Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still (by Malcolm Pryce)

What do you get if you cross The X-Files, Raymond Chandler, an ancient epic poem and the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth?

Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth books are Raymond Chandler pastiches set in Aberystwyth, a small town in mid-Wales where my parents met while at university. (It's pronounced Aber - IST - with by the way, or sometimes Aber - UST - weth). Private Eye Louie Knight takes on cases from a collection of weird and wonderful characters with the help of his young assistant Calamity, his father Eeyore (a retired policeman who now leads the donkeys on the beach) and his friend Sospan the philosophical ice cream seller. I absolutely love these books - they're fantastically quirky and brilliantly funny, and when you spend so much time reading about exotic foreign places, it's nice to read about horrible murders happening around the crazy golf course at Aberystwyth every now and again!

Sometimes Pryce moves things around a bit (we think he moved the railway bridge from Barmouth to Aberdovey at one point) but for the most part these stories are set in towns and lakes we know well, but with a twist. Aberystwyth is overrun with shady Druids who manipulate the naive girls who pose for the pictures on the Welsh fudge boxes, haunted by the ghosts of the long ago Patagonian war and while the students at Aberystwyth university are peculiar enough, nearby Lampeter is full of gloomy student undertakers. The books are capable of rather beautiful prose at times and some real poignancy (one death scene in a damp underground prison cell was particularly memorable) but mostly they're just very funny.

The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still is the sixth book in the series, and probably the most out there genre-wise, dipping its toe into science fiction just a little, as well as detective noir (Last Tango in Aberystwyth came close, but ended in a more Scooby-Doo style twist). It's also the first to have a distinctly Classical theme running through the novel. From the Prologue's re-writing of the Biblical story of Jezebel to the introduction of a character called Ercwleff (Welsh for 'Hercules,' supposedly - if I had to guess at pronunciation I'd say Er-coo-leff) in the first line Classicists know they're in for a treat, and Pryce scatters little Classical references throughout the story - he makes great use of the handily named Coliseum cinema, for example (which is a real cinema in Aberystwyth, of which my parents have very fond memories. It's still going). Beyond the smaller references though, the whole story takes on some of the structure of an epic poem. Spoilers follow.

The most obvious link to Classical myth is, of course, Hercules, and that's the reference Pryce really expects his readers to know. Ercwleff's link to Hercules is his physical strength. The character himself, who accidentally kills rabbits by hugging them too hard, is more like the big guy from Of Mice and Men (I think - I've never read Of Mice and Men, it sounded miserable), but a bit more dangerous and nastier. His unfortunate tendency to attack innocent people isn't entirely unlike the mythical Hercules, who was famously driven mad by Hera and killed his wife and children (and there are several other myths about him murdering other random people as well). Ercwleff ends up in a fight with a character from previous books called Herod, who was named for his tendency to cause the death of small children, and the way the whole book ends up with a fist fight between Herod and Hercules is rather amusing.

Aberystwyth Prom at night. 'Neon is the ink of heartache scribbled across the night sky...'

The other major Classical link is more significant and brings in the epic poem structure that crops up every now and again throughout the book. Early on Sospan the philosophical ice-cream seller introduces Louie to Katabasis ice cream, explaining that its named after the Greek word for a journey to the underworld and opens the doors of perception, and that it was recommended by Hunter S. Thompson. There is, of course, only one way this is going to end. Louie's katabasis comes rather later in the book than its usual position in an epic poem (where it tends to appear about halfway through) but his story in this novel follows a basic structure of prophecy - katabasis - fight - victory and new leadership position, easily recognisable to anyone who's read the Odyssey or the Aeneid.

First we have the prophecy. In the opening chapter, the mayor has Ercwleff bust up Louie's desk because his 'soothsayer' has told him Louie will be poking his nose into the mayor's business - that turns out to have a mundane explanation, but not long afterwards, Louie and Calamity come across a mysterious old lady with cat called Eightball who tells Louie she's only too happy to make a cup of tea for the next mayor of Aberystwyth. Regardless of whether a given work is genre fiction or not (this is something I'm doing some work on at the moment!) if you hear a prophecy like that, especially from a mysterious old woman with a cat called Eightball, it will come true. And sure enough, a little later an old friend of Louie's asks him to consider running for mayor and although he declines, when he interrupts the fist fight between rival candidates Herod and Ercwleff, Louie ends up acclaimed as mayor by the crowd.

