An Evening With Louise Welsh – The Second Cut
Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street, 17 February, 2022 – review by Pat Byrne
Twenty years ago Louise Welsh’s debut crime novel, The Cutting Room, was launched at Waterstones Book Shop, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. The prize winning book introduced us to Rilke, a Glaswegian auctioneer and coincidental amateur detective.
On 17 February, 2022, there was a strong sense of anticipation at the first book event at Waterstones for 2 years due to the pandemic. There was a full house for: ‘An Evening with Louise Welsh, hosted by Lesley McDowell, to discuss the sequel – ‘The Second Cut’.
Everyone was wearing a mask but I recognised some of Glasgow’s most successful writers. I definitely spotted Zoe Strachan’s gorgeous hair and that noticeable writing duo – Chris Brookmyre and wife Marisa Haetzman; writing as Ambrose Parry.
In his review of ‘The Cutting Room’ back in 2002, Paul Magrs, wrote in The Guardian:
‘The amateur detective, the cruising flaneur, the queer auctioneer and his dubious friends: it’s the kind of set-up that makes the reader anticipate further adventures for Rilke and co’
So 20 years later the unforgettable anti-hero Rilke returns in ‘The Second Cut’. Although, Louise pointed out that as a writer she had the power to make Rilke age by only a couple of years – now in his mid-40s.
The more things change the more they stay the same and Rilke is that same enigmatic, lonely character, walking on the dark side of the city with dangerous sexual encounters in parks, criminal connections and drug abusing friends – for whom he is driven to do the right thing and ultimately seek the truth.
Louise explained that when she was writing ‘The Cutting Room’ she was driven by ‘moral rage’ relating to Clause 28 and the homophobic ‘Keep the Clause’ campaign. She admits to ‘being a very angry person’ and thinks anger is ‘good energy’.
In ‘The Second Cut’, Rilke is angry at the attitude toward’s his friend Jojo’s death. Found dead in an alleyway the police shrug off this discovery and view him as an old guy with a risky life style. Rilke is a reluctant investigator but it’s not in his nature to let things lie.
There’s a lot going on in this book but it’s not hard to follow. The night before he died Jojo had given Rilke a tip about a house clearance in Galloway. The sale presents an opportunity to solve the serious financial problems the auction house is experiencing due to the affect of Covid. Rilke and the owner of Bowery Auctions, Rose, are desperate for the sale to succeed. However, Rilke can’t turn his back on the questions he has regarding the two brothers dealing with the sale and the absence of their mother, who owns the house being cleared. There has been a serious car crash on the road nearby with two fatalities and a terrified foreign man, who looks like he is fleeing for his life, has appeared.
The question was asked did Louise find it hard keeping track of the different elements and stories in the book? This doesn’t appear to present any sort of problem for the writer and she replied that she ‘took pleasure in the construction’.
The book is dark (Louise is a big fan of Gothic and Noir – ‘two of her loves’ are Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe.) Some of this noir is captured in the way a sense of place is created around Glasgow – when Rilke is walking home in ‘the cold of Dumbarton Road’ after identifying Jojo’s body at the police station his unease is evident: ‘I had a feeling I shouldn’t take any chances that night. I walked home to my own bed.’ Rilke loves to walk in the city ‘where someone can always hear you scream’.
Louise had referred to the need to access Rilke’s voice once again to write this second book and that over the years she had thought about it. The time was right as she ‘tapped him on the shoulder and he responded’. Her empathy with his character is clear ’Those of us that are part of the city stick out in the countryside.”
She was asked if there was a common thread in her books and replied that apart from The Girl on the Stairs’ they were underpinned by politics and social consciousness … politics is always there… ‘for someone who doesn’t understand economics often it is economics underpinning.’ This is clear in her plague books where ‘the rich get richer and the poor get abandoned.’ A message that very much resonates after two years experiencing a pandemic, where the poor and vulnerable have taken the brunt. Louise points out that when you are not well heeled you have no safety net. ‘For most people there is nothing to stop them falling off the edge.”
However, in her books there is also humour and romance. She is an optimistic person and thinks most people want to do their best. There are people like Rilke ‘always trying to do the right thing or what they think is the right thing’.
She was asked how Rilke would have coped with lockdown. She replied that she felt he may not have stuck to all the rules but ‘would not have been party hearty like Downing Street’. She pointed out that we don’t live in a cohesive society and a run on champagne happens as food banks grow in number. In the roaring 20’s ‘it wasn’t all extreme Charleston’.
Louise was asked if there would be a third outing for Rilke. She’s working on two other pieces at the moment but it could be a possibility. ‘Three is a nice solid number’. She joked that she might call a third book ‘Half Cut’.
But she didn’t think it would work as an opera – another area Louise has more than dipped her toe in having collaborated with composer Stuart MacRae on Anthropocene and The Devil Inside.
It was suggested that The Second Cut could work as a Netflix series. There was some chat about who might play Rilke and Alan Cummings was suggested. Louise felt ‘he might have to rough himself up a bit.’ In the past she had thought of Maurice Roeves. Perhaps someone could ask David Tennant?
She explained that The Cutting Room changed her life whereby she can now dedicate herself to writing. She has a part-time position at Glasgow University where she is Professor of Creative Writing. Louise was thrilled that in 2018 her literary debut was publicly voted the Most Inspiring Saltire First Book. She has great admiration for writers who continue writing into their old age and is ‘cheered by how many writers keep on like John McCarry and Pat Barker’.
‘Guess I want to die after writing a very good sentence’.
When I read ‘The Cutting Room’ back in the day I was working part-time at Great Western Auctions, covering for my friend Val when she was on holiday. My next door neighbour for many years was Anita Manning, the owner, you may know her from Bargain Hunt and Antiques Roadshow. I was fascinated by the auction from the outset, it was full of characters, excitement and anticipation.
Louise Welsh in ‘The Second Cut’ has again captured the world of auctioneering with its mix of romance, risk, opportunity, showmanship and hard graft. She also shows us a darker side of the city going where less brave writers would never venture. Louise is an imaginative and committed writer with full control of a plot that still leaves space for the reader to hope and to worry. She takes no shortcuts and every character is fully rounded and unique.
Rilke is a strangely endearing, flawed character – he’ll watch out for you but he’s never be your best friend. He is unforgettable – I hope it won’t be another 20 years before he comes on the scene again.
Pat Byrne, February, 2022.
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