The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet


I adore Graeme Macrae Burnet’s work, and I’ll continue to eagerly devour everything he does, but the fierce love I first started to feel last year, after reading His Bloody Project, which only grew stronger when I read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau earlier this year now diminished a little.

This novel is certainly not a major disappointment – Macrae Burnet’s style is as enjoyable as ever, and he’s as smart and funny as ever – the only reason I’m slightly disappointed is that I like even my favorite authors to change (or at least: to do the same thing differently). Adèle Bedeau and His Bloody Project, despite dealing with similar topics, are two very distinct novels, while The Accident does the same thing Adèle Bedeau did in the same way, and I find this slightly boring.

Once again, the story takes place in the small and boring French border town, Saint-Louis, where nothing interesting ever happens and which isn’t exactly a crime-infested place, either. Even if there’s a crime, in the end we usually learn that it wasn’t a crime at all, that perhaps someone only imagined there was a crime, or we simply don’t learn anything at all. Of course, this is ironic, postmodern, and so on, and I enjoy watching how Macrae Burnet gently mocks the traditions of detective novels and seems to conclude that life is incomprehensible anyway, and we never learn anything about anything.

Here, for instance, we meet Monsieur Barthelme, a reserved and well-respected member of the local community, who swerves off the A35 on his way home on an average Tuesday night, hits a tree and dies. It looks like an accident, no questions, but Gorski, the less-than-super-sleuth we already met in Adèle Bedeau starts to investigate the circumstance based on the request of M. Barthelme’s widow, and sure enough, he quickly comes across some suspicious details. For instance, turns out that M. Barthelme lied to his wife as to his whereabouts on Tuesday nights, and some signs seem to indicate that perhaps he wasn’t such an upstanding citizen after all.

While Gorski investigates rather awkwardly and without much success (of course we all know from detective novels that all detectives are alcoholics, but this Gorski – who’s not a genius inspector to begin with – really drinks so much that if affects his work, and since he’s constantly drunk it’s no wonder that his progress in the investigation is hardly spectacular), Barthelme’s son, Raymond also starts out on a private investigation of his own after finding a slip of paper in his late father’s desk drawer, with an address written on it.

What follows is a parade of everyone spying on and following everyone else, or else constantly wondering what others would think about their actions and reactions if they were spying on or following them. It’s so complicated, and everyone is so paranoid that the original case (which wasn’t a case to begin with, was it – it was only an accident) fades into the background after a while.

Which is fine because the psychological aspect of the story is again extremely interesting – it’s especially remarkable that Macrae Burnet seems to know a lot about how the minds of losers and eternally awkward people work – and the small-town atmosphere and the small-town figures he conjures up are depicted vividly and with gentle irony. It’s just – I’d seen exactly this already, in Adèle Bedeau.

And now I’m curious where Macrae Burnet goes next. Judging from the fictitious foreword revealing the fictitious origins of this novel, there’s possibly going to be one more novel set in Saint-Louis, presumably another detective story featuring Gorski. If so, I’ll read it for sure but I’m secretly hoping that later on Macrae Burnet moves on and writes stories outside of this universe – it’d be a pity if he used all his considerable talent writing about small-town small-time paranoia – there’s so many other kinds of paranoia out there waiting to be examined by such keen observers as he is.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet


I had a secret dream when I started reading this novel. I was hoping that perhaps it’s going to be as good as Macrae Burnet’s other novel, His Bloody Project, which was one of my favorites last year – I was starving for something to really blow my mind because I haven’t read anything like that yet this year.

And there’s no sad and dramatic turn coming here, because this novel did manage to blow my mind, and I dearly hope that Macrae Burnet will write many more novels, because I could read any number of books by someone who can write in such an intelligent and darkly funny way, and who knows the possible ways humans work this well and can write about these ways with such sensitivity, precision, and effect.

So, as for the novel – like His Bloody Project, this novel also seems to be a simple (not really) mystery novel, set somewhere in the countryside, far from the noise of the world, in a secluded environment.

The protagonist, Manfred, is an eternally awkward outsider, he suffers from all kinds of repressions and he’s completely at loss when it comes to any kind of casual (or other) human interaction. Manfred is following a routine in every moment of his life, and he’s convinced that the slightest diversion from the routine would immediately be noticed by everyone and would throw the shadow of some dark suspicion on him. It’s not as if anyone suspected him of anything originally, and it’s not as if Manfred (who is, by the way, a well-groomed and respected office worker, but not of the Patrick Bateman but rather, the Meursault kind) was doing anything wrong – still, he struggles with an eternal sense of guilt, and he’s forever waiting for the moment when someone – anyone – will accuse him of something – anything.

