When writer Paul Magrs reviewed Louise Welsh’s debut The Cutting Room, he expected and suspected that we hadn’t seen the last of his hound, the enigmatic Rilke. Rilke is a Glasgow antiques dealer and auctioneer, a gay man who prefers chance and chance encounters, with a quick line on sardonic put-downs and a willingness to use violence. He was a paradox; both principled and yet ethically flexible. The Cutting Room was also provocative in terms of depicting an unacknowledged gay subculture: the city of the gaze, as McIlvanney once called it, became the city of the gaze. Well, Magrs was right; it was just that he was 20 years away. Welsh has had an interesting career since his debut. I really enjoyed Naming The Bones and it had some success with a trilogy of dystopian and pandemic novels between 2014 and 2017, A Lovely Way To Burn, Death Is A Welcome Guest and No Dominion. A clever publisher would repackage them into a single volume.
I confess I was a little worried when I heard about this sequel (revisiting past glories can be problematic), but it’s a good, gripping novel, and it does new things with the material. It launches several narrative hares at once, but the first thing to keep in mind is that it is set in the present. There are references to Grindr and Uber and Covid, to gentrification and Dungavel; furthermore, the characters know that they have aged.
At a wedding, between two men, Rilke meets an acquaintance Jojo. Jojo is a sales prospect, barely head above water, into drinks, drugs and pick-up parties, giving Rilke advice on a semi-aristocratic house clearance and a vial of ” sexual energy” as a gift. to the couple. The next day, Jojo is found dead in an alley and the police seem unconcerned. Cleaning begins and something macabre is found: a dead dog locked in a box. Two cousins are selling the shabby but not stylish property on behalf of their elderly aunt, who is apparently in a nursing home in Thailand. There is also a traumatized and bewildered Vietnamese man who may have been trafficked and Jojo has left behind his roommate, an art school student, and Rilke and an unfortunate legacy in the form of boxes of the rape drug GHB. The question immediately facing the reader is whether these disparate plots are somehow going to converge or are parallel stories. As such, it is an effective technique to retain the reader. Something, many things, are suspicious, but do they all point in the same direction?
One thing I don’t like about reviewing novels like this is that the interesting stuff is haunted by the Spoiler Specter. There are a number of solutions, and part of the book is cleverly clever: are all or some of the deaths murders? A similar ambiguity hung over The Cutting Room. There’s a scene, towards the end, that reminded me of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among The Tombstones (if you haven’t read Block, I consider that a serious omission) where there is a confrontation between the court case and an eye. for one eye
The novel highlights that the lives of people in the LGBTQ+ community have changed radically in the last 20 years. As the author points out in an afterword (and as Rilke also observes), there is now “marriage equality, increased visibility, access to anti-hate laws, increased awareness of queer and trans rights, more nuanced identity politics.” Welsh is too subtle a writer to simply become an entertainer, and part of the novel deals with whether or not a certain transgressive chill has been lost in “normalization.” In fact, when Rilke has to go to one of Jojo’s parties, it’s a jumble and a morass of limbs, bellies, tattoos, and a nagging feeling that not everyone willingly participates. It’s like a painting of Francis Bacon in his giddy physique that seems to exclude eroticism. It’s what makes Rilke so interesting: he prefers anonymous sex with someone else to a hectic orgy because, in a sense, he wants to be anonymous, not subsumed.
I have never felt comfortable with the expression “literary crime novel” in the sense that I do not find it a useful distinction. I have read crime novels that show intelligence and humanity, and where there is a sense of style about the prose; I have read “literary” novels that were nonchalant, bombastic, and inconsequential. Welsh is interesting in this way. I noticed early on that he has a tendency to fall into a certain pulsing rhythm: “I was wondering if my death would be routine”, “A funeral isn’t much of a date”, “His jokes were standard, his spelling was good “. , “I hung up the call and kept driving, towards the bed.” It’s kind of an ultrasonic indication that this has been crafted.
However, the ability is meaningless without the intent, and Welsh gives Rilke a line that seems to define the entire novel: “Illegality I can deal with, cruelty I can’t.” That could be used as an aphorism to delineate “noir”. Is this the last of Rilke? I’m too old to make any predictions, but I wouldn’t be averse to another installment at all.
The Second Cut, by Louise Welsh, Canongate, £14.99
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.