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For Glasgow – with love and squalor: The Second Cut, by Louise Welsh, reviewed

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

The Second Cut Louise Welsh

Canongate, pp.384, 14.99

Never, never kill the dog. It’s rule one in the crime writer’s manual. Cats are bad enough, as I can testify, having once had the temerity to behead a cat — in a novel, I mean —and then crucify the mutilated corpse upside down on a church door. As a general rule, if you kill a domestic pet in your crime story you should expect a hostile postbag of epic proportions.

But rules are meant to be broken. Which is why it’s a pleasure to find in Louise Welsh’s latest novel a stinking, maggot-swarming Jack Russell entombed in a chest with a tightly fitting lid. She’s an author whose stock-in-trade is the unexpected, which is also demonstrated by the variety of her fiction. Among her books are a historical novel about Christopher Marlowe, a chilling psychological thriller set in Berlin and a dystopian trilogy called Plague Times, based on the ridiculous premise that a hitherto unknown flu-like virus has devastated the UK.

In The Second Cut, however, Welsh brings her career back to where it started: to Glasgow, and a trouble-prone auctioneer named Rilke. In her first novel, The Cutting Room, Rilke stumbles on a snuff movie while valuing a dead man’s effects. Now, 20 years later, he’s back. He may be older and wiser, but he’s still wryly honest about everything, including himself: ‘I am too tall, too thin, too cadaverous to look like anything other than a vampire on the make.’

Rilke is the chief auctioneer of a well-established company owned by a friend. An old acquaintance, encountered among the guests at a gay wedding, gives him a potentially lucrative tip about a forthcoming country house clearance sale, and then winds up dead in a doorway after too much fun on a winter night. The police are content to write it off as a case of drug overdose, plus exposure to winter temperatures.

Spurred by his awkwardly active conscience, Rilke attempts to sell the dead man’s possessions to pay for his funeral. This leads to the discovery of a large quantity of GHB, a date-rape drug much prized at chem-sex parties. It also attracts the malign attention of a particularly nasty homophobic gangster. ‘Sex and death,’ Rilke reminds us, ‘are bound together, plaited like DNA.’

In the meantime, Rilke and his team are making an inventory of the country house’s contents, which brings us back to the rotting dog. The house is in ‘the arse end of nowhere’, otherwise known as Galloway. In what seems like no time at all, we are confronted with a missing old lady, two ageing posh boys on the make, a burned-out car and an illegal immigrant on the run. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, things get a little rough at a spectacular gay orgy.

This novel gave me an indecent amount of enjoyment. It manages to be bleak, witty, unfailingly compassionate and beautifully written all at the same time, as well as a lightly fictionalised love letter to Glasgow. It’s true that the plot grows steadily more convoluted and less plausible, and I’m still not sure who killed the dog, let alone why. But I don’t care, and neither will you.

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