The moment of a sort-of accusation arrives when Adèle, the waitress of a bistro frequented by Manfred, disappears without a trace, and the detective investigating the case interviews Manfred. The detective’s only doing his job, and he doesn’t really accuse Manfred of anything. Yet, for a reason that only becomes clear(er) later on, Manfred lies to the investigator, and from this moment on, his paranoia goes into full swing – after all, he’s really kind-of guilty now, and he’s really kind-of pursued by someone now.

Later on, though, Adèle’s disappearance becomes more like an excuse than a main plot driver because Macrae Burnet is, again, less concerned with the investigation as such, and more deeply interested in what goes on in the characters’ mind. Slowly, therefore, we learn some details that can (partly) explain where Manfred’s awkwardness, alienation, paranoia and eternal distrust stem from – but Macrae Burnet is an extremely smart writer, and he doesn’t make the mistake of using some cheap pop-psychology to establish direct connections between Manfred’s youthful traumas and his behavior as an adult. And this is immensely enjoyable – that the author leaves questions open, that he dares to fill his text with delicate ambiguity and multiple possible meanings.

Moreover, his writing is amazingly alive and visceral. Even though he uses a third person narrative, he manages to give the illusion of being inside Manfred’s mind – which is deeply disturbing, because Manfred’s inner monologues, doubts, fears, and conspiracy theories follow a very strict and rational logic, and they are so convincing that after a while I also start developing my own conspiracy theories, and start to entertain weird fears about what my colleagues would say behind my back if the next day I went to the kitchen for my morning tea not at 8:10 a.m., but, say, at 8:13, thereby disrupting a well-oiled routine.

As you can guess, this novel is not action-driven – the plot hinges on the characters, and the most important one is, of course, Manfred. But all the other characters are sharply drawn, too, and it’s a relief that the focus sometimes shifts to them – if I had to see everything through Manfred’s eyes only, I would end up being even more paranoid than I am now.

The most interesting character besides Manfred is the detective working on the case – he’s also an eternal outsider, forever worrying about what others might think, forever battling with a bad case of impostor syndrome. Like Manfred, he also tends to envision apocalyptic scenarios in his mind, and he’s also a gently ironic example of the mystery novel convention that the detective must intuitively enter the mind of the possibly culprits or suspects. In this case, the detective isn’t exactly intuitive, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy, either – it’s only that the way his mind is messed up is very similar to Manfred’s own messed-upness.

And I could go on still, and describe how Macrae Burnet again creates intriguing extra possibilities of interpretation by pretending that the novel was written not by him but by someone else. This time he pretends that he translated the cult novel of a French author, Brunet, into English – and this Brunet just happens to be a lot like Manfred, and also happens not to like it when someone assumes that his novel is autobiographical. What can I say – it’s very exciting, dark, disturbing, and weirdly funny. For me, a perfect read.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet


When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

atbertramIt’s been a while since I read anything by Agatha Christie, but I remember when I was a great Christie reader as a teenager, I always used to like her Poirot stories better than the ones with Miss Marple. I didn’t originally know whether At Bertram’s Hotel is a Poirot, a Miss Marple or a standalone story, but I liked the title (which is very often enough for me to get a craving for a book), so I read it, even when I realized that this is a Miss Marple mystery. And actually – I really liked it. But of course, Miss Marple doesn’t have much to do with me liking this novel, because this clever, mistrustful but not at all cynical old lady – who solves mysteries in quite an off-hand manner – can hardly be considered the most important character in this novel.

The main character is Bertram’s Hotel itself: a respectable, subtly elegant hotel with a gently luxurious early 20th century atmosphere – the perfect choice for impoverished aristocrats who like to pretend that their past wealth is still intact; for silly but lovely old clergymen; and for old-fashioned ladies and gentlemen looking for a place where they can indulge in some pleasant, harmless nostalgia for things which might never have existed in the first place. Bertram’s Hotel is a place of make-believe, a miniature Disneyland in the middle of England in the 1950s – everything here is fake, everything here is a copy, or a sentient or insentient piece of decor. The world’s most perfect hotel maid is in fact not a maid but a talented actress; and the impoverished aristocrats get their afternoon tea for the price they would have paid for it in the 1900s because even if this is a loss of income for the owners of the hotel, their presence amply compensates for this – they create an elegant, distinguished atmosphere,  valued greatly by the paying guests of the hotel. Moreover, the undeniable luxury offered by the hotel is made in such an unobtrusive way that the guests doesn’t actually consider it luxury; and perhaps the hotel’s famous seed-cakes, perfect muffins and real red strawberry jams are all made of plastic.

