There’s something about thriller writing that leaves authors partial to creating absurd titles for their work. I’ve noticed it a lot over the years since I started studying crime fiction and thrillers at University. It’s a great idea, as a catchy, truly different title draws the reader in. Unfortunately, this does also give the reader high expectations, which aren’t always met.
A great example of this is David Owain Hughes’ novel South By Southwest Wales, which offers the promise of a humorous thriller and gives only confusion and disinterest. I should start by saying that Hughes is a really lovely guy, and a great writer of horror stories, but in this novel he loses the reader in a big way.
What quickly becomes apparent quickly to the reader, is how inconsistent the novel is. Whilst Hughes tries hard to get across his message that Cardiff is not Chicago, and it doesn’t need a Private Eye like Valentine, we are quickly confronted in the first few pages with a jazz joint and a scene in which a man sleeps with a hooker in an alleyway next to an tramp who is injecting heroin into his arm. All of this would suggest not only that the Cardiff Hughes is portraying is remarkably similar to Chicago, but that it could really use a decant PI to have a whip round and clear it up.
Much like J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels, in South By Southwest Wales readers swiftly notice the difference between what the author tells us and what they are actually portraying, and in this case the difference is stark. As a result, the novel offers an unnerving, unbelievable undertone that makes it hard to take seriously.
Now, I agree, with a title like South By Southwest Wales there is room for argument that Hughes never intended the novel to be taken seriously, but that is definitely up for debate. Neither fish nor fowl, neither entirely funny nor thrilling, the novel often comes up short.
Whilst the dialogue is sharp and the one-liners, many of which are not entirely original, are ever-present, there is definitely something lacking in protagonist Samson Valentine. He’s no Sam Spade, and he’s certainly no Philip Marlowe, and frankly he’s a bit of a let down. Underneath all that bravado and tough talk is a very boring character with delusions of grandeur. In hardboiled detective fiction, which I believe this is aiming to be, the central detective is everything, and as such the novel lacks an anchor and as such floats along blindly attempting to be both satirical and enticing, and failing at both.
Overall, being neither incredibly funny nor breath-takingly thrilling, South By South Westwales is a let down on all fronts, but with some witty one-liners and a not-bad plot there is something for you to get your teeth into if you are so inclined.