Friday, 30 December 2016

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste review

Malcolm Pryce is rightly known for his wonderful novels setting a Sam Spade-like, world-weary detective in the hell-hole of crime that is Aberystwyth, with druids as gangsters and good time girls in Welsh national costume. In these books, Pryce creates a fantasy world that is totally bonkers, and yet works remarkably well. His new creation, the railway detective Jack Wenlock, might seem at first glance to be more of the same - and the book does have some of the same kind of absurdity with, for example, a group of nuns who go mysteriously go missing from a train and rampage across Africa - but 'Hail Mary' Celeste is several degrees closer to reality than the Aberystwyth books, and both benefits and loses from this.

The plus side is Pryce's affection for the Great Western Railway. His lead character might be odd in the extreme, but it's hard not share some of Wenlock's love for the old-fashioned ideals of the railway (admittedly without being given a mother fixation on a locomotive). Pryce captures the emotional intensity that the railways have held for some, even giving a bit part to a young Doctor Beeching, already a hater of the railways, and culminating with an appendix to the book that lists over 2,000 stations that Beeching recommended closing in his report - this has the same kind of nostalgic heart-pull as that Flanders and Swann song that lists some of the evocative station names that were closed.

There's also more character development here than in the Aberystwyth books, where most of the players are set in aspic. This is a story of lost innocence - Wenlock begins by believing that the state and the powers that be are caring benefactors, but comes to realise that they ruthlessly take an 'end justifies the means' approach. At the same time he goes from being a child emotionally to understanding love for the first time. I also truly delighted in some of the details in the interspersed excerpts from the '1931 Gosling Annual', particular the 'Answers to readers' letters', where we never see what was written, but from the answers it seems the readers mostly wanted to create mayhem and murder.

In some ways, then, this is a book with a closer attachment to reality than Pryce's earlier novels (the Goslings might not have existed, but a lot of the GWR detail is real) and with stronger character work. And I did very much enjoy it - but for me it lacked the edge of the Aberystwyth books which create a parallel universe that is whole and works on its own merits. In this book the grotesque is half and half with reality, and somehow that made it a little less satisfying. Nonetheless, Pryce has demonstrated once again his mastery of seeing the world differently - and if there are more Jack Wenlock books to come, I look forward to reading them.

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Here's the Flanders and Swann song I was thinking of:




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