It’s highly unlikely that someone runs a luxury hotel which loses massive amounts of money just out of pure philanthropy, for good old nostalgia’s sake. This probably didn’t often happen at the beginning of the 1900s (which was a – presumably – more peaceful and friendly era), and it’s even more unlikely that someone in the 1950s would do this when the aristocratic old world is quickly coming to the end: England is plagued by crime; wayward young girls fall for singers with long hair and for those violent types with race-cars; and it’s simply impossible to find a decent dish-towel with a sensible pattern. So naturally, the members of the police investigating a series of crimes and Miss Marple (who’s staying at Bertram’s Hotel) all ask: why can it be in someone’s interest to recreate England as it was in the 1900s? And as more and more strange events occur in and in the vicinity of Bertram’s Hotel (an absent-minded clergyman goes missing from the hotel; seedy characters seem to be going about the place; etc.), it slowly emerges that below the perfect, shiny surface of Bertram’s Hotel there are secret dealings going on – and of course, there’s also a murder, but that doesn’t interest me much.

I don’t read murder stories anyway because I’m interested in the murder itself, and in this novel, the plot line following the murder is especially flimsy and not too important. Here there are only several smaller mysteries which are often solved in a very anti-climactic way, so At Bertram’s Hotel is by no means the most exciting crime story of the world. But this is not a problem at all, because despite the lack of thrilling crimes, the novel is very atmospheric and ominous. The hotel – the main character – seems to be a living entity, and even though nothing fatal happens within its walls (only on the street, close to the hotel), it still gives me the creeps with its eerie strangeness and its fake nature.

Moreover, Agatha Christie is not only good at creating an oppressive, uncanny atmosphere – she simply writes very well. It’s a pleasure to read her wonderful, toned-down, gentle-yet-ironic, prettily ceremonious English-countryside sentences, and it’s quite an experience to read her descriptions of England in the fifties – which is so very much different from the fake 1900s England as recreated in Bertram’s Hotel. And also – the way she writes about the good old seed-cakes and wonderful, real jams of Bertram’s Hotel makes my mouth water, and I would be absolutely delighted to taste all these wonders – it’s sad they don’t actually exist.

Case Closed by Patrik Ouředník

ourednik-case-closedIt’s impossible for me to summarize the plot of this novel, since Case Closed doesn’t have a story proper. Instead, there are several disconnected story-lines which sometimes seem to merge, and sometimes for a moment it seems that perhaps there is a regular story – but when you think you finally understand something, you always realize that there’s no real story after all. But to give you an idea of what this book is about, here’s a couple of story-lines: among other things, Case Closed is about a murder case which happened forty years ago; about the suicide of an old woman; about a couple of mysterious fires; and about the rape of a young student who lost her way in the city. So, the novel is all about crime, and about mysterious cases which should be solved, but finding the solutions and uncovering the mysteries is not easy (or downright impossible) because the victims, the detectives and the suspects keep misunderstanding one another.

Just to give you an example: at the beginning of the novel, the student who will later be raped asks a jovial pensioner for directions. She wants to go the Academy of Fine Arts, but the old guy sends her in a totally different direction – just for the fun of it. While the girl is wandering around the streets, someone grabs her in a dark doorway and rapes her. Later, when she is interviewed by the police, the police officer doesn’t understand how she could have ended up in the street where she was raped if she claims that she was going to the Academy – which is in the other direction. The girl keeps repeating that she was indeed going to the Academy, and the officer keeps wondering what she was doing in that particular street then. This is a misunderstanding which would probably be easy to resolve, but it seems impossible that the characters of this novel will ever be able to do this.

Because of the communication problems of the characters, the several different story-lines, the constant merging of real events and dreams, and the all-permeating paranoia of the text, it is very difficult to understand everything here at first reading, but this is no problem for me. Reading Case Closed almost felt like reading a Thomas Pynchon novel: I had a fun time, despite the fact that I could only follow the events up the a certain point (rather early on) in the book, and after reaching that point, I was just going with the flow of the text and I didn’t try to understand everything. Especially since I have a hunch that perhaps after all there aren’t so many mysteries here to uncover and understand.

