Louise Welsh returns to her Cutting Room auctioneer sleuth Rilke... 20 years on
In 2018, to mark 30 years since the inauguration of its First Book Award, the Saltire Society held a public vote to determine which debut novel Scottish readers deemed the best of the best. The list of contenders reads like a who’s who of modern Scottish literary greats: Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Jackie Kay and Michel Faber were all on it.
The eventual winner should have surprised nobody, though it did take one person unawares: its author, Louise Welsh.
The novel was The Cutting Room, published in 2002 and the story of a gay, gobby, sepulchral auctioneer named Rilke who plies his trade on any Glasgow street which might throw up a treasure. Leafy or mean, he doesn’t care as long as there’s a sale at the end of it.
“I didn’t even know it was happening until they got in touch,” Welsh tells me over tea as we settle at a table in the bright and airy Glasgow flat she shares with partner and fellow author Zoë Strachan. “That was like a nudge. I knew people were reading it, I knew people studied it. But there was something about that [the award] which was really nice, really warming – and which got me thinking about it.”
The ‘it’ she began thinking about was a sequel to The Cutting Room. She had always vaguely intended to write one, but it had long been on the back burner. But it was a combination of that “nudge” and, two years later, the onset of the first national lockdown which completed the process of bringing Rilke back to life. Everything fell into place. Welsh had the time, the inclination, and the way in. “I could see how I could do it,” she says, simply. “I could see how I could go back to him.”
So go back she did, and this month sees the publication in paperback of the result. She has titled it The Second Cut. What she didn’t do was re-read the first novel. “Either you can do it, or you can’t. And if you can’t do it, reading the book’s not going to help, you know? Actually if you read the book, you might end up ventriloquising a little bit.”
Where The Cutting Room pitched Rilke into a mystery surrounding what appeared to be a vintage snuff movie, The Second Cut takes in everything from gay orgies and trans rights demonstrations to the exorbitant cost of care homes and the gradual gentrification of the Edinburgher’s adopted home city of Glasgow. Oh, and it opens with a same sex wedding.
“I knew I wanted to start with an equal marriage, that image of a same sex couple who had been together for a long time and always would be together,” she explains. “This idea of longevity and just love, I suppose. Love and affection. I wanted that to be the beginning partly because Rilke is never going to be like that. It’s not his personality.”
True enough. Rilke, who now has Grindr to facilitate his love of anonymous, late night sexual encounters, is not what you would call the marrying kind. He is a guest at the nuptials, though, as is rackety old friend and occasional client Jojo. But when Jojo is found dead in an alley in the Merchant City, possibly from an overdose of some kind of party drug, Rilke sets out to investigate. In his own inimitable fashion, of course. Which means rules are bent and favours called in from dubious acquaintances.
He’s joined (and sometimes hindered) in his pursuit of the truth by Rose, his boss at Bowery Auctions; by Les, a cross-dressing drug dealer and another old friend; and by Sands, a young student at Glasgow School of Art who rented a room from Jojo and was making a series of paintings based on his rakish lifestyle in Glasgow’s demi-monde. Among the bit part players are local pawnbroker Ray Diamond, two posh cousins holding a house sale in their aunt’s country pile in Galloway, and Anderson, Rose’s current squeeze and a police detective who was at school with Rilke.
First and foremost, then, The Second Cut is a crime novel, with drug dealing, gangsters and people trafficking to the fore. There are deaths. There is justice (of sorts). There is a kind of morality at work. Given all that, does Welsh consider herself predominantly a crime writer? Yes and no.
“I really love crime, I really love the genre,” she admits. “I think there’s always some kind of crime or transgression in the books that I write, and I think the crime genre is a huge umbrella. So I do think of myself as a crime writer, a Gothic writer, a thriller writer.” But, she adds, “I think I do fall under that wide genre umbrella. I don’t write a police procedural – there’s so many difference types of crime writer, aren’t there? – but I like the invitation for strong story within genre fiction. You have to really make that story work, and I like that discipline. I like the constraint.”
In truth, Welsh’s oeuvre has skated over a variety of genres to date, each offering its own form of constraint. Tamburlaine Must Die, published in 2004, is a high concept historical novella based around the murder in 1593 of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. The Girl On The Stars, from 2012, is a psychological thriller, while 2006’s The Bullet Trick is set in Berlin’s underground burlesque scene.
In 2014, meanwhile, she published the first of what is known as the Plague Times trilogy, set in a dystopian near-future ravaged by a flu-like illness. It was eerily prescient, though in Welsh’s fictional pandemic society collapses and nearly everyone dies. Her next book, meanwhile, is to be what she calls “a campus novel”. It’s set in an un-named Scottish university, though from her description it won’t be difficult to guess which seat of learning is the model.
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But there is another reason she has finally returned to Rilke and his world – the chance it offers to see how that world has changed.
Referencing her gay auctioneer and his “merry band of pranksters”, Welsh says in an afterword to The Second Cut that she wrote The Cutting Room in “a white-hot rage, during the Keep the Clause campaign”. This campaign sought to counter the repeal in 2000 of the now-notorious legislation passed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which made it an offence for schools and local authorities to undertake what it termed the “promotion of homosexuality”.
“Part of the reason I hadn’t written a sequel before now is that I didn’t feel I had anything to add,” she tells me. “But what I have to add now is that times have changed, and things have changed. That doesn’t mean that everything is brilliant, or things won’t revert. But there are changes and some of those changes are positive. As Rilke says in the book: ‘There are some things that change, some things that never change’. And there are things which have changed in the LGBTQ+ landscape.”
A further appeal of genre fiction is its ability to push bigger socio-political themes. But if The Second Cut is a sort of state-of-the-nation survey where The Cutting Room was a broadside, that doesn’t mean Welsh didn’t have to rein in the politics at points.
“If you want to write a manifesto, write a manifesto,” she says when I ask if she sees herself as an overtly political writer. “Politics have to be part of the book, but don’t lecture your reader. They come to be entertained, thrilled. The politics are part of that, but if there’s a moment where it slips through and they feel they’re getting a lecture, they’ll put it aside. So how do you embed it in the story and not just have a section where your central character goes ‘See these Tories …’?” The answer? With difficulty. “I have to take out all of those bits,” she laughs. “In my first drafts, those bits are there.”
As for whether or not we have seen the last of Rilke, she thinks probably not. She had too good a time re-acquainting herself with him to drop him after only two books. He deserves a trilogy. “I think one more and then that might be it,” she says. Then, with a twinkle in her eye: “But I probably won’t kill him – and I probably won’t let him get married.”
The Second Cut is out now (Canongate, £9.99)