It’s been a while since I picked up a book and then read it all in a single sitting like a school dinner but this rugby inflected murder mystery fair carried me along to its bravura finish, on a matchday, in front of a capacity crowd. In so many ways ‘Delilah’ by Rhodri Wyn Owen is a good, old-fashioned romp, with not one but two bodies buried at the site of the national rugby stadium, the killings themselves separated by a period of thirty years.
It’s up to reasonably intrepid newspaper hack Twm Bradley to solve the crimes and clear his whisky-swilling editor’s name into the bargain, as the determined dypso Humphrey Blake has gone missing, along with five grand from the coffers of the Porthcoed ‘Gazette.’
When Blake’s wife’s body is found at the stadium, police efforts to find Blake intensify, and of course the coppers involved turn out to be bent coppers and the pressures on Bradley thereby well and truly ratchet up.
Enter Mara McKenzie, a sophisticated hackette from a London tabloid, ostensibly working on a story about the man wrongly banged up for the first of the murders. She enters Twm’s life and heart, followed swiftly by two Romanian thugs who try to drive him off a cliff. They are working for Ivan Harris, a local construction boss who is ‘a nasty piece of work…and if you put so much as a foot wrong with him he’s got a string of lawyers who would break a paper like the “Gazette” for fun.’
And, what’s worse and even more threatening, Harris seems to have got into bed with some dodgy Italians.
The building boss may be connected with the not-so-accidental fire that consumes Twm Bradley’s flat at just about the same time as he loses his reporter’s job when a rival paper scoops his story. Out of the frying pan and into the pressure cooker seems to just about summarise Twm’s direction of travel. Soon he is bound for Verona and Lake Garda on Harris’s trail, a switch of location that usefully serves to accelerate the plot and amplify the international scale of the skullduggery and underhand shenanigans involved in building the rugby stadium-cum -temple of sport.
In Italy Twm finds our more about the Italian mobster Andrea Bianchi and his chocolate-haired wife Caterina as well as a scheme to use low-grade steel in the building work in Cardiff. As if all this wasn’t labyrinthine and testing enough Bradley finds that his own father, a hydrologist by training, is up to his neck in it and more, thereby starting a new storyline which ends with kidnappings and exploding motorboats a la Bond movies.
Part of the pleasure of this page-turner of a novel is the loving way it recreates the pre-digital newsroom and its attendant culture, with characters such as the grandfatherly Coma Jenkins with his ‘specs perched mid nose,’ happy snooper Smudge Tucker, office controller Teg and the hard-boiled replacement editor Helen Snow who is ‘five-foot-six of Yorkshire grit in a tight-fitting business suit.’
It’s also a pre-Google time of finding things out, reminding some of us that we’re not that far away from the days when one would have to physically search through newspaper cuttings and journalists would have to talk to people, making newsrooms noisy places, full of the fug of cigarette smoke and animated chatter.
Much of the book’s action takes place in pubs and cafés such as Grumpys (which brings to mind the drinking clinic of the same name that slaked the thirsts and shrunk the livers of HTV journos back in the day.) If the basic engine of fiction is the simple question “What Next?” then Rhodri Wyn Owen keeps that question coming, followed by plausible and sometimes slightly less plausible answers, some of them slippery red herrings in keeping with this highly entertaining kind of writing.
It’s also a book shored up by the authenticity of an author who really knows his patch, so both the location and politics of creating what is now called the Principality Stadium are convincingly chronicled by someone who clearly himself wrote about such matters: the author has worked for the ‘Western Mail’ and ‘Wales on Sunday’ as well as the BBC, so he knows the territory well.
If you’re the sort of rugby fan who does cold turkey in between weekend games this book is the perfect antidote. It’s tightly plotted and very well-paced and goes down like a cold and well-poured pint of Guinness, which happens to be the drink of choice for some of this novel’s busy and affable cast of characters. Here’s to them.
Delilah by Rhodri Wyn Owen is published by Gomer, costs £8.99 and can be bought here.