(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 15, 2008)
“You can tell yourself that society can only be seen properly from underneath, that whatever else, you were some kind of straight dealer and society was never anything but hypocrisy, you can trace some kind of dignity and meaning in your cheap lousy life. You can, but let me tell you, it takes a fuck of a lot of effort, and you just feel worse afterwards. In truth, down here, hate, fear and envy are the only real constants, and everything else is just justification after the fact, a postscript that will do nothing to change the way you feel every evening, while the optic fills.”
The anti-hero of Robert Lewis’s piercingly dark and cynical novel Swansea Terminal is Robin Llewellyn, an alcoholic, Welsh PI working in the port town of Swansea. In this noir tale of corruption and deceit, Llewellyn has sunk to new depths in the PI business. Homeless, without an office, mostly sleeping on the beach with Scotty, a heroin addict from Glasgow, Llewellyn can’t believe his luck when he’s told that a woman wants to hire him to find her missing fiancé. Ignoring the lure of the pubs “the defiant crack of a can being opened, and its sibilant hiss” for an hour or so, he meets the woman, takes a two hundred pound retainer, and proceeds to drink himself into oblivion.
After meeting his new client, Rebecca Blethyn, it seems obvious to Llewellyn why her fiancé has disappeared. His new client is more than a bit deranged, and that’s not too surprising as even Llewellyn realizes that no one in their right minds would hire him--let alone give him money. But Llewellyn isn’t as much concerned with finding Rebecca’s straying fiancé, as he is interested in beginning a pub-crawl through Swansea with the feeling of having cash in his pocket:
“I drank like a man with gills, as much as I could, whatever I could, wherever would have me. It was a rapidly diminishing circle that ended up in a fine point, in some unremembered location, of vague timing, when I could swim no more and rose to the surface like a dead fish, not healed, not resigned, but just stupefied enough to stay still.”
Unfortunately, ignoring Rebecca Blethyn proves to be the wrong attitude as she has powerful friends--equally repulsive mobster brothers who aren’t too happy with Llewellyn. In spite of warnings and physical threats, Llewellyn self-destructively goes back for more cash. He considers spending eighty pounds on a case of Commissar Vodka, which represents “a week’s holiday without leaving your room.” Llewellyn’s exploitation of his unpleasant whacko client snares him in the depths of the shady, violent criminal world of Swansea.
Swansea Terminal (and the title has a double meaning) would be a painful novel to read if it weren’t for its black humour, which is frequently voiced by Llewellyn in a self-reflective style as he tells the story of his own decline and destruction without pity, without remorse, and only the faintest tremors of regret. At other times the author cleverly manages to direct the humour at Llewellyn, by co-opting the reader’s vision of Llewellyn with his own. Together, with the author, we see just how much of a mess Llewellyn really is, even as our anti-hero still manages to create the occasional moment of self-delusion--while he sinks as low as it seems possible for a human being to go:
“I got up where I had slept. Everyone else had fucked off, whoever they were. I brushed the dirt off my suit, which was dark navy, and it came up rumpled but okay. It was always rumpled. I like to think it represented a kind of casual chic, a formal insouciance like Bryan Ferry or somebody.”
Swansea Terminal is the second novel written by Robert Lewis. The first novel, The Last Llanelli Train also features Llewellyn, but unfortunately at the time of this review, it is not yet published here in the U.S. After I read Swansea Terminal, I found a copy of The Last Llanelli Train through a used book dealer. I wanted to read more about this character; I wanted to discover why he was so self-destructive, and what had lead to him sleeping with heroin addicts on the beach while hoping for the occasional night in a local homeless shelter.
Llewellyn is the sort of person most of us would avoid in real life, but as a fictional character, he’s fascinating. In spite of the fact that he’s a walking disaster, shards of decency and faint inklings of ethical behaviour still exist, but it’s all buried by an alcoholic haze. Llewellyn may very well be one of the dregs of humanity, but he still evinces a tender concern for heroin addict, Scotty. At one point, Llewellyn seeks the advice of a doctor, and as a National Health patient, he’s cavalierly offered the rudiments of care along with the cheapest pain medication available. Llewellyn then seeks out the advice of an expensive private physician who just happens to be the same predatory wanker National Health doctor who now offers Llewellyn an expensive alternative. Disgusted Llewellyn realizes he’s being exploited: “Throw away free health, and the Hippocratic oath with it, and half of them reverted to what they had always been: hucksters quacks, sharks, businessmen.” Somehow this scene between Llewellyn and the amoral doctor captures exactly what’s wrong with society and exactly what’s right with Llewellyn. Even though Llewellyn is a drunk, he’s still true to himself, and there’s still a moral line that he won’t cross. And while he isn’t a predator, doing business with predators has brought a heavy price, and debts are about to be paid:
“The bell tolled at the masquerade of all my hopes and dreams, and they removed their visors to reveal the old familiar assembly of lies and fantasy, indulgence dressed up as altruism, selfishness as selflessness, wrongs as rights.”
There are references to Llewellyn’s past in Swansea Terminal, but the fact that I did not read the books in order did not lessen my enjoyment, understanding, or delight at finding this new, talented author. Llewellyn was a mess in The Last Llanelli Train, but in Swansea Terminal, further degradation awaits. The only thing that Llewellyn has in his favour is his desire for his own self-destruction, and this is something his enemies don’t expect. With shades of Raymond Chandler and a dark, bleak, unrelenting nihilistic vision, this is noir fiction at its brilliant, black best.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Swansea Terminal at Serpent's Tail(back to top)
"The Last Llanelli Train"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage AUG 15, 2008)
“In some pubs, especially the older ones, if you catch them in the cold glare of a bright morning, the dust diffuses the light inside into this soft loud of opaque whiteness, and it looks like oblivion.”
