by Irvine Welsh
Norton, 344 pp., $24.95
Does crime have a national identity, lonely and predatory in America, part of the family or the community in Scotland? The chief character in Irvine Welsh’s new novel thinks so, or at least thinks he can recognize migrations of style. He is ready to suppose that “real American crimes” are “like British ones,” but he still believes that assaults and killings can be “culturally American” even if they turn out to be committed by a mousy-looking English civil servant in England, Scotland, and France.
The character holding this belief is Ray Lennox, an Edinburgh policeman, tough and foulmouthed as befits the stereotype, always in quest of booze and cocaine, not at all averse to breaking some of the laws he is supposed to uphold. But he is a virtuous man, Welsh wants us to believe. Ray has a mission: he knows who should be behind bars and who should be on the streets, and when he beats people up, as he frequently and zestfully does, this is not sheer thuggery as it is for his colleagues; it is righteous anger. Even a bit of verbal bullying makes him feel better:
He’s starting to feel alive, like he did on the job back home, with that familiar taint of vengeful wrath in his mouth. Fuelling the sense that somebody is going to pay for the crime.
“Vengeful wrath” hints that all is not well with Ray, as indeed it is not. But his wrath is not the problem. Ray, we are told,
had become a policeman because he hated bullies. Then he’d been disillusioned to find out that, like everywhere else, the police force had its share…. He could do nothing to stop them, so, in his cynicism, had almost become one himself.
“Almost” is Welsh’s careful act of moral rescue. A more accurate formulation might be that Ray has become a bully but is not only a bully. And in the context of this novel the very notion of hating bullies seems evasive, generalized, blurred. What Ray hates are child molesters—because he was himself molested as a child, but he could probably hate them without that, as many people do. It’s true that child molesters can be seen as bullies, but only someone who was trying not to think too hard about the question would want to arraign them on the lesser charge.
Ray is not entirely dedicated to his idea that assaults and killings can be “culturally American,” since he also thinks that “most crime in fiction and on television” is “nonsense.” But he is right about the case that changes his life, the abduction, rape, and murder of a young Edinburgh girl. He is right and too late in acting on his intuition, too slow to abandon his own investigative culture, the roll call of the usual suspects, “the priests, schoolteachers and scoutmasters; the pervert uncles, opportunistic stepfathers and twisted blood-fathers with their arrogant and chilling rationalisations.” We can hear Ray’s …