Review: Y Dial is a dark and chaotic roller-coaster ride

Y Dial. Background picture of Cardiff by Ben Salter (CC BY 2.0)

Alun Davies

Cardiff is in the grip of a crimewave. There’s a predatory paedophile on the loose, a sleazy debt collector terrorising the vulnerable, a psychopathic killer roaming the streets intent on finding a new victim to slice, dice, season and sauté in their kitchen-cum-torture-chamber, and to cap it all the Albanian mafia is in town looking to exact bloody revenge. Take a breath – whilst you still can.

Y Dial (“The Vengeance”) picks up where the first part of Jon Gower’s detective trilogy, Y Düwch (“The Darkness”), left off. D.I. Thomas Thomas (known to all as Tom Tom) and D.I. Emma Freeman are still recovering from their exploits in the previous book, which saw them caught up in an explosion whilst in pursuit of a deranged serial killer. Freeman has suffered what she hopes is temporary hearing loss from the explosion, but the burgeoning relationship which began in the previous book starts to flourish, finally moving out of the shadow of Freeman’s husband’s tragic death. Now partners in both senses of the word, Tom Tom and Freeman set out to address the myriad of cases that are plaguing South Wales.

If you have read Y Düwch, you will already be familiar with Jon Gower’s non-standard approach to telling a detective story. Our protagonists are not John Rebus or Taliesin MacLeavy, granted the uninterrupted time and resources to investigate a single murder to its conclusion. Instead, we are presented with a rather more realistic representation of police work – a frenzy of unrelated cases constantly piling up, each one demanding attention and immediate action. Tom Tom and Freeman’s struggle to stay on top of their ever-increasing workload is reminiscent of watching a circus plate spinner, except you know that every time a plate falls somebody might die.

One of the key features of the book is the development of the main characters’ relationship which, as with all successful partnerships, is one of complementary opposites – Tom Tom is instinctive, passionate, and occasionally rash whereas Freeman is cool, logical and by-the-book. However, one of the more intriguing subplots of the book is the way these previously clearly defined roles are blurred, with both parties stumbling into each other’s territories as they grow closer. There is a notably touching scene where Tom Tom, now a recovering alcoholic, grows concerned as he notes the amount of wine Freeman consumes over dinner – is this an indicator that Freeman is morphing into Tom Tom, and vice versa?

 

Compelling

However, in keeping with Jon Gower’s warts-and-all depiction of the word of policing, not even this formidable partnership is infallible, and inevitably there are some cases which cannot be resolved within the boundaries of the law. But fear not – it is in situations such as these when Marty, Tom Tom’s erstwhile friend and companion, is called upon to dole out his own brand of street justice. In a book filled with colourful, engaging characters, Marty is one of the more endearing and memorable – loyal, honest, and capable of eating a full English breakfast before engaging in a gym session that would bring most bodybuilders to their knees. A scene where he is tasked with obtaining vital information from an informant is brimming with suspense, not just for what Marty does, but for what you believe he is capable of doing.

This same talent for creating compelling, intriguing characters is evident with the villains of the tale – and there are many. The paedophile genuinely made my skin crawl, the culinary killer is at the same time flamboyant and deadly, but my personal favourite was the Albanian assassin, who comes complete with a backstory to allow us to understand how he arrived at his unique profession.

So, are there any flaws with Y Dial? Well, were I kidnapped by a deranged killer chef and threatened with casserole-ing unless I found fault with it, I would have to say that the denouement, which takes place in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, feels a tad rushed. My feeling is that maybe the scene sacrificed too much tension and clarity to create a sense of urgency. Also – and this is a minor point – having three senior members of the police force all with surnames that are a variation on Thomas, whilst entirely believable in Wales, does make the differentiation between characters more difficult than it needed to be in certain parts of the book, especially where dialogue is involved.

As we all know, we live in uncertain times, and so the certainty that Jon Gower will always provide us with a gripping, roller-coaster ride is very comforting. Y Dial is contemporary, dark and chaotic, and once you pick it up you won’t sleep until you’ve finished it – and maybe not even then.

Y Dial by Jon Gower is published by Y Lolfa and is available to buy here.

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