Mystery has become such a cool, baggy genre. Career detectives remain alive and well (e.g. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Elizabeth George’s Scotland Yard power-duo Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers), as do fine literary works in which a citizen, out of the blue, is touched by a criminal act and becomes obsessed with solving it (The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, set in Freud’s Vienna). Then there are assorted comedic novels that just happen to have a crime running through (and getting solved in the course of) them. Jim Harrison’s wonderfully noisy 1981 book, Warlock, is one of these and Cardiff Dead is a more recent illustration.
Cardiff, Wales. Charlie Unger’s corpse is found in his apartment; the autopsy said he’d been dead for a week. Charlie, a former boxer, was, along with his daughter Tyra, a member of a popular ska band 20 years earlier named The Wurriyas (“halfway between worrier and warrior”). The band’s lead singer was a lesbian named Bobby; their lone hit, “Lick Her Down,” was “variously lauded as a joyous piece of sexual liberation and damned as a hymn to male violence.” Mazz, the group’s hapless yet magnetic guitar player (and writer of “Lick Her Down”) returns to Cardiff to look into what happened to Charlie and to deal with unfinished romantic business with Tyra, now a single mother of two.
So now, two decades after the height of their success, members of the Wurriyas reunite because of Charlie’s death and because their old manager, Jason Flaherty (now a successful town businessman), expresses interest in getting the band back together for an American tour. The novel’s central character, Mazz, is an amiable, hard-drinking 36-year-old rock personality, “battered and lined by the years.” He can’t say no to women or drugs (and consequently wakes up mentally foggy and in strange places), but maintains a humorous awareness of his shortcomings (he refers to his still-strong sex appeal as his “outlaw charisma”) and a strong bullshit detector. He respects IRA activist Bobby Sands and Bob Marley, but is wary of student politics and heavily theoretical intellectuals.
Cardiff Dead at once poses a mystery and offers up a well-defined set of characters who engage in a touching sort of camaraderie. But the real star of the novel is the town of Cardiff, in the process of gentrification (Mazz describes its night scene as “a Hieronymus Bosch made over by Tommy Hilfiger”). Williams keenly renders the Welsh capital’s modern landscape by exploring class, race and romance; pubs posh and seedy; surfing and music subcultures; urban business and politics. Charlie’s death is, finally, sorted out the same way a band, or a town, prospers: collaboratively.
E-mail Lynn Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org.