciously dead-pan parody of film noir, it ludicrously transposes the classic material of Chandlers trashy novels - the sleazy joints and illicit bars of a corrupt metropolis - into the context of a run-down seaside town. The result was a surreal delight.
Just over a year later comes the follow-up: Last Tango in Aberystwyth. Second books are always difficult, needing both to respond to expectations and to avoid repetition. It is especially difficult if, like Pryce, the author has established a distinctive tone as well as a subject matter. Last Tango could never be as surprising as Mon Amour, though it still manages the bizarre. We recognise key figures - Eeyore, the wise donkey-man, Calamity, the teenage sleuth, Llunos the police chief, and, of course, Louie Knight the wisecracking private eye - and sinister organisations such as the Sweet Jesus league. And there are references to the lingering effects of Waless Vietnam: the Patagonian war of 61. However, this novel moves far closer to home in its detail, as if, almost despite himself, Pryces strange version of Aberystwyth is gaining a concrete reality in his head which is not to say that it isnt as playfully literary as its predecessor. The book is full of such intertextual delights as The Essential Mr Kurtz. The Pro Agents Guide to simulating moral collapse. The old Mr Kurtz routine, said Llunos. Havent seen that one for a while. Pryce brilliantly sustains the gag:
'I turned it over and read a list of contents. Digests of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Eliot, Sartre
Hamlets soliloquy. Posters of Mao, Guevara, Papa Doc. Recordings of Kurt Weill, Stravinsky, Marlene Dietrich ... A concordance of degenerative diseases of the Self. The Dummies Guide to Despair.'
Last Tango adds elements of the British provincial detective narrative to the earlier parody of Chandler. Quips at the expense of an unworldly Lampeter abound. Gretel, a student of Undertaking, hires Knight to search for the Dean of her Faculty Dean Morgan - explaining that the voluntary work she does for him is nothing special, alms-giving mostly. Just like students anywhere really. There is a silence. I let that one pass, comes the jaded gravel voice. Aberystwyth is Gomorrah in comparison . . .
The translation of small town viciousness into the violence of the city is hammed up to the hilt. The chief of Police confiscates a lot of large-print pornography, the big fights down the docks are gossip competitions where the champ is:
'. . . a very old, shrunken woman who carried herself with the regal air of an abdicated queen. Her face was bony and almost skull like, with fine white strands of hair stretched with painful tightness across the dome of her head. - The cleaner nudged me. "Its Smokey G. Jones. Won the treble in 62. Fifty-eight bouts and never lost".'
The Swansea-suited druids are shadowy assassins hovering in the background and the harbour speakeasies are filled with simple, unlettered farm girls from up beyond Talybont - girls who dreamed of making it big as a model, maybe featuring in the ads for the tourist board or on the cover of the Cliff Railway brochure, but who are doomed to model knitting patterns and fudge boxes. Pryce seems endlessly, effortlessly inventive, and has a brilliant eye for the telling detail to twist and subvert and underneath his spiraling wit lies a sharp satire on the small-scale corruptions and hypocrisies that are his real subjects.
I enjoyed this novel immensely, though in a different way to the first. It is easy to miss just how sharp the writing is on occasions - the parody slides into reality and back again. The rain of the real Aberystwyth comfortably slips into the atmospherics of the fictive big smoke:
'We drove slowly up towards Waunfawr in a slow file of traffic stuck behind a caravan. The windscreen wipers droned hypnotically, the rain sluiced down, and the sky above Aberystwyth turned the colour of bluebottles.'
Id recommend this book even if you havent read Aberystwyth Mon Amour - and especially if you have.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddior adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatad Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.