(I suppose I should reassure everyone that this is not, in fact, how the mayor of Aberystwyth is chosen, but I think that's obvious. I don't know who the current mayor is but they're properly elected - a few years ago it was Judith from Monty Python's Life of Brian).

The katabasis eventually occurs near the end of the story, and you really have to love a book with lines like:

Doc Digwyl pressed his lips together... as if this was the final confirmation of what he had long suspected: Erik XIV poisoning. 'We have no choice,' he said... 'We must use the Katabasis ice cream.'

Having been administered with the hallucinogenic ice cream, Louie goes on a journey in which he is swallowed by a giant Herod Jenkins and ends up in its innards, before having to climb once again to daylight, out through the ear. The purpose of a katabasis in ancient epic poetry, other than gothic imagery, is to remind the hero of the past and reunite him with a dead colleague or two, and to provide a more specific and useful prophecy of the future than the one that got him to the underworld in the first place. And so Louie encounters the witches from Macbeth who address him as 'Mayor of Aberystwyth,' sees his current girlfriend leave in the manner she plans to, and sees Ercwleff turn the other cheek in the fist fight (having been told several times already that Ercwleff will take a dive in the fifth round). While in Herod's insides, Louie is reunited with Marty, the old schoolfriend Herod drove to his death many years before, echoing Odysseus' encounter with Agamemnon and Aeneas being reunited with his father (Marty reassures Louie that he and the other dead boys plan to give Herod indigestion).

View of the town from the top of Constitution Hill

Naturally, Louie emerges from this experience stronger and wiser, breaks up the fight and ends up being made Mayor of Aberystwyth, and his epic journey is complete. What this means for the series I don't know, but I hope Pryce plans to write more about Louie in his new role - and if he could throw in some more Classical references in the next book, that would be even better!


  1. Never heard of this series before but you've totally sold me on it. I'm tossing away my Jack Reacher book (too gory anyways) right now!

    P.S. Happy New Year!

    1. Happy New Year!

      I love this series - I started with the 2nd book (Last Tango in Aberystwyth) but keep meaning to go back and read the first (Aberyswyth Mon Amour) which introduces Herod Jenkins and Marty

  2. I just discovered this series last summer. I've only read the first one so far, but it was certainly intriguingly different (though lacking in classical references that I noticed). The town itself was very much a character in that one and it probably would have helped to have some familiarity with Aberystwyth. It's all very strange, what with the druids and the Patagonian War and the sexual connotations of tea cosies. I can't imagine that Price will give up on the series, so I'm sure we'll see Louie taking on official corruption from the inside (and probably losing his job) in the next one.

    1. Yeah, there aren't any Classical references until Book 6. I probably miss quite a lot of the references, especially since I've never read any Raymond Chandler, or even seen the movies!

  3. As one of the parents mentioned a couple of times above I agree wholeheartedly about the delights of the Coliseum (now moved round the corner from its location in what is now the Museum). The Louie Knight books are a delightful combination of the familiar and the very strange. I recommend the books and the town to anyone.

    1. That's how come there's a museum and a cinema! I was trying to work that out - I thought I remembered it was a museum, but Google proved it was still a cinema... Thanks! xx

    2. (Did you spot yourself in the picture by the way?!)

    3. Unmistakable in the dark from 200 yards!!

  4. I've never heard of the series, but anything with a character named Calamity....

  5. There are peaceful and soothing places to see in Aberystwyth. Take a walk to your self catering aberystwyth every after a stressful riding tour. You'll appreciate the scenery more if you walk.

  6. This made me smile.. I originally bought the first couple of books in the series for my Dad (who coincidentally met my mother at university in Aber) but accidentally got hooked myself. Am now looking forward to reading this installment even more.
    On a related note do you read Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels?

    1. I've read one, I think it was First Among Sequels, and really enjoyed it, so keep meaning to read more! I met Jaspar Fforde at a conference last year, he was lovely :)

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