If you like your noir, dark, comic and slightly surreal then Malcolm Pryce’s novels are for you. The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is the third of the set. I picked it up in Enniskillen at the weekend and promptly shuffled it to the top of the ‘to read’ pile. I’ve now read three of the books (the other two being Aberystwyth Mon Amour and Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth). Some how I’ve managed to skip book two - Last Tango in Aberystwyth.
There was a stretched Austin Montego parked outside with blacked-out windows. I stood and admired and the rear window wound down in awkward jerks as someone inside struggled with a stiff handle.
‘It’s more impressive when they’re electric,’ I said.
A man in a Swansea suit and aviator shades stared ahead and spoke to me out the corner of his mouth.
‘Fancy a ride, peeper?’
‘Just a little ride and a chat, I’ve got a message from Ll.’
‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’
The stooge turned to face me. ‘It’s his initial, like “M” or “Q”, the boss right?’
‘That’s not an initial, it’s two letters.’
‘Not in Welsh. It counts as one.’
‘It doesn’t, it’s a phoneme, it’s two.’
‘Just get in for fuck’s sake.’
Private Detective Louie Knight is once again down on his luck and he and his junior partner, Calamity Jane, are having to move office to a more seedy part of town. The only cases on offer are that of Gabriel Bassett, an organ grinder, and his monkey, Cleopatra. Bassett wants a murder case from 1849 investigated, Cleopatra to find her missing son, Mr Bojangles. Knight puts Calamity Jane on the case so that she can obtain her detective’s badge and heads out for a day trip with the woman he loves, nightclub singer Myfanwy, who has regressed into a semi-comatose state at the hands of obsessive and deranged scientist, Brainiocs. A drugged ice cream later and Knight awakens to find Myfanwy gone, seemingly kidnapped. In his efforts to find her he is dragged into the mad plot of gangster Frankie Mephisto and the weird world of Sister Cunegonde and her waifrey.
The Unbearable Lightness is a well crafted book and an enjoyable read. Pryce’s alternative universe – Aberystwyth in geography, but socially kicked left out of kilter and filtered back through a noir and a nationalist parody – is fully worked through and engaging. The book is well plotted and paced, and it is clear time has been spent making sure the atmosphere is suitably noir, the similes are inventive, and the text lyrical. The story itself is meanders along a complex path and the twists are not telegraphed, which made a nice change to some crime fiction I’ve read recently. Like Jasper Fforde, Pryce’s books are nicely intertextual. In particular, I liked the Rimbaud character in this book (although he was underplayed in the plot). Rimbaud is a veteran of the Patagonia campaign – a doomed 1960s war in which the Welsh try to protect their diaspora brethren in Argentina – hassled unjustly by a bigoted local cop, he escapes into the local forestry commission land using his military skills to torment his pursuers. Indeed, the books are nicely intellectual without being pretentious.
I really like Pryce’s work but for some strange reason I’m not in a mad rush to go out and buy books two and five. I know that when I do come across them though I will purchase them and they will bypass the queue to the top of the pile and I'll spend a few hours enjoying myself in an oddly Welsh world.