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 voice in the adjectives, the character’s rage infiltrating the narrator’s summary. Neither Ray nor the narrator at this point mentions the missing girl’s drunken grandfather, whom the police waste too much time on; who did long ago molest his own daughter, but as it happens didn’t touch his grandchild. There is virtue in Welsh’s world but no innocence—or rather only the children are innocent.
Still, innocence matters in Crime, as it doesn’t appear to in Welsh’s earlier work, which comprises the notorious Trainspotting (1993) and four other novels ( Marabou Stork Nightmares, 1995; Filth, 1998; Glue, 2001; Porno, 2004) as well as four collections of novellas and stories ( Acid House, 1994; Ecstasy, 1996; The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, 2006; If You Liked School You’ll Love Work, 2007). Of course there are dead and abused children in the earlier books, victimized women and helpless addicts, but they are chiefly casualties of a damaged world. They remind us how bleak and pitiless that world is, but their presence doesn’t raise questions or invite us to think of alternatives.
Welsh’s target has until now been the ambiguous allure of the Scottish and American cops and crooks and down-and-outs he ventriloquizes so well. “What I’ve done,” he said in a 1998 interview, “is taken every negative statement I’ve heard somebody make, and turn them into a character.” He’s thinking of the narrator and main character of Filth, a swearing, boozing, abusive, racist, decaying policeman in Edinburgh who consumes enough sausage rolls, meat pies, and cream cakes to clog the arteries of an army, but something similar could be said about many of Welsh’s other characters, especially the narrator of Trainspotting, who makes sleaze and addiction into things of verbal beauty:
The great decline is setting in. It starts as it generally does, with a slight nausea in the pit ay ma stomach and an irrational panic attack. As soon as ah become aware ay the sickness gripping me, it effortlessly moves from the uncomfortable tae the unbearable.
Effortless sickness. It does what it likes, it’s a sort of role model, at least when you’re writing or talking about it. The speaker is a young man who, we later learn, has stolen £4,000 worth of books over the last few years, and is quite untroubled, when arrested, by the magistrate’s question about what he meant to do with the volumes of Kierkegaard. No Scottishisms in his answer. “I’m interested in his concepts of subjectivity and truth,” he says without hesitation,
and particularly his ideas concerning choice; the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others…. It’s…a liberating philosophy, because when such societal wisdom is negated, the basis for social control over the individual becomes weakened and….
Then he gets tired of his own line, and talks to us again:
But I’m rabbiting a bit here. Ah cut myself short…. The magistrate snorts derisively. As an educated man ah’m sure he kens far mair aboot the great philosophers than a pleb like me.
There are wonderful inversions here. Plain prose is for insult and disguise; a stylized phonetic rendering of a Scots accent is for intimacy and truth and a little boasting. Better to be a (smart) pleb than a (merely) educated man any time.
Talk is what provides most of the energy and the strategic offensiveness of Welsh’s earlier work. These are usually people telling their own stories, fully in control of their language and even their own apparent disorder. Here is how Detective Inspector Bruce Robertson, in Filth, describes police mentality:
The big problem with being polis is that you can’t help but see people as either potential criminals or potential victims. That way you feel either a loathing or a contempt for anyone who isn’t like you, i.e.: polis.
Robertson actually feels loathing and contempt for most of his colleagues as well, but this hardly detracts from the lucidity of his analysis. Even as he jumps to his suicide he’s still talking.
Crime has plenty of fine conversation and lots of interesting spelling, but it also has a third-person narrator, a person whose mind and idioms are not those of the world he describes. He is definitely a writer, not a talker, and he is not at all averse to the grand speculation, or the parody of the same thing, as in this riff on Ray’s concern about the work of crime in the age of digital reproduction:
Everything was recorded; sins more than triumphs, on phones and cameras, to be exhibited to the world online. Why would sex criminals, of all people, be immune to that narcissism? Murderers were the biggest divas: the Raskolnikov tendency heightened by accessible recording technology and the confessional culture.
We all want our moment of what Welsh in the next sentence calls “digital immortality,” and the narrator’s use of the ironic phrase “of all people” nicely mimes our dim-witted willingness to be surprised. “The Raskolnikov tendency” sounds mildly, comically clinical, another victory for pop psychology, more of a triumph than a sin.
But Welsh’s writing in Crime, always fluent, often funny, is distinctly unequal, likely to slip off the edge where it is trying to perch. It’s more secure in the several chapters where flashbacks are narrated in the second person (“You went to your father’s office in Haymarket”; “You thought about Britney’s last days”), but even there wobbles occur. On the opening page a tree is finely said to be “spreading keen varicose shadows,” and by the second page the same tree is rather too finely said to have “distressed black arms.” A man speaks to a bartender “in a dissenting squeak,” an American television set “oozes more ennui than the streets and the bars,” a Florida evening reveals “an ochre brass-plaque sun like a logo to life lost.”
You can feel the stylistic stakes rising in such phrases, the precision ebbing. When Ray Lennox at one point is said to tell “the easy lie of the infidel cop,” the phrase is quick and far-reaching, but when we are told he feels he represents “the cop as Popperian philosopher: disproving every hypothesis your department came out with,” we wonder where the faux-pleb narrator of Trainspotting is when Welsh needs him. There’s a similar moment of slither when a girl is said to have “so little time to decode the cruel puzzle others have malignly made of her life.” This is Ray’s feeling about her, but the formulation makes it seem more mawkish than it no doubt is.
Mawkishness is the recurring tonal threat in Crime, the direct result of Welsh’s new interest in innocence. We have met Ray Lennox before, or at least we have if we have read Filth . The accolade from the remorseless Robertson (“say what you like aboot Ray Lennox, he’s polis through and through”) may seem a little worrying, but Ray is a changed man. He can’t get over the death of Britney Hamil, the girl whose killer he caught too late—after she had been raped several times and her corpse tossed over a cliff in Berwickshire. He’s always wanted to save children; he has a reset nose from a fight with a fellow policeman on the subject and a broken hand from recently punching the wall where he was himself molested as a child.
His boss has ordered a rest, and his fiancée Trudi has taken charge. They’re off to Florida to unwind and plan their wedding. The opening of the novel (after a brief prelude, seemingly disconnected from the story of Ray Lennox, about a child begging her mother not to go out for the night) sets the tone very well: “Ray Lennox is now entering an area of turbulence.” Not just Ray, since he is on a shaky passenger plane, but he’s the one headed for the real storm; Trudi is reading Perfect Bride magazine. Ray is so anxious about the idea of relaxing that almost on touchdown in Miami he arranges to have dinner with a retired Scottish policeman and his American wife, and the next day he and Trudi have a fight over nothing. Trudi walks off, Ray wanders around town, takes a bus, finds a bar, and before we know it he is hooked up with two women who want to take him home to party—one of them, we soon learn, is the mother of the child we briefly saw in the prelude.
The party seems fine to Ray as long as it’s a matter of vodka and beer and cocaine, though he’s slightly disconcerted by the presence of a ten-year-old girl, who is asleep in the next room. Late into the night, two men—greasy-looking acquaintances of the women— appear and one of them gets on top of the child, whose name we learn is Tianna. Blurred and lost as he is, Ray knows what he needs to do. He drives the men off, the women leave too, he passes out. In the morning he gets a panicky phone call from Tianna’s mother, begging him to remove the girl to somewhere safe, to a town with the invented name of Bologna on the other Florida coast, as it turns out. He is not to tell the police anything, because they will take her daughter away from her—there is a history.
The rest of the novel describes Ray’s adventures with Tianna, interspersed with memories of the development of the Britney Hamil case, and of Ray’s own childhood. At one point Ray thinks he will go to the authorities after all, leaves Tianna in a diner, and steps across the road to the local police station. He’s just going to get some cigarettes, he tells her. He’s back very swiftly, because the policeman on duty is one of the men from last night’s party scene.
Ray and Tianna make it to Bologna, find a friend of her mother’s who may not be a friend, spend a night in a motel which is like an agonized, virtuous undoing of the plot of Lolita—people in the novel have their suspicions about Ray but we don’t—and after much mayhem and the uncovering of a pedophile ring, or several rings, a lot of physical rough stuff, some good wisecracking dialogue, a splendid scene in which an alligator eats a West Highland terrier called Braveheart, and some weepy farewells and a reconciliation with Trudi at the end, Ray is set to return to Skatlin, as it is usually called in this book, and Tianna looks as if she has at least the chance of a life not dominated by abuse.
