Death becomes her
INTERVIEW:IT’S SILLY, I know, to imagine that a writer will somehow resemble their books. But Louise Welsh’s four crime novels create such a shimmering sense of unease that on the way to meet her, I can’t help feeling a twinge of anxiety.
My head is full of ruthless, red-lipped Sylvie from The Bullet Trickand condescending, designer-clad Cressida from Naming The Bones. It’s also full of the horror Welsh does so well. Not the supernatural kind. Not the forensically-described kind that some crime writers love to splash across the page. No. Welsh specialises in the kind of horror that lurks beneath the surface of the everyday, waiting to seep out.
Her books set up a comforting world which draws you in and encourages you to curl up with a sigh of pleasure. Next thing you know, you look down and you’re soaked in blood. Thatkind of horror.
In person, however, Welsh turns out to be mild and thoughtful. She has a conscience. And she’s gentle with her answers – much more so than the streak of mischievous humour so evident in her work would suggest. Is that anarchic comedy part of her personality, or a literary strategy intended to lighten things up? “I think it’s probably a little bit of both, to be honest,” she says. “It’s a hard book that doesn’t give you a laugh – or a smile – at some point. But also, I think the dark isn’t eliminated by humour. In fact, sometimes it’s made darker by the contrast between the two.” She pauses, then adds: “You should see all the jokes I took out.”
She is, she says, happy to be filed as a crime writer. She’s not even bothered by the label tartan noir, which James Ellroy dreamed up as a put-down for Ian Rankin’s Rebus books but which has stuck to a number of contemporary Scottish crime writers, Welsh included. She nods at the mention of it, as if acknowledging an old and slightly irksome friend. “My colleague Christopher Brookmyre is very good on tartan noir,” she says. “He says it’s chromatically impossible.” If it’s supposed to draw attention to a group of writers, then it works, she says. “But I don’t really know what it means.
“One very positive thing about it, though, is that you sometimes get your foot in a literary festival, which you wouldn’t otherwise – and always with very nice writers.”And why not? After all, Scotland has a terrific tradition of storytelling, which encompasses all kinds of stories. Some critics trace the current crime wave back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s über–chiller The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
“I’m really, really influenced by the gothic,” says Welsh. “And by crime fiction. But my books are not the standard crime novel – you know? – where we have one death, and it’s followed by another death, and then we have the third death, which somehow manages to round it all up. I love those novels. I read a lot of crime fiction. Where genre is not okay is if people want to keep you there. If they say, ‘hang on, you’re this kind of writer, so you should be writing thiskind of book’.” Hence her experiment with historical fiction in the slim volume Tamburlaine Must Die– and her plans to write a book about the Black Death, one of these days.
A sense of place – one of the major tropes both of gothic and of crime writing – is central to Welsh’s books. “I enjoy that,” she says, with relish. “It’s kind of what I do when I’m not writing. Wander about, looking at things. Watching people with a bovine expression on my face. We learn a lot about people by the way in which they interact with the world.” As Naming The Bonesprogresses, the reader begins to see through the eyes of the central character, Murray Watson. “And so the island of Lismore – which is a really, really beautiful place, actually – becomes hellish. All he sees is the mud and the rain and the past encroaching through archaeology. He’s ill equipped to deal with the countryside – with nature – and he can’t cope.”
Welsh engages with her own life in a similarly playful way. Watson is an academic who’s attempting to write the biography of an obscure Scottish poet. “It’s an idea that has probably been with me since I was a secondhand bookseller,” Welsh says. “Or maybe even since I was a student doing history. And maybe it’s wish fulfilment as well. The idea of working in a library, the notion of the quest through paper, just seems perfect to me. Even though I know I’d get fed up with it pretty quickly, in fact.”
Her sexuality also makes its way into the work. Her characters are often gay or bisexual. Her debut novel, The Cutting Room, is partly a study of pornographic sensibilities, and contains scenes of gay sex that disturbed some readers. Didn’t disturb the people who give out awards, though; it won her the Crime Writers’ Association Creasey Dagger and the Saltire Award, and got her into the Guardian’s list of the best first British novels of 2002.
She doesn’t mind the tag “lesbian writer” either – as long as people are prepared to accept the feminist principles attached to it. Her treatment of gory bits is a case in point. “The trouble is, I’m very squeamish,” she says. “But there’s another reason as well. In a lot of crime books, the consciousness of the victim isn’t present. I think that’s going to be a part of my philosophy. If you can even call it that. My ethics as a writer. You have to think about how the victim is portrayed in your fiction, or your TV piece, or whatever it is.
“Do we just have this body that’s been abused and stripped and revealed? How legitimate is that? Is it just there to turn the plot – and if it is, what do we think about that? I guess that’s something that, as a writer, I don’t really want to do. I know it’s something that’s been made up, so it’s not as if you’re killing the person yourself. But as a feminist I do feel uncomfortable with the way that women are used. There’s something very distasteful about it, isn’t there? There are still plenty of gory bits and yucky bits in my books – and I must say, they’re easier to write than are to read, often.
“But I do like to think about the victim.” She pauses, smiles her dimpled, Miss-Marple-with-a-Scottish-accent smile. “Makes me sound a bit holier-than-thou, doesn’t it?” I think of the climactic shot in The Bullet Trick, the slimy awfulness of the closing pages of Naming The Bones. Not at all, I murmur. Not at all.
Naming The Bonesby Louise Welsh is published by Canongate (£12.99)THEY BELONG TO SCOTLAND
“There’s been a murder, sir.” That’s the line that made the gritty TV crime series Taggartfamous, but the Scots were telling murderous tales long before Detective Inspector Burke was a mumpty wee lad in nappies. If you want to lift the tartan noirto see what’s underneath, here’s the way to go. But be warned: it may not be a pretty sight.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydeby Robert Louis Stevenson. The daddy of them all, and still one of the darkest. Published in 1886 as a “shilling shocker”, it has never been out of print since. And he wrote the entire thing in less than a week, into the bargain.
Knots and Crossesby Ian Rankin. Well, anything by Ian Rankin really – including the wonderful non-fiction Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey. But this conscious reworking of Stevenson’s gothic masterpiece is the one that started Rankin’s rise, back in 1987.
Skinner’s Rulesby Quentin Jardine. Perfect for those who’ve read all the Rebus books, and still want more. Jardine’s tale of an insane serial killer on the loose in Edinburgh leads DCC Bob Skinner up and down the smelly alleys and sticky steps so often trodden by his predecessor.
Savage Nightby Allan Guthrie. A graveyard, a masked man known as Mr Smith, and a couple of Samurai swords – family values, Edinburgh-style, and not for the faint-hearted.
Quite Ugly One Morningby Christopher Brookmyre. Jack Parlabane is a drink-sodden, life-hardened hack. The title is from a song on Warren Zevon’s album Mr Bad Example. This is a madcap black comedy; what’s not to enjoy, for goodness sake?
- PHOTOGRAPHY ALAN BETSON