Most people think crime fiction is driven by plot rather than character. But my experience of writing in the genre for the last decade and a half suggests the opposite – it’s the books with the strongest characters that live longest in readers’ hearts.
So it was with Louise Welsh’s debut novel The Cutting Room, published in 2002. Introducing the world to the cadaverous gay auctioneer Rilke, it went on to become something of a modern classic in British crime fiction. So it’s incredibly exciting that Welsh has chosen to revisit Rilke for the first time in 20 years with The Second Cut. Rilke is 20 years older but not necessarily wiser, still working as an auctioneer in Glasgow, and still skirting around the darker edges of the city’s gay scene.
The LGBTQ+ community is again the focus of Welsh’s attention here, giving her a lot of scope to examine how things have changed in the last two decades, but also where danger still lurks.
As if to highlight this, the book opens with Rilke at a gay wedding, where he’s given a house clearance tip by Jojo, an old friend who is still into the seedier side of the city. When Jojo shows up dead the next day, apparently from an overdose, Rilke is full of guilt. The police don’t think much of an old party animal winding up dead in a doorway, but Rilke has other ideas and begins to investigate Jojo’s death and a possible connection to the big house he was tipped off about.
It is an absolute joy to be back in Rilke’s company after all this time. He is understandably more reflective with the passing years, but he’s still an outsider, never quite able to fit in anywhere. Along with this, Welsh brilliantly pokes at her character’s dubious morals – he’s essentially a good man trying to do the right thing, but that doesn’t always go according to plan.
With gangland violence, people trafficking and murder thrown into the mix, The Second Cut is a rattlingly good crime novel of the highest order. But it also has a lot to say about both the changing nature of society and how we can find our own place within that. And central to it all is Rilke – conflicted, contrary and brilliant. Wonderful stuff.