Critics have been saying that Welsh is making a comeback (or not) ever since he had somewhere to come back from, and English reviews of this book have been very much in this vein: “A triumph,” Euan Ferguson says in The Observer, “a return to form.” I think Filth, in its ugly, brilliant way, was as good a return to form as anyone could want, maybe even a sign that form hadn’t been lost, but Crime is something else, a good deal more mainstream and moralizing. It’s full of adventure and a straightforward pleasure to read, as other Welsh works are certainly not, and of course we wouldn’t thank him for a work of deep moral ambiguity on the subject of child murder. But we can recognize the importance of Tianna’s rescue, the restoration of the very childhood Lolita lost for good, without feeling that Ray’s desperate simplification of his life is going to get him, or us, out of trouble.
” Sex offenders: they have to be stopped. ” Ray is thinking in italics here, but we are not going to argue with him about this. “It’s why he’s a cop,” he continues, “the unambiguous, unerring certainty of that particular crusade.” Now he’s beginning to drift, and he starts to speak of “nonces” (a new word to me) in the way zealots always speak of the enemy, defining themselves by whom they choose to hate:
Nonces make being a cop real: a workable and justifiable life…. 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.
A cop’s choice, it seems, is between a simple crusade and failing social work—no mention, not even a thought, of the law. A few pages later Ray thinks of “a good cop” as someone who inspires fear, and feels he doesn’t himself come up to scratch in this respect.
At times Ray appears to see the limits of such thinking:
His Scottish polisman’s reductive and misanthropic view of the world seems an inadequate lifebelt. The old certainties he’s entertained: the morally bankrupt, malevolent rich; the ignorant, feckless poor; the fearful, petty, repressed bourgeoisie—even aggregated they don’t appear impressive enough in their cretinism to fuck up the world to the extent it now seems to be.
He’s certainly right about the insufficiency of these ready-made candidates for causes of the world’s condition, but “the old certainties” have nothing to do with the crusade against nonces and the battle between good and evil.
On the contrary, this crusade is offered as the answer to the failure of the former certainties. This is how we know we are the good guys, and Ray says so again:
No matter how far he’d fallen he had a line below which he’d never submerge. The bar wasn’t raised very high. But it was there. Now he has to help her. He can raise it by helping her.
The bar is having sex with a minor, but now Ray is confused. It’s good he knows how low the bar is, and good he’s not going to fall further. But he can’t get credit for not being a cheap criminal. We can admire him for nearly wrecking his marriage and losing his life in order to save Tianna, but we can’t congratulate him for not sleeping with a ten-year-old child.
Welsh knows all this, of course, but he doesn’t want his sentimental closure wrapped in complications, so the plot tells us, in effect, that Ray is right to simplify his world, even if the form of the simplification is blind and dangerous. The dead Britney is morally avenged. Tianna is “alive as all children should be.” Ray is
thinking of why we have stories, songs and poems; why we’ll always have aspirations for something we call love. And now he sobs in unison with her, in pain, but also infused with a simple gratitude for being free, clear and present…in the Florida sun.
There is a moment in Crime, brief and easy to pass over, that threatens to undo the sweet music of this plot, and indeed the act of plotting altogether. Britney’s murderer, under interrogation, sneers at Ray for wanting to know why a man would have the urge to “lure, overpower, fuck, kill and conceal.” The murderer himself is about to give Ray a seedy sub-Nietzschean reason (“man is a hunter, a predator…the strong and virtuous…have the courage to fulfil the destiny of their species”), but before he slips into this claptrap he says something scarier and more damaging: “You want me to tell you that I was buggered by my father or the local parish priest or whoever,” he says. “In your dwarf mind, there must always be cause and effect.”
He is of course right about Ray, and about Welsh’s novel. This is what Ray wants to hear and what we have heard about Ray. This is “culturally Scottish,” in the novel’s terms, all in the family, local cause and local effect. There are wilder, causeless, “American” crimes, unredeemable, as Scott Fitzgerald might have said, by any second act. Even when he has caught the killer, Ray hasn’t got him.
May 14, 2009