The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

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The darker aspects of sexual desire seem to attract Louise Welsh. In her first novel, The Cutting Room, she addressed pornography in such a way that the image we find in advertising of a prone, naked female with glazed eyes became compounded with that of a corpse. Her preoccupations, sex and its close relation violence, make starring appearances in her latest novel. It is partly a straightforward mystery in which a down-and-out conjuror becomes embroiled in the 20-year-old case of a missing woman, partly an exploration of the reckless self-destruction that accompanies his need for intimacy with women.

William Wilson gets booked as a support act for exotic dancers and blue comics. He starts the novel gigging in a grungy club where boozed-up coppers are celebrating Chief Inspector Montgomery's retirement. The man who hired him, a colleague from the end-of-pier circuit, pays him to pick Montgomery's pocket. The next thing Wilson knows his friend has been shot dead, and an incriminating photo of Montgomery and the dead man's father is now in his pocket. Blackmail, domestic violence, the jaded appetites of lonely people, all beg attention as relentlessly as the Ancient Mariner's beady eye.

The story plays out in Wilson's home town of Glasgow and a frighteningly louche Berlin. The photograph that shows the way to murder is burning a hole in Wilson's pocket as he attempts to evade the law. But Montgomery is tracking him, and this chase provides the propulsion for Wilson's flight. Welsh depicts the degradation of burlesque theatres and back-street shebeens with a spareness and restraint that keep us from hiding our eyes.

After a while, one wishes things would hot up. Welsh's delight in low-life scenarios means that the tension is dissipated by alternating chapters that chronicle Wilson's descent. It is almost as though the action is getting in the way of Welsh's exploration of a mental state. Wilson is her focus here, with the murder and the degradation he experiences nightmarish expressions of his anxiety and dread.

Welsh excels at nostalgia. Her writing is steeped in Dickensian grime, but here the darkness doesn't quite work because she brings a faux-Chandleresque narration to a demi-monde Europe. Wilson's attempts at smart-arse humour grate as harshly as a fake American accent. His femme fatale, Sylvie, a ruthlessly self-serving beauty, does not convince as a siren.

Some of the characters are stock-in-trade, but one stands out: the sister of the missing woman. Wilson's recognition of her significance gives him the growth he needs. Welsh's achievement is to take the notion of an innocent at large, haunted by his own violent fantasies, and blend it with an examination of our cultural underbelly. She turns the whole into a dizzying nostalgie de la boue that mirrors her protagonists' deepest fears.

Lilian Pizzichini's 'Dead Men's Wages' is published by Picador