Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Slice of Glasgow's Darker Corners

"The Cutting Room" by Louise Welsh


This story has nothing to do with motion picture film editing; this is about crime, pornography, erotica, sex, and money with a mystery thrown in for good measure. Rilke is an auctioneer for a small and struggling Glasgow auction house, commissioned to empty out the home of the late (and wealthy) Roddy McKindless. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until Rilke discovers the attic. There he finds a huge and valuable collection of erotica. While this isn't terribly strange on the face of it, he then finds some homemade "snuff porn" (ones that look like murders). This motivates him to investigate the darker side of the illusive McKindless. Rilke's own promiscuous homosexuality and dabbling with drugs mix in with this investigation, leading him into some of the darker corners of Glasgow. That's it in a nutshell, but there's far more in this plot than meets the eye. And you must admit that this is an excellent basis for one twisty ride of a thriller.

What impresses the reader most about this novel is the writing style. Welsh describes people and scenes with such vivid accuracy, they practically jump off the page at the reader. It is this type of evocative writing would easily lend itself to the big screen. One can imagine grimy scenes where the lighting is almost non-existent and shadows predominate. You can visualize the layout of rooms to the details of the exact shades of the paint on the walls and which halls lead to where, and the way the light strikes the furniture. You can even imagine the streets, buildings and parks where the action takes place, without ever having had the advantage of visiting Glasgow. That's how precise Welsh is with her prose.

One might expect that a book with such detail would be very long and tedious. However, at only 304 pages, this deceptively simple story is actually quite condense and stream-lined, especially when it comes to character development. There's no waffling about with lengthy descriptive paragraphs giving us decades of background information. Instead, Welsh use suggestion to give the history of her characters through their actions and conversations. You can picture Rilke in your mind's eye; you can see what he's wearing and how he moves his hands. We believe that these characters had lives before the book begins, and that they'll live on after we turn the last page. These are real people with real strengths and a whole lot of real weaknesses. And yet, because of their actions, we don't always like these people; but in real life, we don't like everyone we meet anyway, so there's no gripe here and all the more kudos to Welsh on this account.

It is interesting that Welsh chose a male protagonist. Mind you, the man she portrays is gay, and perhaps this allowed her into his head a bit easier. However, more often than not, a writer of one sex doesn't fully succeed in writing a truly believable protagonist of the opposite sex. Welsh succeeded in spades both with this book (as well as with her second work), and that's a special talent, as the believability of the protagonist is always essential to the enjoyment of reading any book. With all this, the reader is grabbed from the very first line of the story and drawn into the book like iron shavings to a magnet. You'll be swept up and involved and you'll feel like these 304 pages are less than half that number, as you simply glide through this book. All in all, it has a total "wow" factor of 10 out of 10 because of how clearly and beautifully this book is written, which reads so smoothly and quickly.

So far, this has been glowing review. The story is absorbing and original, the writing vivid and compelling, and the characters interesting, carefully drawn and realistic, and it's a fascinating and fast read. However, there is a drawback to this book, and the disappointment come in how Welsh ends this story. Of course, without giving away the ending of a mystery book, the conclusion here was a bit too neat and contrived, despite the very clever twists that she put in. You may note that prior to this novel, Welsh had written only articles and short stories. Oftentimes, longer efforts by an accomplished short story writer tend to disappoint with their endings. This is probably why her second book, a novella, was so much better as a whole. There is also the distinct feeling that Welsh tired of writing when it came to tie things up, and just wanted to finish it off as quickly as possible. That's a shame, since this book had such great potential. Still, this is a wonderful example of how fiction should be written - as far as the aspects of settings, plot development (if not the ending) and character developments are concerned. Louise Welsh has proven that she can write stunningly. This is why this I can recommend this novel, but can only award it three and a half stars out of five. 


"The Cutting Room" by Louise Welsh published by Cannongate, released November 1, 1999 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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