The first of Malcolm Pryce's Louie Knight Mysteries introduces us to a world where the language and mores of a Raymond Chandler novel are transported to the small Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. The local bars are replaced by an ice cream vendor and a 24 hour whelk stall, the girls at the strip club dress in flirtatious versions of Welsh national costume. As this suggests, the version of Wales Pryce presents is slightly surreal, with witchcraft and runes and a town council run by a mob of corrupt Druids. Wales is a former colonial power, a disastrous attempt to conquer Patagonia staining the national conscience (“the Welsh Vietnam”).
Louie Knight, the town's only private eye, is asked to look into the disappearance of a stripper's cousin, and becomes enmeshed in the murder of several schoolboys and, of course, a plot that threatens the town. He narrates the proceedings like Philip Marlowe, which nicely counterpoints the small town setting and the Welsh accents that come across in the dialogue.
Aberystwyth Mon Amour is an interesting, light read, but suffers from an unevenness of tone. While there are many witty, comic moments, Pryce doesn't quite seem to know how to tread the line between this and the darkness in the story – both the inherent darkness in the murders and the themes of loss and displacement that permeate the book. This uncertainty also seems to affect how distant from our reality this Aberystwyth is; for me he could have embraced the surreal aspects more, and indeed seems to do so toward the end of the book. It was somewhat reminiscent of the world of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next, a reality skewed from our own at a rakish angle, but I felt that Pryce's reality needs to be slightly better defined. I'm intrigued to see how his style develops; if the tone and setting can solidify then it may well a thoroughly enjoyable series.
The next book is Last Tango in Aberystwyth and the third The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, which I think may just be the best book title of all time.