Life in all its messiness


Irvine Welsh <em>Jonathan Cape, 352pp, £12.99</em>

In the cold spring of 1996, in an unheated attic above an amusement arcade, I overdosed on Irvine Welsh. In the space of a week, I read The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares and Trainspotting. By the time I started this last, I was coming down with flu. Sweating and shivering, aching from my toenails to the roots of my hair, and with Trainspotting propped against my clammy pillow, I could totally identify with Renton, going through cold turkey in his bare room, three buckets lined up for his "shite, puke and pish".

Welsh's prose was hilarious, original and energetic, but by the time I recovered from the flu I felt knackered and soiled by his relentlessly dark, scatological world. I didn't touch him for another 12 years. And here we are now. Welsh has turned to crime, which makes sense. It pays, after all, and his work was already steeped in the underworld of Leith - the drugs, the petty gangsters, the thugs fighting over Hearts and Hibs. Why not spin all that into tightly plotted thrillers?

Crime returns to Detective Inspector Ray Lennox, who appeared in one of Welsh's earlier novels, Filth. Lennox is recovering on holiday in Miami from a nervous breakdown brought on by too much coke and a particularly gruesome child sex murder case, which he has recently solved back in Edinburgh. He is accompanied by Trudi, his aspirational and exhaustingly groomed fiancée, who is obsessed with planning their wedding. After an argument with Trudi, Lennox ends up in a seedy bar, where he meets Robyn and Starry, a pair of slutty women who invite him back to Robyn's apartment for a coke binge. There they are joined by two menacing guys, one of whom attempts to molest Robyn's ten-year-old daughter, Tianna, who is sleeping in the next room.

A scuffle ensues between the men and Lennox. He rescues Tianna by locking himself in the bathroom with her, and Robyn is dragged out of the apartment by the two men and Starry. There ensues a gripping road trip through the swamps of Florida as Lennox tries to extricate Tianna from a paedophile network.

The plot flicks back and forth between the present plight of Tianna in Miami and the past murder of Britney Hamil back in Edinburgh, the case that tipped Lennox over the edge. The reader comes to understand why Lennox has embarked on a crusade against "dirty nonces": "It really does become the straightforward battle between good and evil, as opposed to that mundane norm of trying to stem the consequences of poverty, boredom, stupidity and greed." However, perhaps unintentionally, Welsh does show that paedophilia may be partly a consequence of poverty, boredom, stupidity and greed.

As ever, he is unsqueamish about confronting the dark side. He explores the sticky fact that children can be disconcertingly precocious and sexy, especially to weak, inadequate and disturbed men, and especially if brought up by weak, inadequate mothers who have taught them through their own promiscuous behaviour that they have nothing of value but their sexuality. Welsh shows that the tabloid hysteria surrounding paedophilia is part of the same sexualised culture of tarty clothes for little girls and prurient exposés of celebrities.

There's no doubt that Crime is a page-turner. Halfway through, I kept wondering why I had bothered with limp-wristed, plotless literary novels all these years, and could understand why most people on the Tube are engrossed in fat books with big silver letters on the cover rather than, say, Salman Rushdie. By the end, though, I began to hope that Welsh would extricate himself from the strictures of crime writing, cast aside cause and effect, neat twists and sewn-up endings, and show life - as he did in Trainspotting - in all its messy, chaotic, unplotted glory.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire