Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister


Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister reviewed by Rob McInroy

I remember buying and reading Lesley Glaister’s early works when I was a stock librarian in the nineties. As is often the case, I was initially attracted by the covers (Digging to Australia, I think, had a Paula Rego painting and that was my introduction to her) and  I found Glaister’s writing immersive and intriguing. When I stopped being a librarian I read less and lost touch with Lesley Glaister until Blasted Things, published by Sandstone Press. I’m delighted to have re-made her acquaintance.

The first section of the novel is set in a field station on the Western Front during World War One in 1917. Clementina Armstrong – Clem – is an auxiliary volunteer nurse and we begin to understand that an interesting back story has led this young woman to such a difficult and dangerous assignment. She is engaged to be married to a doctor but already has doubts – not so much about her fiance Dennis but about marriage itself, the institution, the life that awaits a young woman in Edwardian England. Her experiences in the casualty station, the young men who pass through her care – some surviving, many not – reinforce her doubts.

And then she meets Powell Bonneville, a Canadian doctor, and those doubts, doubts which she has tried to hide deep in her psyche erupt into the open.

Life turns. War over, we rejoin Clem in 1920, now married to Dennis, with a son and a new life and the bright future that everyone in Britain, fatigued by war and death, aspires to have. This was a peculiar time, euphoria and relief and hope in the immediate aftermath of the war not yet eclipsed by the inevitable recession and social crises that would follow later in the decade.

For Clem, this transition from hope to gloom comes early and bites hard. Those doubts she harboured have never gone away, and a combination of post-natal depression, (obviously undiagnosed) PTSD from her experiences at the front and the growing realisation that her life was, indeed, to be girdled by convention leave her morose and marooned, her life circumscribed: more children would follow, the doctor and his little lady becoming pillars of the community, she on his hand, smiling, projecting radiance through her slow descent into middle age and on, the inevitable arrival of grandchildren, infirmity, decline. 

Only Dennis’s sister, the free spirit Harri, seems to offer any escape from the stultification of Edwardian society. Harri’s husband died in the war and, despite Dennis’s attempts to have her return to the family bosom, she steadfastly retains her own household and, through that, her own identity. Returning from Harri’s to the family home is a stinging experience for Clem, a reminder of what she had hoped her life might encompass.

In this state of mental turmoil she meets Vincent, a man badly disfigured during the war, with a tin plate hiding the damage to his face. A brittle relationship develops, and here the novel twists into remarkable new territory, these damaged and yearning characters, in most regards utterly mis-matched but each recognising in the other some deep-rooted need, coming to life before us on the page. As a character study it is remarkable, beautifully handled, the pair’s arguments and misconceptions and overreactions rendered all too human through the realism of their depiction.

This section of the novel reminded me strongly of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, set in 1939, immediately before the war. Like Blasted Things, it is an intriguing character study based around unhappy and needy and disconnected people. There is in it an underlying sense of decay – social and moral – which is only hinted at in Blasted Things. The trajectory is clear, then: from 1920s Blasted Things to Hangover Square in 1939, this is how British society is going to develop, this is where we are headed. Hamilton had the advantage of writing his novel almost contemporaneously, of course, reflecting the zeitgeist around him. Glaister’s ability to enter the psyche of the fractured 1920s is impressive indeed.

In an interview, Glaister said of her work: “It doesn’t really fit into any genre. Is it historical? Is it a romance? Is it a psychological thriller?’ 

She wondered if this might somehow be a problem but for me the opposite is true: it is a strength. The novel twists the way it chooses and Glaister, the author, follows. It could have gone in a particular direction during and after the first section, in the field hospital. It didn’t. It defied convention and became something different. Difference continues throughout the novel. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is straightforward. The novel becomes more than the sum of its parts, a vivid evocation of time and period, emotion and character.

Thursday, 14 July 2022

Man at Sea by Liam Bell

Man at Sea is told in two time frames, in 1941 in Malta, with the citizens enduring a Nazi and Italian bombardment, and in 1961, when Stuart, a pilot shot down and badly burned in the war returns to settle business – of his own and of his travelling partner, Beth, the nurse who cared for him while his horrific burns were tended in the aftermath of the downing. This is a beautifully paced book where the action feels steady and unforced but where, all the same, we are drawn relentlessly to a satisfying climax. 

What is most impressive about the book is the way that it gradually reveals the intimate relations of the protagonists, allowing a gentle love story to unfold, while at the same time generating the intrigue and excitement of a thriller. It’s something William Boyd does particularly well, and Sebastian Faulks. Liam Bell is clearly a gifted writer. 

In the wartime passages we have eleven-year-old Joe Zarb, living with his nanna while his father is on active duty in the Royal Navy. Joe is a bright lad, but he has a vivid imagination and he is naïve. This is drawn out delightfully with a series of word definitions that begin each chapter. Joe’s papa, Victor, did this and Joe treasures the notebooks in which his father carefully transcribed new words. Naturally, Joe tries to do the same thing but his definitions are wittily skewed, such as: 

Encrypt (verb): to hide information or important messages from enemy spies, using the locked room underneath the parish church. 

At one point, the Zarbs receive a telegram and, although Joe doesn’t get to read it, he becomes convinced it brings news of his father’s death. When he searches his nanna’s room and finds it, he discovers that his father has remarried, to an English woman called Elizabeth Blanch. This feels almost like a mini-bereavement to Joe: will his father return or will he stay with his new wife? What will their relationship be? For Joe, eleven and too young to understand, the news is difficult to assimilate. 

Meanwhile, the Sultanas, a family of refugees from Sliema, come to live with the Zarbs. In the second strand of the novel, set twenty years later, Joe has married the youngest of the Sultana children, Rosaria, little more than an infant in 1941. 

The second strand focuses on Stuart Mallinson, the disfigured pilot. He agrees to accompany his former nurse Elizabeth (Beth) Blanch to Malta. It is Beth, of course, who married Joe’s father, and although Victor later died in service, she decides finally she wishes to see her stepson. Stuart, too, has his reasons for returning to Malta: he is convinced that the accident which downed his Hurricane was not what is seemed, but an act of sabotage, and he is determined to find and kill the perpetrator. Stuart, though, has strong feelings for Elizabeth, and the urge to love and the urge for revenge set up a duality in him that he struggles to resolve. 

The story is told plainly, in fine and unflowery prose, creating a dolorous mood which suits the plot and the characters very well. It’s an impressively restrained novel, a hymn to resilience and love.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart

The Knitting Station by Kirsti Wishart reviewed by Rob McInroy

This is the basic plot of Kirsti Wishart’s The Knitting Station: at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a woman who worked at Bletchley Park as a code breaker during the war has suffered a breakdown and is in care. Along with a group of other patients she is taken to a remote Scottish island as a rest cure. There, she becomes convinced the Russians are about to invade the island as a prelude to a full-scale invasion of the UK. Is this just another delusion created by her troubled mind or has she stumbled on a genuine plot? Can she believe the evidence of her own eyes? And, more importantly, will anyone believe what she says? 

All very interesting, you’re probably thinking, although perhaps a little Hitchcockian, formulaic. You can imagine the film version, Sigourney Weaver in the title role, the CGI, the fast cuts, tension ratcheting notch by notch until at the end Sigourney smashes through a window to confront the baddies and save the day. Job done. 

So, you might imagine, you can pretty much guess how this book is going to pan out. But, if that’s what you think, I can tell you that you’re very wrong. How do you explain the psychotic sheep? The secret plans hidden in cunning knitting patterns? The soldiers dressed as models? The magic mushroom stovies? Paramilitary knitters packing pistols? Point to any of those ideas in Hitchcock or Jason Bourne. 

Or anything for that matter. 

In an interview with Alistair Braidwood Kirsti Wishart comments on the shadow of John Buchan which hangs over the book: her central character, Hannah Richards, is, after all, an inversion of Buchan’s most famous creation, Richard Hannay, while the plot and location of the novel – a herd of mysterious sheep on an equally mysterious island – is a clear reference to Buchan’s The Island of Sheep. Buchan, of course, is a problematic character these days, with his imperialist views and casual racism and sexism. 

“I can completely understand,” Wishart says, “why people might object to Buchan’s work and they’d be right to do so! He worked for the Ministry of Information and his novels are imbued with an imperial, hierarchical view of the world we’re still in the slow process of dismantling.” 

She goes on to say she tried to re-read The Thirty-Nine Steps a few years ago but couldn’t get beyond the views expressed. All the same, she argues, Buchan “is a hugely influential figure” and it’s hard to argue with that. 

The Knitting Station is Kirsti Wishart’s response, a feminist and lesbian take on that gnarled old standard, the thriller, in which she subverts all the old tropes of the genre with joyous abandon. 

The plot is a mash-up of Ealing Comedy and James Bond, so I’ll leave it to Kirsti to describe it herself, in an interview with the Portobello Book Blog: 

It’s set in the early 1960s and features lesbians, knitting, lots of sheep and some hallucinogenic stovies (what more could you want!). Hannah Richards, a former Bletchley Park code-breaker recovering from a nervous breakdown is sent with a group of patients to the remote island of Tharn, famed for its knitwear, to undergo a form of knitting therapy. She begins to suspect the island is being invaded by Russian agents but can’t be sure if this is a symptom of her condition or a dangerous reality. It’s been described variously as ‘John Buchan on mushrooms’ and ‘Nancy Drew meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ My own description is ‘Scooby Doo on too much Irn Bru’, a daft novel for daft times. 

Well, I don’t know how can you better that, so I won’t try. This is tremendous fun, the lightness of touch and whimsy concealing a very deft authorial touch: Kirsti Wishart is a terrific writer, confident and original, happy to plough her own furrow (if that’s not a poor metaphor for a book about sheep) and write something which truly defies categorisation. 

Great stuff.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

The Second Cut by Louise Welsh

The Second Cut by Louise Welsh reviewed by Rob McInroy

In my review of the first Rilke novel, The Cutting Room, I observed how refreshing it was to have a main character who happened to be gay without this having to be, in some way, the point of the story. And I maintain that’s true. However, in her Afterword to the long-awaited sequel, The Second Cut, author Louise Welsh explains: 

I wrote [The Cutting Room] in a white-hot rage, during the Keep the Clause campaign. The campaign objected to the repeal of Section 28… which made it an offence for schools and local authorities to “promote homosexuality”. The clause contributed towards intensifying an already hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people. 

There are twenty years between the writing of these two novels, and that gap is reflected in the narratives’ timeframes, too, with the second novel set in 2022. Welsh notes that things have changed for the better in the intervening period: people can be open about their sexuality and gays on TV are no longer only there to provide the laughs. Section 28 is history and, indeed, many schools now happily debate LGBTQ+ issues. In The Second Cut we see progress, too. It begins with Rilke attending a gay wedding and while, before, he could be arrested for a late night assignation, it can now be arranged through Grindr, no fuss, little danger. 

That’s not to say we’re living in a rainbow paradise, however, in either Welsh’s Glasgow or Rilke’s. In the novel we have a clash in George Square over trans rights after a TERF is engaged to speak at the City Chambers. A van full of police officers is on scene and you suspect violence is likely. Informed debate goes out the window. Prejudices remain. Don’t set aside your rage just yet. 

And, although the Glasgow of The Second Cut is, in some respects, more enlightened than that of The Cutting Room, it is still a noir hinterland, peopled by (mostly) men with no scruples and a penchant for violence. The gothic menace that fuelled The Cutting Room remains, the idea that Rilke, very much an individualist with a healthy contempt for convention, is skating once more too close to danger. For all he can at times make himself unlikeable, you can’t help liking Rilke, and you wish he’d be a bit kinder to himself sometimes. But that would never do. Rilke isn’t going to soften any time soon. 

In his second run-out, he is given a tip from friend JoJo about a house clearance in Galloway that could be lucrative and Rilke decides to take it on. Before he can, though, JoJo is dead, found on the streets of Glasgow and presumed to be a junkie dead of either an overdose or hypothermia. Both are common, neither provoke much interest from the authorities. But Rilke is suspicious. And a suspicious Rilke is incapable of keeping his nose out. 

So begins a story which grows ever darker, taking in people smuggling, orgies, drug manufacture, organised crime. Rilke’s sense of honour forces him to do what he knows is reckless, and with every move he comes closer and closer to danger. 

As you would expect, the story rattles along at a satisfying pace as we approach an inevitable denouement. It doesn’t disappoint. 

Rilke remains one of the best creations in contemporary crime fiction, a man who is complex and uncompromising, utterly real. It’s a joy to make his acquaintance again, and I hope it’s not another twenty years before he’s back. 

