The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

The literary beauty of a Glaswegian beast
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The Independent Culture

It has become a staple complaint of some crime writers that literary awards never come their way. Snobbery towards genre writing prevents a true appreciation of their craft, so their argument goes.

It has become a staple complaint of some crime writers that literary awards never come their way. Snobbery towards genre writing prevents a true appreciation of their craft, so their argument goes.

The problem is that genre writing, by its very nature, demands a certain adherence to formula. So much crime fiction sacrifices depth of characterisation, feel for landscape and intellectual rigour to the demands of a racily paced plot.

It is just possible, though, that in Louise Welsh crime fiction has one of its few real literary writers. The Cutting Room is a startling debut novel, a genuinely creepy, grisly little tale with as sure a grip on the vernacular style as on its more erudite passages. And, like all the best heroes, Welsh's protagonist goes by one name only.

Rilke is an auctioneer who finds himself caught up in an unpleasant web of pornography, abuse and murder. Called to remove the final belongings of the deceased Roddy McKindless, a well-to-do resident of Hyndland, one of Glasgow's upmarket suburbs, he finds a hidden cache of old black-and-white pornographic photographs. McKindless is pictured in most of them, but the ones that concern Rilke are those depicting the brutal murder of a young woman.

Is the murder staged or is it real? Rilke quickly becomes obsessed with finding out: hints of something disturbing in his own past are given, and he is drawn into a bizarre world of amateur photographers, transvestite clubs and drug barons.

Rilke is an interesting creation. Masculine, tough, hard-drinking and happy to use his fists when necessary, he could easily have become a caricature – but for his promiscuous homosexuality. All heroes have an Achilles heel, and it is Rilke's rejection of intimacy itself, rather than with whom he may be intimate, that points to weakness. That's not an unusual character trait for amateur detectives who prefer to play it alone, but the reasons for his emotional isolation give him added depth.

Welsh's feel for the Glasgow cityscape is also enriched by Rilke's singular viewpoint. She takes us beyond the Taggart-style "mean city", while her protagonist's musings on the implications of his quest are sharp and precise: "I turned to the other books. Death reached out from the pages. Death was a woman and women were dead. She hid her skull face behind a dainty mask, danced jigs with skirts raised high and wormy thighs exposed. She leant over the old, the young, embracing them like a mother. Mother Death. Dead Mother."

In too many hands does the maiming and terrorising of women become an easy tool for the creation of fear. Too few crime writers resist the temptation to indulge that option. Louise Welsh is better than this: potentially gratuitous material becomes an excuse for an enjoyable little lecture on Western art history; and fear is generated by a predator's absence rather than his presence.

The Cutting Room is a hugely commendable debut, assured and memorable. Crime fiction may have its prize-winner at last.

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