The Last Llanelli Train is Welsh author Robert Lewis’s first novel. Not yet available in America (and I’m stressing the word yet), this novel deserves a legion of noir fans. Dark, bleak and unrelenting in its vision of Bristol’s seamy underbelly, its protagonist, PI Robin Llewellyn struggles through his sordid life and a particularly difficult case in an alcoholic haze.
Told through a first person narrative, Robin Llewellyn is no one’s hero; he’s not charismatic, and he’s not even likeable. The owner of a rapidly failing detective agency--which he inherited by default--he’s run his personal life and his so-called career into the ground. This is a person, who facing middle age, is right at the stage of disintegration from which there is no return. Ever. And this disintegration—along with Llewellyn’s occasional flashes of insight for what he’s lost, and what could have been make this novel a fascinating and brilliantly bitter read.
When the novel begins, Llewellyn has an advance from a new PI case. Work is rare these days, and so with the cash in hand, he’s off to the pub, a “rough, joyless hovel” where he hangs out with a few of the other regulars. Llewellyn’s "specialty" is divorce cases. He’s discovered, or perhaps created, a niche for himself by snaring straying spouses in adultery entrapment. Hired by the ball-busting wife of a businessman, Llewellyn’s job is to arrange a sexual encounter for the husband with a prostitute and then capture the evidence of adultery on film. But there’s something odd about this sleazy business deal. Due to the deceit involved, it’s never cut and dried, but this time the client is particularly difficult, and her elusive soon-to-be straying spouse has refined taste in women. At first the job seems too good to be true….
“ ‘I don’t mind paying the going rate,’ she’d said, without too much prompting, and that pretty much got my attention right there. There is no going rate in this job—we’re like plumbers, we charge whatever we think we can get away with, and there’s no need to worry about repeat custom because it doesn’t exist. Mugs’ money all of it. I wrung a few hundred quid out of her for my ‘retainer’ and told her I was very busy, a lot on at the moment, that’d ring her tomorrow, anything to get her out of my office.”
With a cash advance for the new job in hand, Llewellyn drinks himself into his usual state of oblivion without stopping to worry about the logistics of this new entrapment adultery case. Stumbling home to his flat, he discovers that he’s lost his keys. Locked out of his flat, he stumbles back to his office and for the next few days Llewellyn begins an odyssey, juggling and fumbling attempts to get back into his flat with ill-conceived plans to set up the adultery sting.
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to grasp that trapping an adulterous businessman with irrefutable photographic evidence takes strategic planning and adequate resources. But Llewellyn lacks the presence of mind to realize how out-of-his-depth he is. Fueling his primary need to continually top up with alcohol, on one level Llewellyn recognizes that “people find their own level, wherever they are” and he mistakenly imagines that he’s hit his rock-bottom level through sleazy PI work. Llewellyn’s cash advances permit him to indulge in alcoholic binges while plotting the adulterous denouement of his client’s husband, but operating in an alcoholic haze while hobbling together a sketchy plan for entrapment based on a shoestring budget proves disastrous, and Llewellyn discovers just how far he can still fall.
Brilliant, bitter and laced with black humour, author Robert Lewis creates an explosively self-destructive character in Robin Llewellyn, a Welshman who’s washed up in Bristol. He’s inherited the detective agency from a decent man, but in Llewellyn’s hands, even this opportunity for redemption is ground down by a series of unprincipled choices. As the novel continues, Llewellyn’s past is gradually revealed. His is a lifetime of decline, corruption, and moral weakness, years spent in corrosive self-destruction. Blunted with alcohol, Llewellyn still recalls imagining that his era of “youthful indulgence” would pass, but instead his behavior no longer can be shielded by the excuse of youth. In middle age, Llewellyn is about to reap the consequences of his shady past:
“A bill had been written and payment was due. What had become of me? I didn’t know. What I did know was real dread, for the first time in my life, on a petrol station forecourt in South Bristol aged forty-five. The disgust and apathy parted, and pure dread fell through in sheets. This was the real thing: I was going down, for crimes past, present, and future, for transgressions real and imagined, for stuff no court in the land was wise or brave enough to convict me for, and I deserved it all.”
The Last Llanelli Train is brilliantly dark noir, painful, searing and utterly relentless in its exploration of the fragmented soul of its alcoholic anti-hero. Lewis throws his protagonist into the middle of this bleak, grimy tale and spins his plot while Llewellyn struggles to survive, hobbled with chronic alcoholism and a deep-set desire to avoid the past even as he runs headfirst straight into it. If you can imagine Raymond Chandler crossed with the self-destructiveness of Johnny in Mike Leigh’s film Naked , then perhaps you can understand what awaits you in The Last Llanelli Train. Robert Lewis is a new name for the world of noir fiction.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews (in the UK)
Read a chapter excerpt from The Last Llanelli Train at Serpent's Tail
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- MostlyFiction.com interview with Robert Lewis
- Welsh Lit Abroad review of The Last Llanelli Train
- The Independent review of Swansea Terminal
- International Noir Fiction review of Swansea Terminal
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About the Author:
Robert Lewis is from the Black Mountains, in south-east Wales. He graduated as a mature student from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
He spent his twenties getting sacked, living in bedsits, drinking in the dodgier pubs of various cities, and caring about the wrong things. Most of this is still going on. He still thinks literature can save him, and he’s almost thirty now.
His first novel, The Last Llanelli Train was shortlisted for the PG Wodehouse Bollinger Prize for Comic Writing.