Books

To the Dogs by Louise Welsh review – a propulsive campus thriller

The narrative pace rattles along at a rate of knots, combined with Welsh’s seductive and perceptive prose

To The Dogs by Louise Welsh is out on 18 January (Canongate, £16.99)

We should never, of course, conflate authors with their central characters. It’s a common modern malaise to assume that the attitudes and experiences of a novel’s protagonist are the same as those of the writer. As an author of some pretty nasty characters in the past, I wouldn’t want people thinking I’d ever behave in that way myself. 

Having said all that, you sometimes get an inkling that an author is using their own experience as a launching off point for their fictional, sometimes murderous, writing. 

Louise Welsh is one of Scotland’s finest writers in any genre, and she describes her latest as a campus novel. To the Dogs revolves around Professor Jim Brennan, an academic flying high at a university in Glasgow. It’s surely no coincidence that Welsh is also professor of creative writing at the University of Glasgow. 

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Jim is being squeezed on all sides. The novel opens with his grown son Elliot having been arrested on drugs charges. Jim has tried hard to leave behind his own working class and criminal past, but the trouble that his son is now in exposes him to shadowy figures from his upbringing, as well as some other dubious characters.  

At the same time, Jim is getting grief at the university from rival academics vying for the top job, a student has apparently gone missing in China, and another PhD student is struggling for his attention. 

All of this makes for a propulsive thriller, the narrative pace rattling along at a rate of knots, combined with Welsh’s seductive and perceptive prose. The author casts a cold eye over all aspects of her native Glasgow here, juxtaposing the worlds of academia and criminality with a sly wink that asks: which is really worse?  

Meanwhile, Jim is getting dragged into situations and relationships that he thought he’d left behind a long time ago. It’s a familiar trope, but Welsh has such a freshness of style and eye for particular detail that it feels brand new here. 

To the Dogs confirms Welsh’s position in the very top tier of Scottish novelists, whatever the genre. 

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist.

To the Dogs by Louise Welsh is out on 18 January (Canongate, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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