Review: The Cutting Room

Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room

Published by Canongate Books, paperback £8.99. I bought this book new.

Since it won the Crime Writers Association John Creasey New Blood dagger in 2002, Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room has become a modern classic of Scottish literature, as well as something of a touchstone for those looking to stretch the accepted definition of “crime fiction”. But while I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Welsh’s other novels, and adore her short story ‘Come Friendly Bombs’ in the Bloody Scotland collection, I’ve never read her debut. What better time for catching up with this than a winter lockdown when I don’t want to leave the sofa?

There’s a sense of something suspicious from the off, encouraged by the depiction of auctioneer Rilke (who says, on meeting a client: “I gave her my best smile, the one that flashes gold”). He takes on a job – a large house to clear; three weeks’ worth of work yet he’s given barely one to do it. There’s plenty of money in the furniture, fabrics and ornaments; and plenty of money on offer to have the items cleared quickly. But he is asked to use his discretion when dealing with the attic office – the collection of specialist pornographic novels certainly require delicacy… 

Even before this Rilke knows this job and this house are not usual, but he cannot resist the money on offer: “It should have smelt wrong but my senses were overwhelmed. I kept right on going, as pleased as Aladdin when he first rubbed that lamp and discovered his Genie.” And then he finds an envelope of photographs, many featuring the house’s former owner. These go in his pocket, to be examined at length somewhere he will not be disturbed. But then he looks at the rest of the photographs, and is determined to find out what happened to the young woman featured in some of them, even though it’s possible they were taken many years ago.

I’m hooked from the start: by Rilke, who has “a past” hinted at; by the Glasgow setting, seen from the corner of the eye and imbued with a frisson of something strange; by the startling subject matter, not something I’d anticipated from reading the brief blurb on the back. And I’m interrupted by the part of my brain that keeps saying “but is it a crime novel?” Now, I’d be the first to say that crime fiction, and Scottish crime fiction in particular, is the broadest of broad churches and welcomes all-comers to the flock, But The Cutting Room sits in that delightful place, a grey area. While crimes abound in the pages, a quarter of the way in and neither I nor Rilke are sure that a major crime, the sort that usually defines a crime novel, has occurred – and if it has, it may have been half a century ago, and a stone-cold case. I’m as hooked on this novel as Rilke is on his roll-up cigarettes. 

It’s a slow burn as Rilke tries to investigate the photographs, visiting a series of contacts from the seedier, seamier, nastier side of the city. These characters are all outsiders, on the edges of society and edgy about answering questions, and there’s a definite sense of menace in some of the scenes. For a long time it seems that he’s just going around in circles, talking to people (in a series of beautifully realised character vignettes) but getting no answers. And in one respect that’s true, he isn’t getting closer to finding out about the girl in the photographs. But pay attention to not just the individual personalities but the kind of people they are, for they are clues as to what may have happened to the girl, and what may, right now, be happening to other girls.

It’s an oddly timeless novel – it’s set when it was written, but there’s nothing much about modern life that intrudes for long, and the style is timeless too. I feel it could be set anywhere from the 1950s onward; there’s a feel of faded grandeur, of shabbiness, a patina of the past as if the antiques and the dust raised by the clearing of the house have influenced the choice of words and sentence construction. The style is also a reflection of Rilke – the surface is poised, precise, a little old-fashioned; underneath are depths, and charged emotions.

And then suddenly we’re firmly in familiar crime fiction territory – threats, blood, police officers – though this section is light on detail, shying away from filling in the picture in forensic detail, the spotlit glare of officialdom not fitting with the mood of the rest of the novel. We get answers, but not explanations – and in a way, what explanations could there be that would give us anything more than the basic details do? Then we’re done and into something of an epilogue, the literary feel of the novel remaining intact, that slightly shabby, shady sensation restored.

It’s fashionable in some critical circles to say that a crime novel “transcends the genre”. To me this generally means said critic hasn’t picked up a crime novel in the last decade or more, because those of us who pick them up every week have already figured out the breadth and depth of the genre is pretty much limitless. I prefer to say of books like The Cutting Room – though right now I can’t think of anything quite like this novel – that they show how far you can push the envelope.

Whatever you look for in a crime novel, it’s here: there’s crime, and police, and genuinely nasty deeds uncovered. There’s suspense enough to keep you hooked from start to end. There’s action (and potential consequences of actions) enough to keep you hungrily turning the pages. There’s a fabulous cast of characters and an examination of the grimier side of Glasgow that is done with such love and care I want to jump on a train immediately to revisit the city. Above all there is an easy beauty and poetry in Welsh’s writing, an eye for hidden frailties and suppressed emotion that lingers in the mind. However many times you re-read this novel I think it would remain fresh and reveal new details.

I can’t believe it has taken me 20 years to catch up with this astonishing novel. Carve out a couple of evenings and dive into this modern classic, you won’t be disappointed.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @louisewelsh00

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