Is this the way the world ends? The tradition of Armageddon novels inaugurated by HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds has had a varied clutch of offspring, from John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids through John Christopher's The Death of Grass up to JG Ballard's The Drowned World, all forcing the reader to speculate on how they would personally survive in a society in which everything from social order and policing to the supply of food has collapsed (Ballard's waterlogged contribution to the genre now seems prescient in a flood-besieged Britain).
Perhaps stimulated by the threat of climate change, the genre is in rude health and is even (like our climate) undergoing a variety of transformations: for instance, merging with the crime novel to produce a slew of books setting a detection narrative against apocalypse. Antti Tuomainen's The Healer (floods again) is a striking example, as is Ben Winters’ Countdown City. And now the reliable Louise Welsh has produced an impressive addition to the field with A Lovely Way to Burn, although its basic premise (Britain at bay as a bubonic plague-like virus lays waste to the populace) seems to owe more to the 1970s Terry Nation TV series Survivors than it does to the literary heavyweights mentioned here.
The first book in Welsh’s ‘Plague Times’ trilogy has married a gritty and idiomatic crime investigation to a terrifying picture of Armageddon, and has pulled off the difficult task of making the sleuthing activities of her heroine, TV presenter Stevie Flint, seem worthwhile against the background cataclysm. As the plague decimates the population, Stevie arrives at her boyfriend Simon’s flat to find him dead. Everyone involved assumes that he is a casualty of the epidemic, but Stevie thinks otherwise and begins a desperate search for Simon's murderer. As society collapses around her, she has two problems: to convince everyone she encounters (in the face of massive loss of life) that one death counts. And – more pertinently -- she has to survive in a city where the Grim Reaper strides unchallenged.
There is a kind of crime reader who resists any attempt to shift the parameters of the genre, but Louise Welsh (to her credit) is having no truck with such puritanism. This is a novel rich in the kind of iridescent word painting that has long been Welsh's speciality, and the vulnerable, often maladroit Stevie is a wonderful protagonist. But the reader might be forgiven for asking certain questions Wells and Wyndham would have addressed: what is the government's response to the crisis? And how does the rest of the world respond? Such niggling considerations aside, readers will be impatient for the second book in the trilogy.