The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

Rilke is an auctioneer for a low rent auction house in Glasgow, who’s offered the job of a lifetime in clearing an old lady’s house. Things like this are always too good to be true however and this particular job is no different. In clearing one of the rooms of the house he comes across what appears to be very old snuff pornography. Through a combination of sentiment and uncontrollable curiousity he makes it his mission to discover if the photographs are real, and if so, who took them… What follows is a slow trip through the sexual underbelly of Glasgow, from fetish shops and private photo clubs to the weekly transvestite coffee morning; all with Rilke as our guide.

The Cutting Room is one of Canongate’s new wave of crime fiction. Quite a lot is made of Louise Welsh’s novel about this ageing and seedy auctioneer from the lower end of Glasgow’s antiques trade. Among other rather over effusive bits of blurb on the cover we’re told that “Crime fiction has finally found it’s award winner”; Canongate themselves are (even for them) unusually noisy about the book, and the film rights are already sold.

Welsh’s language and narrative style creates a lazy, languid yet ultimately disturbing world which the main characters slip through with all too consumate ease. That combined with a complex plot should make for a gripping read, and initially it does. You find yourself drawn in to the story as a number of interesting characters begin to develop within the story.

Something hit me pretty quickly though… They never develop fully – in fact you lose interest in them as the story continues. It’s difficult to empathise with Rilke, or in fact any of the other characters – as the story winds on they become less likeable and more two-dimensional. It is clearly Welsh’s intention that we shouldn’t like her protagonist – what I didn’t get is why it should be so hard to understand exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s a sad old man, yes, but is that enough to explain the lengths to which he takes his investigations? There’s never quite enough of him exposed for you to see his reasoning and unfortunately none of the other characters are any more revealing (or ultimately less stereotypical) than Rilke becomes by the end.

My problems came when I found my interest starting to slip and the plot becoming increasingly more confusing. It’s not that there are particularly many twists and turns, or that even the grand denoument is that surprising… It’s just that by the end I really couldn’t care who’d done it, and in fact I could scarcely remember what it was they were supposed to have done.

All in all this was a diverting few hours, but it hasn’t opened my eyes to a new side of Glasgow, nor has it opened my ears to a new Scottish voice… It’s not a bad book, but I’m afraid I can’t get excited about it…