Monday, 6 June 2022

The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla

The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla reviewed by Rob McInroy

I remember when I read 1984, and talked about it to people afterwards, being surprised when they declared it was science-fiction. I’d already read quite a bit of Orwell at that time – I was obsessed with Down and Out in Paris and London – and Orwell was very obviously a social realist, so I read 1984 in that vein. It genuinely didn’t dawn on me that it was, clearly, science-fiction. 

Much the same thing happened when I read Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist and then read some online reviews, which talked of it as speculative fiction. Well, of course it is. It’s a dystopian novel set in a future society following a nuclear devastation, with the last few humans living out a tedious, seemingly pointless existence in a nuclear bunker. If that’s not speculative fiction, what is? And yet, like 1984, I read it as a straight narrative. That’s a testament to the skill of the novelist Rachelle Atalla. She has created a world that is alien but immediately and entirely believable. Virtually every review I’ve read of The Pharmacist uses the word “claustrophobic” and it is certainly the case that Atalla has created a work that immerses the reader in its very restricted environment. 

The bunker is populated by the few survivors of some unexplained nuclear catastrophe. These are presumably people of worth or value, men and women with particular skills or attributes considered useful, no doubt taken from the upper strata of the previous society. We are told that anyone outside this and any other nuclear bunkers will be dead, including close family of many of the bunker’s residents. 

This is no idyll the survivors have arrived at, however. They sleep in huge dormitories in bunk beds four high, subsisting on pouches of puréed food and wearing uncomfortable boiler suits. At one point a wall descends, splitting the bunker in two, arbitrarily separating families. No one knows why. Rumours abound, but no one makes any serious attempt to find out. This, then, is a wholly passive society, institutionalised and acquiescent. 

The story is told by Wolfe (her first name is Alison, but first names are little used in the bunker as they are “considered a cast-off from a life that no longer existed”). Wolfe is the eponymous pharmacist who dispenses drugs to the residents, all of whom appear to be on some form of medicine. Her dull existence is shaken, firstly by the arrival of a young woman, Levitt, as her assistant, and secondly by becoming caught up in the circle of ND, the populist Leader of the bunker society. Like all populists – think Trump, Clown Johnson, Viktor Orbán – he cares not a jot for the populace who have afforded him his privileged position. Corruption rules. This is a brutal society where ND’s word is enforced by organised violence, and Wolfe is drawn into a world of lies and deception, setting in motion a chilling and all too credible series of events. 

What makes the world of The Pharmacist so real is the way Atalla weaves together the micro and the macro. The claustrophobia reviewers have highlighted comes from the detail that Atalla lays over the narrative, the recording of minutiae, the way the most trivial detail gains – because of the tedium of the bunker people’s existence – a heightened sense of importance. 

But alongside this, the human element of the story, is the macro, or political level. And this is the core of the novel: what is society? How does it operate? How is it corrupted and how complicit are we – every single one of us – in that corruption? It seems particularly apposite to be discussing these questions at this juncture in Britain’s story: daily we are witnessing our own society rotting from the head down, our political class comprising the corrupt and the complacent, our media craven and complicit and the general population seemingly content to allow our ethics and sense of decency to wither and die. What happens in The Pharmacist is what is happening to us today. Give us a few years and that bunker will be our reality. 

Kirstin Innes, reviewing the novel in the Press and Journal, noted that Atalla revealed Donald Trump and Boris Johnson had both informed the development of the character of ND. It is the cult of personality that such populists create which is so dangerous and Atalla explores this in a compelling and chilling way. The insidiousness of these tyrants’ assaults on decent society is deeply troubling. This is how the law is transformed into a plaything, there to do the bidding of the leader. Don’t like an election result? Change it. In danger of falling foul of the ministerial code? Dilute the code. Don’t like the look of that young man? Send him to Rwanda. Drip, drip, drip, society is corroded, compromised, sullied. 

I suppose, then, the big fear is that The Pharmacist could be all too prophetic. This is what Wolfe is confronted with and what, ultimately, she fights against. She represents what we all hope we might be, when the time comes, when decisions have to be made, fights fought. She is decency, the love that must prevail. The society that holds. 

The Pharmacist is a novel that works on different levels, a thrilling story which at the same time projects a powerful message about the dangers of corruption. We would do well to heed it.

