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Half-honest Men

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?"

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Apparently, this is the third (and last, if the protagonist is dying) in a series of noir novels.I enjoy Dashiell Hammett and the like because in them the protagonist is solid and likeable, someone you can identify with and care about. The modern tendency seems to be to portray people who have nothing special to recommend them as individuals, perhaps presuming that the modern reader is too sophisticated to identify with characters in fiction - or, maybe, that the modern reader enjoys slumming, looking down at the wretched of the earth. Or what? What's the attraction of unattractive characters?You say

The cast of charactersalmost all losershave enough quirky humanity to matter. That quirkiness, and the edgy excellence of the writing, kept me interested to the end.

I guess I can understand reading to enjoy the skill of the writer, but that seems a poor substitute for something more substantial. I wonder whether many people read "light" fiction the way they watch junk television - to relax, "to give the mind a rest". I've heard that, and it makes sense the way it makes sense for someone to watch a bull fight or auto racing for the noise and excitement and the smell of the crowd, but it doesn't appeal to me. I'd much rather read Maeve Binchy than a skillfully written story about losers.As always, of course, it's a matter of personal taste.Have you read Ross Thomas?

David,Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I didn't realize the book was the last installment of a trilogy until I was halfway through reading it. I was enjoying it so much--despite all the lowlifes--that I wanted to learn more about the author.You seem interested in what motivates an individual's choice of reading, movies, television, etc. I, like many others, depend on recommendations from people whose taste I respect, and I read book reviews. But then there are the quirks: never judge a book by its cover, but one of the best books I've ever read--A Primate's Memoir--called me from the library's basement stacks with the most captivating portrait of a baboon. The baboon, in brilliant color, was sitting on a rock with pen and pad in hand. So, too, with Bank of the Black Sheep. I liked the cover, and the book as well. Naturally, this is a very hit or miss way to choose a book. I'm not fond of the word "losers" because it seems tremendously smug, not to mention un-Christian. Yet I could think of no other word to describe most of the characters in this book. What is wonderful about Robert Lewis's writing is that he imbues most of them with a humanity that made me care, and that from the bleakest of circumstances he not only extracts great humor but manages to craft what will pass for a happy ending. A writer as gifted as Lewis can make the company of "losers" very worthwhile. That's my story, David, and I'm sticking by it.Thanks also for the mention of Ross Thomas, whom I have not read. I've checked my local library and they have over a dozen of his titles. Is there one you would specially recommend? Let me also urge you to read the book I mentioned earlier, A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert M. Sapolsky. I've read it twice and given it as a gift. It is excellent. Happy New Year, David.

Sounds a little like a novel in the vein of Paul Auster. He writes in a florid noir style that borders on self-satire, and the always-flawed narrators face some moral dilemma that they aren't quite equipped to handle. Usually those narrators are writers or academics (or both), which adds an interesting dimension.I especially liked Auster's "Oracle Night" and "The Book of Illusions."Thanks, Lauretta.

Thanks also for the mention of Ross Thomas, whom I have not read. Ive checked my local library and they have over a dozen of his titles. Is there one you would specially recommend? Let me also urge you to read the book I mentioned earlier, A Primates Memoir: A Neuroscientists Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert M. Sapolsky. Ive read it twice and given it as a gift. It is excellent. Happy New Year, David.

Thanks very much for the recommendations of Lewis and Saplosky. The Lewis trilogy is for a look next time I'm in a library (where, my email tells me, I'm overdue on a book about whose whereabouts I haven't a clue), since it's not an ebook yet. I do like the prose of the sampler on amazon, though. Good writing is always tempting. A sampler of the Saplosky is on its way to the iPad.I love all Ross Thomas's novels, but you could do worse to start than Briarpatch.

David, I think you will be hooked by Sapolsky's memoir. He's led an interesting life and writes about it very well and with great humor. I will be off to the library tomorrow to get Briarpatch.

Jean, thanks for the comments on Paul Auster. A few years ago I took one of his books from the library and thought I had fallen into a dark pit. I'll check out the titles you recommended and read with fresh eyes.

Sorry, but I can't get enthusiastic about a protagonist named Llewelyn, which I can barely spell and certainly can't pronounce. For me its all downhill form there, and I start looking for another book.