It appears to be a bit of a silly season at bibliographing, what with unicorns and now this, the latest installment of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth series of noir detective novels starring Louie Knight. I’ll let Wikipedia give some background on the series, which is:
in the style of Raymond Chandler except that the stories are incongruously transferred from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the rainswept streets of an alternate universe version of the Welsh seaside resort and university town of Aberystwyth, where Malcolm Pryce went to school. The hero of the series of novels is Louie Knight, the best private detective in Aberystwyth (also the only private detective in Aberystwyth), who battles crime organised by the local Druids, investigates the strange case of the town’s disappearing youths, and gets involved in Aberystwyth’s burgeoning film industry, which produces What The Butler Saw movies.
For a taste of what this all means, let’s cut to the opening of the novel, in which Louie is approached by the man who will be his client, one Uncle Vanya. Like most noir clients, he takes a while to explain what it is he wants Louie to detect. Unlike most clients, when he first walked into the office he put a sock down on Louie’s desk. After a while, he says:
‘It may be that I make an error in bringing my story to you. It may be that the vessel of your heart is not sturdy enough to accept the dark wine of my woe. The Russian heart is vast and contains multitudes. Is it really possible to pour out its contents into the puny vessel of your Welsh heart? I see you people selling your toffee apples and renting out deckchairs and I ask myself: where are their parricides, their swindlers, their crazed monks and dark malfeasant convicts? Where is the mother whose love is so great that she strangles her own babe in the crib to save it from the cruel death of hunger?’
‘Tell us about the sock,’ I said.
‘I was just about to.’
Uncle Vanya hails from Hughesovka, a city in the Ukraine founded by “that great Welsh Moses, John Hughes” and “the only Welsh-speaking community east of the Greenwich meridian.” When Louie asks if it’s real, because after learning about it in school “it always struck me as improbable,” Vanya tells him: “In our schools we found tales of Aberystwyth equally hard to credit.”
This is sort of the conceit of the thing. As Pryce says on his website, “a lot more people have heard of Aberystwyth than is decent for such a small place.” (And by the way, Hughesovka is real too.)
From Aberystwyth with Love is the fifth installment, and I must say after the fourth one I thought this series was dead. But it’s been pretty well resurrected, leaving behind the extended storyline of Myfanwy Montez and the horrors of the Welsh colonization of Patagonia (alternate universe, remember?) and moving on to the more classic elements of spinning wheels, Witchfinders, and school games teachers. Although Vanya is almost a bit too stereotypically Slavic, that is the point, and who could complain about Meici Jones, a man in his thirties whose crazed mother still makes him wear short pants? Plus, the mysteries of seaside rock are revealed.
I often wonder who these books appeal to other than myself. Not that I have any connection to Wales, other than having had to watch How Green Was My Valley an awful lot of times as a child. But they work so well with my sense of humor. I love the absurd, and I love the noir send-up. Do I wish they were better edited? Sometimes, but not too often for them to be enjoyable. And Louie, Calamity Jane, Eeyore, Sospan, and Llunos are all very appealing characters, key to any mystery series—and Aberystwyth is one as well, with its gangs of druids and girls in stovepipe hats and sleazy Prom and general once-romantic down-and-out-ness.