The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Having loved Louise Welsh’s Plague Times Trilogy, (see here, here and here with interview here), and read her second outing Tamburlaine Must Die for 20 books two years ago, it was about time that I read more of her back catalogue and her debut novel in particular, as she has published a sort of sequel to it earlier this year (reviewed by Gill at Shiny here).
I can’t believe The Cutting Room was published in 2002 – that’s twenty years ago, and it’s been on my shelves since the paperback came out in 2003. It is an amazing debut and now I can’t wait to get my hands on that sequel.
‘Never Expect Anything, son. They’ll tell you they’ve got the bloody crown jewels in their attic and all you’ll get’s guff. But sometimes – not often mind, just now and again – you’ll go to a pokiest wee hole, a council estate, high-rise even, and you’ll find a treasure. So keep an open mind…’ […]
I’d not been thinking of McPhee as I drove to the call. I’m twenty-five years at the auction house, forty-three years of age. They call me Rilke to my face, behind my back the Cadaver, Corpse, Walking Dead. Aye, well, I may be gaunt of face and long of limb but I don’t smell and I never expect anything.
I didn’t expect anything driving along the Crow Road towards Hyndland. I hadn’t taken the message myself but the call sheet said, McKindless, three storeys plus attic, deceased, valuation and clearance.
Arriving at the house, Rilke introduces himself to the old lady who opens the door. The deceased man’s sister. Who tells him that she picked Bowery Auctions, because she wants the house cleared, ‘quick’ inside a week. She asks him to handle the attic himself, with discretion. Rilke accepts the job, although he knows they will be pushed, and leaves the men to it, returning later for a foray into the attic.
He sort of expected to find McKindless’s stash of erotica and porn – a load of erotic books that would be worth a good amount on the open market – although he doubts whether the strait-laced sister would countenance selling them. What shocks him though is finding a secret stash of photographs, pornographic and violent – the girl in them would appear to be dead – the man, he assumes is McKindless himself.
These stir something in Rilke, who is himself gay and rather promiscuous, but he feels no titillation. Rather, he is compelled to find out what happened to the girl – is she dead or alive? Is this a stash of snuff porn or is it cleverly staged?
Thus begins Rilke’s voyage into the Glasgow underworld, beneath the levels he normally participates at – in which he nearly gets nicked for cottaging at one point. Going from a porn mag shop to a serious collector to a ‘camera club’ where voyeurs take photos of a stripping girl, Rilke is on the search for the trail of the girl in the photos. All the time, the auction is getting nearer, and then McKindless’s sister also drops dead. Rilke had had to promise her to burn all her brother’s porn – she hadn’t wanted to see it, just wanted to avoid scandal. Should they go ahead with the sale? Rose, the owner suggests they could skim the proceeds… but then again.
Despite his own dissolute behaviour, Rilke’s underlying decency makes him such an interesting protagonist. He reminded me very much of Don Kavanagh’s (a.k.a. Julian Barnes) bisexual former cop turned PI Duffy. I must read the other three Duffy novels too. I suspect that Welsh, however, as a Scot, was more influenced by William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – with a maverick Glasgow cop in the late 1970s – another series of books I really *MUST* read. I have the first Laidlaw book on the shelves, so I will make that another of my 20 Books.
This is a stunning debut. Welsh is excellent at treading the line between a crime thriller and a literary novel – The Cutting Room is both, but has a depth to its darkness as well as dripping with the atmosphere of Glasgow’s seedier side. Loved it.