It’s been a while since Cardiff’s docklands have offered a setting for crime fiction. In the late 90s we had police tag team Dave Brade and Glyndwr Jenkins in novels such as Bay City, The Tattooed Detective, Forget It and Torch by David Craig (a.k.a former newspaper reporter Bill James) but then it kind of went quiet. But John Lincoln (a.k.a. novelist John Williams’) Fade to Grey puts that right, introducing a new kind of private investigator to boot.
Gethin Grey – “the man you call when there’s nowhere else to run” – as the cover blurb has it – is the head of a small and quirky company, Last Resort Legals. It deals in righting the wrongs of miscarriages of justice.
Grey is a compelling and complicated creation and he has all the traditional P.I. character flaws, not least a penchant for gambling. He lives in leafy Gwaelod y Garth with his psychiatrist wife and teenage daughter and this domestic setting seems, if not shot through with bliss then with some sort of contentment.
But under the surface, the lure of blackjack and shiny spinning casino wheels threatens all that, not least when Grey succumbs to his need for a gambling fix and forgets to get rid of the receipts for the chips before his wife clears out his pockets.
Luckily Grey gets a new commission, to clear the name of a man called Izma M, who is in prison for murdering a young woman in Bristol. The trouble is Izma doesn’t want his name cleared and, just to add to Grey’s woes, even the early investigation leads to one of his assistant being deliberately run over and put in intensive care.
Grey’s troubles multiply when he is confronted with his wife’s infidelity and when he starts going back to the casino but both are as nothing to crossing paths with a bent cop called Mal Haynes. In Haynes he finds a genuine nemesis.
The tale is told with vim and vigour, racing along at a high-octane lick, with plenty of humour thrown into the mix. The story crosses and sometimes lurches back and forth over the Severn Bridge with locations in Wales and the West Country used to convincing effect.
There is a brilliant, breath-snatching cycle pursuit through Bristol city centre and a sad journey along the drinking clinics of Cowbridge Road East in Cardiff, not to mention Cardiff Bay as it continues its transformation from Tiger Bay docklands to copycat Baltimore Inner Harbour.
We also get glimpses of Gray’s past, as when he finds sanctuary in his father’s house on the south Glamorgan coast. The dad, a famous judge, contributes another set of tensions to Gray’s life. As a young man Gray broke the law denying him a career as a mainstream lawyer thus disappointing Judge Grey, who is economically and convincingly drawn.
One of his decisions, namely to snitch to a criminal rather than tell the police about the whereabouts of Mal Haynes stretches credulity rather and goes against the grain of his character. But this is a small cavil in a boom where the plotting is sure-footed and the character-creation intriguing and believable.
It can seem somewhat unkind to tell a novelist who has probably sweated over a book for years that it only took an afternoon to read Fade to Grey, as I did. But that’s because it’s written in a fluid and pacey prose and Grey is a thoroughly engaging hero.
As one might expect from a writer who’s written a lot about music some of the most satisfying passages concern the music Grey plays in the car as he’s driving from one crisis to another. Unlike Ian Rankin’s Rebus, with his penchant for Leonard Cohen and mid-career Rolling Stones, Grey listens to folk music, from James Yorkston to Nic Jones and the descriptions of their songs are simply spot on.
If this novel turns out to be the beginning of a series then there is plenty here to develop, not least the other characters who work in Last Resort Legals.
Gethin Grey may be doomed to gamble foolishly: his creator, John Lincoln, on the other hand, may be on to a winner.
Fade to Grey by John Lincoln is published by No Exit Press and costs £ 12.99
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