Monday, 30 May 2022

The Box by Dan Malakin


The Box by Dan Malakin reviewed by Rob McInroy

Many moons ago I spent a few days with Dan Malakin on a writing course so I’ve long known him to be an all-round good guy and a damned good writer. Clearly, though, he’s spent the intervening years honing his writing craft because he’s an even better writer now than he was then. That much was clear with his first novel, The Regret, which told the story of Rachel, whose life unravelled at the hands of a computer hacker. Re-reading my review of that novel, one of the things that struck me at the time was how beautifully paced it was. But, I noted: 

The Regret does indeed rattle along at pace, but importantly this is not to the detriment of character or emotion. Where many novels eschew character building in their headlong impulse to thrash the story along, The Regret draws us expertly into the troubled mind of the protagonist Rachel, a woman who has suffered trauma in her life and is now, forcibly, having it revisited on her. 

Well, damn me, that’s precisely the point I was going to make about The Box... 

The story: Ally Truman, a young woman, is being targeted by a right wing incel organisation, Men Together. Her family house is being picketed by organisation members. Her father, Ed, is accused of sexual assault. Her brother is largely estranged from Ed, and Ed fears his family is falling to pieces. 

Then Ally disappears. 

And so is set in motion a narrative that never lets up. Ed is convinced Ally has been abducted but, before he can contact the police, he finds himself the key suspect in a murder, after his DNA is found on a murdered young woman’s body. He flees, teaming up with a friend of Ally and this unlikely pairing go on the run, determined to find out what has happened to Ally. 

What has happened? Why? How? And, most importantly, who do we believe? 

What unfolds is a tightly wound and terrifying tale, leading to a brutal and unexpected denouement. The Box is a masterclass of thriller writing, tense and taut, unpredictable, utterly compelling. 


Back to my review of The Regret, and my observation that Dan Malakin takes care to draw credible and appealing characters. Dan doesn’t write plot-by-numbers. His characters do not react to events as they must in order to impel the story, but as they would according to their natures. 

What is most impressive about The Box is not the pace and intensity of the narrative, it is the fact that, despite the driving rhythm of the novel, Dan Malakin still manages to draw out some important messages about contemporary society. This is a timely novel, engaging with the eerie world of right wing incels, that shady group of misfits and malcontents for whom misogyny is a way of life and whose increasingly violent, indeed deranged, views on women are growing ever more sinister. Malakin takes us into the heart of that group, confronts head-on this evil intent masquerading as political activism. 

But he never does this in any didactic way and, although we are informed clearly about the nature of these groups, such descriptions never detract from the plot or slow it down or cause any longeurs. Believe me, writing this tight takes a lot of effort. 

The Box is an exhilarating journey, a journey into the darkness of people’s minds and the implacability of hope. This is fiction to savour.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Hex by Jenni Fagan

Hex by Jenni Fagan reviewed by Rob McInroy

December 1591, a prison dungeon in Edinburgh and in it a young woman – a child, really, only fifteen – called Geillis Duncan, spending her last hours on Earth before being hanged in the morning as a witch. Into the darkness of this night comes some light, Iris, a visitor, she says, from the future. This is the plot of Jenni Fagan’s luminous novella, Hex, a story about witchcraft and women and the ways of men. We don’t burn witches any longer, but that doesn’t imply we’re any more civilised. Not under the skin. In the margins and in the mainstream women are still under assault and men in power retain their capacity to transgress. 

The story of Geillis Duncan is a terrible one, drawn from a dark aspect of Scottish history, the witch trials of the 1590s. Geillis is accused of witchcraft and tortured. In agony, she confesses and also falsely implicates other women and they, too, are drawn into this nightmare of misogyny and violation. 

Her visitor, Iris – named after the Goddess of the rainbow who delivered messages to the Gods – is a supernatural traveller from 2021, determined Geillis should not be alone on her final night, and as the two women discuss what must happen in the morning we learn the baleful details of Geillis’s experience, the torture, beatings, rape, being forced to lie and in this way bring the same experience down on other innocent women. This is how terror works, degrading innocence, celebrating cruelty, dragging everyone and everything into its maw. 

If this was only a story about Scotland’s legacy of witchcraft it would be bad enough, but Fagan is exploring something much broader here, the roots of that barbarism which have grown and flourished in the dark through five hundred years and still assail our current day experience. Sarah Everard, murdered by a police officer. Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, sisters stabbed to death in a London park and then dehumanised further when their lifeless bodies were photographed by police officers charged with protecting the scene and the photographs were shared for the gratification of other men too senseless to understand human decency. 

