There’s a Trick With a Bullet I’m Learning

Louise Welsh’s 2003 novel, The Cutting Room, won four prestigious writing awards. It was a masterful book and deservedly transformed Welsh overnight into the Great White Hope of literary crime fiction. Her second book, Tamburlaine Must Die, a portrait of the last days of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, was also well received.

The Bullet Trick is Welsh’s third and longest novel so far. It confirms that her success is no accident and that she intends to push the boundaries around genre writing, and writing in general. Her technique has proved mesmerizing.

In Bullet, a three-part narrative is divided between various times and cities, taking place in London, Glasgow and Berlin over several years. The interwoven strands take a while to connect, but ultimately do so brilliantly. The connection between all three cities and times is William Wilson, a cynical, down-at-heels Scottish magician.

With his sleight of hand, William helps a friend of a friend by stealing something from a police inspector in Glasgow. That ‘something’ turns out to be evidence of a thirty-year old murder cover-up. It propels Wilson on his journey through the bars and nightclubs of Berlin in his attempt to evade whatever retribution might lie in store for him.

He thinks he’s been given a new lease on life when he meets a young American dancer, Sylvie, who inspires him to new heights of conjuring. But Sylvie is more than she seems, and puts him on a dangerous path catering to the sexual tastes of rich tourists who pay a great deal for the right sort of performance.

Having gone too far in one performance—the “bullet trick”—Wilson finds himself alone and at the bottom of the barrel again. He returns to Glasgow, distraught over what he’s done and still dodging the now-desperate police inspector. Here he finds himself drawn to solving the thirty-year old murder.

For those who enjoyed the squalid realism of Welsh’s previous books, Bullet will not disappoint. Her seedy, gin-soaked worlds of crime, poverty and psychological extremism have earned her a reputation for being as fiercely anti-conventional as her characters. But where The Cutting Room is wonderfully brief and fleet-footed, this one pours on the atmosphere a bit too thick at times.

The book’s middle feels laboured, with a series of brilliantly executed but unnecessary scenes designed to propel Welsh’s characters into bizarre situations, only to have them rescued just as quickly for no particular reason. Some wonderfully funny but spurious lines hold up the action from time-to-time, as well. Another draft would no doubt have excised most of these mistakes.

If this is the result of a publisher pushing a talented writer to publish before her work is ready, it’s to be regretted. If it’s a case of a writer getting too sure of herself, then it’s to be regretted even more. All of this is with a view to an end, however, and that end is a marvel of plotting and character twisting. Ultimately, the magician triumphs as surely as the writer’s magic.


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