I do feel as though I am lowering the tone of this enterprise by writing once again about crime. Robert Lewis’s The Bank of the Black Sheep is set in the gray, damp, cold of a Welsh winter, a variation on the theme of the feckless private detective. It’s a dark read that deftly combines bleakness with hilarity. The cast of characters–almost all losers–have enough quirky humanity to matter. That quirkiness, and the edgy excellence of the writing, kept me interested to the end.
Robin Llewelyn awakens handcuffed to a bed in the Howell Harris Hospice with no memory of his identity or why he is there. He is on a morphine drip, apparently because he is dying of cancer. Doctors have told him that enough morphine would erase his memory, but only temporarily. The handcuffs, and a visit from a couple of unpleasant fellows from the local constabulary, lead Llewelyn to think that he has perhaps committed a crime or is suspected of having done so. His handcuffs are removed and he asks to be taken off the drip so he can attempt to find out who he is, and what he may have done.
Llewelyn sneaks out of the hospice at night into the nearby market town of Llandovery. At the bar of the White Hall Hotel, he orders a Watkins Ale and is so transfixed by its amber beauty that he cannot drink it. Nothing much happens until an oafish local farmer named Gerald blows through the door. He spies Llewelyn and lumbers over to his table, behaving as though they knew each other well. Llewelyn questions him about it, but Ger justs laughs. Soon after their meeting, a parcel is delivered to Llewelyn’s room at the hospice. It contains several thousand pounds in twenty-pound notes, a sawed-off shotgun, and a cryptic message.
The money means opportunity for Llewelyn. He has no friends at the hospice except for a brief acquaintance with the gentle Hilary Price. She brings a breath of civility into his life–they attend a concert of Schubert’s music together–and he feels that she deserves a kinder fate than to end her days at Howell Harris. “Better, surely, that the sound outside your bedroom door is the soft tread of a husband or a daughter on the landing, and not the boots of nighttime security or foreign nurses.” But Hilary dies, and Gerald’s money enables Llewelyn to escape the hospice altogether.
It is not entirely plausible that a man dying of lung cancer could survive the feats of physical endurance and abuse that Robin Llewelyn does, but he is a man driven to find out who he is before death gathers him. He pays a call on Gerald at his family farm only to find that Gerald has fled. Poking around the barn Llewelyn makes two discoveries, one of which terrifies him and one which excites him. He also finds a photograph of a young couple with a baby that tugs at his memory.
At this point the story becomes more of a caper, perhaps a noir-ish Big Deal On Madonna Street, with a hodge-podge of bad guys, less bad guys, and almost-good guys warily circling each other. It begins to dawn on Llewelyn that he knows the bad guys fairly well, and it does not cheer him up. One of them, Tomos Blethyn, accuses him of betraying them all, spitting out the words that stun him: “Even your own son.”
The pieces of Robin Llewelyn’s puzzle fall slowly into place. The circle of felons, actual and potential, expands and contracts in various unpleasant ways. Two bent coppers are disposed of. Of himself and his small band of new friends, Llewelyn observes: “You should never underestimate the criminal who can consider himself a half-honest man.” The author’s sly affection for this odd group of characters gives them life. His attitude toward the caper that changes their lives is implicit in the quotation from Brecht which opens the book: “What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding one?”