The sisters’ story, and the stories of other women who have suffered at the hands of men, are woven into Fagan’s narrative, wronged women from our age sharing the stage with the wronged women of 1590s Scotland. For the next ten years, twenty, maybe more, we will remember these stories and remember the women’s names, but in time those names will disappear from the narrative and only the stories will remain, the hurt, the degradation, the sheer, unadulterated cruelty of men’s treatment of women. History become myth. And then we shall need a new Jenni Fagan, five hundred years from now, to give these women back their story. 

Iris says at one point: “Men want to know how they got trapped on earth”, but Fagan doesn’t allow them to escape responsibility through this appeal to gnostic suffering. To do so would be to simultaneously acknowledge the spark of the divine in them and it is impossible to reconcile that with what we see men do on a daily basis. “They hold hatred in their heart”, Iris continues. “They want to kill us because we create their lives from our bodies.” But Geillis advises her to show caution: 

I would like to say I have no clue what you are talking about, but I do. I also know what heresy and blasphemy sound like, and if they heard what came out of your mouth they’d hang you before they hang me. 

Women, then, should not talk back. Should not claim agency. Should not question the order of things. Think of the vigil for Sarah Everard, those women who were accosted and arrested for organising a peaceful moment of reflection in a murdered woman’s memory. Patsy Stevenson – because let’s name another name, let’s not forget, not allow her story to become myth – Patsy Stevenson, a slight woman held down and handcuffed by two uniformed thugs for the crime of compassion. 

And now our government, intolerant and hate-filled, stoking fear of “the other”, are changing the laws on freedom of assembly to make it easier for the instruments of the state to turn on the people of the state. Because we can’t have these women gathering and espousing peace, compassion, love, can we? Modern-day witches, all of them, and dangers to the natural order of things. 

Burn them. 

Hex is a historical novel of the present day. A wonderful warning. A troubling tale.

Monday, 16 May 2022

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh


The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh reviewed by Rob McInroy

James Purdy’s second novel, The Nephew, written in 1961, was controversial in its day and – sadly – the reason for that controversy still affects a lot of fiction today. It tells the story of a (possible, never explicitly proven) homosexual love affair between a young man, Cliff, who subsequently goes to war in Korea and is posted missing in action, and another young man from his home town, called Vernon. What makes the novel so powerful is that this is not its principal theme; indeed, it is only late in the novel that this plotline emerges at all. There is no didacticism here; the homosexuality is not being written about as an “issue” with the characters only existing because they are homosexual and the novel only existing for the reason of debating that. Fifty plus years later, too many writers still cannot routinely create characters who just happen to be gay (or black, or Muslim), without this being a crucial element of the plot. It is the same problem Percival Everett bemoans when he says he wishes to be read as a writer, not as an African-American.

All very interesting, I’m sure you’re saying, but what does this have to do with Louise Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room?

The reason is that the novel’s protagonist, the wonderfully dissolute Rilke, is a gay man who, in the course of the novel, has a few sexual encounters. As with Purdy, however, Welsh doesn’t use this as a way of exploring gay sexuality: Rilke just happens to be a gay man. He is a beautifully created character, rich and complex, highly believable, as are the other main characters in the novel, and they all combine to provide a rich evocation of the seedier side of Glasgow living. The sense of place Welsh creates is profound, and you really feel you are immersed in this milieu.

Rilke is an auctioneer who is called by Miss McKindless to clear the property of her recently deceased brother. She wants this done quickly, and she advises Rilke that he is likely to find some unsavoury material. This, she wants destroyed. Rilke finds in an attic a complete library of pornographic material which he realises contains very rare and valuable works. As he looks through it he discovers some photographs of a young woman being tortured and killed. They are so realistic Rilke wonders whether they might be real, and he begins to investigate.

This pitches him into a shady Glasgow community of pornographers and fetishists and bent police. The novel zips along at a tremendous pace and we’re drawn willingly into Rilke’s world, as curious as him to find out the truth behind these terrible photographs. That truth, when it comes, is shocking.

I first read this when it came out in 2002, and Louise Welsh has just published, twenty years on, the sequel, The Second Cut. I’ve been looking forward to that but felt I needed to re-read The Cutting Room before I did. I’m glad I did. It was fun to make Rilke’s acquaintance once more, and I’m even more excited now to read The Second Cut.