Review by Gill Davies
Louise Welsh has published eight novels. The only one I had read prior to this was The Cutting Room (2002), to which her latest novel is a kind of sequel. It was her first book and won a couple of awards and a lot of praise. I liked it for the quality of its writing, its striking characters and setting and its re-working of the crime genre. All that is true of The Second Cut which brings back Rilke, twenty years older, still an auctioneer and a reluctant solver of murders. Refreshingly, the victim is not a beautiful young woman but a rather pitiful, middle-aged gay man who has got caught up with illegal recreational drugs, sex parties and – possibly – Glasgow gangsters.
The plot is smoothly constructed, following Rilke’s daily business life and his less than daily sex life. It starts when Jojo, an old acquaintance, tips him off about a house clearance out in the countryside south of the city. The old woman who lived in a rambling mansion, still surrounded by the impressive possessions of several generations, has to go into care and her son and nephew plan to clear and sell the house. Rilke is glad of the tip-off: business at Bowery Auctions is struggling to recover from the pandemic (yes, it’s very topical) and this sale promises to be lucrative. But the next day, Jojo is found dead in an alley and Rilke is called on to identify him. An encounter with Jojo’s flatmate, some unhelpful police attitudes and a reluctance to believe his friend’s was a natural death all conspire to draw Rilke into an amateur investigation. In parallel with this – but merging very neatly as the plots develop – is the story of the big house and its would-be sellers who are themselves involved in dubious activities.
The picture of the world of antique dealers, employees, buyers and sellers (often with impossible expectations derived from too much daytime TV) is vivid and convincing. It is comic too – like the woman with her father’s collection of Nazi memorabilia in a Farm Foods bag who can’t understand that it isn’t worth much and anyway the auction house doesn’t sell stuff like that. One of the strengths of the novel is its setting in a gay social milieu, one that is still uncommon in crime fiction, powerfully and vividly realised here. It is rich in the variety of characters and distinctive locales of another Glasgow, one that is certainly not a “gay community” but which is distinctively separate from the straight city. As well as developing a realistic portrait, Welsh has a lot of fun with this. The sentence that opens the book “Some things change, some things never change” wittily contradicts itself in the following sentence, “The grooms were about to cut the cake.” A respectable gay wedding of two nice middle class boys from professional backgrounds:
The two Bobbys had gone for a traditional theme… an oversweet, whisky liqueur advert of plaid and heather, ghillie brogues and fluffed-up sporrans. Bobby McAndrew had gone full Bonny Prince Charlie with a lace jabot and cuffs, Bobby Burns had settled on a bow tie in the same tartan as his kilt.
This is miles away from the later scenes of dangerous drug-fuelled parties and sometimes violent anonymous sex. Somewhere between these two worlds is Rilke’s predilection for the occasional Grindr hook-up with no complications.
And then there is Sands, Jojo’s tenant, a young art student, who knows more than he is revealing about the orgiastic parties. He has been photographing them and may have his own agenda. At the same time as trying to find out if and how Jojo was killed, Rilke is busy arranging the house for a viewing and the sale. In the process, he begins to wonder whether he has been told the truth about the reason for the sale. To complicate things, he comes across an Asian-looking victim of what may be modern slavery, running away from the vicinity of the house. It is indeed a very topical novel, including as it does immigration, enslavement, the drugs trade and gangsterism, and all this with the regular referencing of covid and its impact. Lots of current issues start to boil up very effectively. And then there’s Glasgow itself, the heart of hard-boiled Scottish noir. There are still slums, tenements, homeless people, rival drug gangs and a high incidence of drugs on the street. But now there is also the visible gentrification of former industrial areas (perfect for the two Bobbys, we assume). Prejudice against gay men is still present in the police force and Rilke suspects that is why they have not investigated Jojo’s death very seriously. But even he is dismayed by the reckless and exploiting world that Jojo has got caught up in.
The Cutting Room was “literary” in a way that this is not. And I think that is probably a good thing. In the intervening years Welsh has honed her narrative skills and her plotting to make this a compelling mystery. It keeps its social critique embedded in the story and through its vividly-realised characters. The dialogue is sharp and often witty and the plot threads are very satisfactorily tied up at the end. This is a sequel that was well worth waiting for.
Louise Welsh, The Second Cut (Canongate, 2022). 978-1838850869, 362pp., hardback.
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See also, Annabel’s posts on Louise Welsh’s ‘Plague Times Trilogy‘.