As it’s mentioned on the cover of the Hungarian edition, according to the writer / narrator of Case Closed, there are two possibilities here: either the writer is an idiot, or the reader. But I think it’s not absolutely necessary to choose from these options – it’s also possible that neither the writer, not the reader is an idiot. Ouředník is obviously not an idiot: his text is so witty, funny and clever that I rule out the possibility that he is stupid or that his mind is befuddled. And as regards the reader (in this case: me): I didn’t feel particularly stupid while reading this book. I know from my earlier reading of novels by Thomas Pynchon what it feels like when a book really does make me feel stupid. Well, Case Closed is far from invoking this unique feeling.

Anyway, I don’t mean this as criticism – this is a really clever, absurd and funny piece of postmodern literature.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

imperialThis novel was heavily advertised here before it came out in Hungarian at the end of 2010, and it was just as extensively reviewed immediately after it was published, so I didn’t wait long before getting down to reading it (at the beginning of 2011), especially since I’m in a circa 12-year-old love-hate relationship with Bret Easton Ellis, and I’m interested in everything he does. As this is a sequel to Less Than Zero, set 25 years later, I re-read Less Than Zero before reading Imperial Bedrooms, even though I usually like to rest at least a couple of months between two Ellis novels.

As I said, 25 years has passed, but the world and the characters Ellis writes about haven’t changed much. Sometimes there are passing references to screwed-up plastic surgeries or messed-up marriages which indicate that the characters are not 18 anymore, but if it hadn’t been made obvious at the beginning of the novel in a rather forced-postmodernist way that the characters are now in their 40s, then I wouldn’t have been able to guess their age based on their behavior. The protagonists of Less Than Zero failed to grow up in the intervening 25 years, they didn’t manage to create meaningful lives, and they continue living obsessed with sex, partying and booze – so based on their habits and their maturity (or lack thereof) I would probably have guessed they are pampered rich 25-year-olds.

I assume Ellis must have known that you cannot expect too much from characters such as the ones he wrote about in Less Than Zero, therefore I find the alleged idea behind this novel – to wit: Ellis wanted to show what became of his characters in 25 years’ time – a bit ludicrous and pointless. Of course it soon transpires that nothing became of his earlier characters – and Ellis must have known this, too. And since his heroes, their morals and Los Angeles all remained the same, Ellis could have published the same novel again, had he been really planning to show what became of his characters – with the only notable exception that he should have replaced his references to Walkman music players with references to iPhones. I guess his avid readers (and please note: I’m one of them) would have been curious to read even such a less-than-original remake, but Ellis hadn’t stopped here, oh no – he had actually come up with a story, and I consider this quite a mistake.

Less Than Zero consists of loose-knit episodes, aimless conversations and empty daydreams – in fact, it has virtually no plot or story at all. But with this lack of real story and with its episodic quality, that book manages to portray the era of the 1980s and the and the era’s „typical” characters in a frightfully clear fashion. Imperial Bedrooms, on the other hand, does have a story, the characters have goals and make plans, and it seems that the events will actually lead up to something. Of course, all this is not really true: the story is deliberately tricky (up to the point that I find it almost impossible to follow), but it’s absolutely uninteresting, often ridiculous and sometimes it even resembles the cheapest day-time soaps. The sentences are often jumbled, banal and baffling – which annoys me big-time. And since Ellis’ characters are anything but self-sufficient adults, and they can be more or less freely interchanged (and confused) with one another, I have no interest whatsoever in who is actually playing his games with the others. I have no reason to like Julian better than Rip because they are basically the same, and therefore I’m not interested in their – supposedly – separate and unique stories.

In Less Than Zero, I don’t mind that the characters have no personality: that novel is about an era and a generation, and not about individuals. But Imperial Bedrooms seems to be a crime story of sorts and I got a feeling that you need individual characters to be able to enjoy a crime novel: it doesn’t matter, it cannot matter to me who dies, who does the detective work, and who chases whom if everybody is the same.

On the whole, Imperial Bedrooms was a huge disappointment for me. The references to Less Than Zero in the first couple of pages are entertaining and exciting, and the last couple of pages show something of the barren world of Less Than Zero, and depict the changes Clay underwent in 25 years quite well. But all the pages in between – they’re just plain boring and labored to me.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

ShutterIslandI guess it might sound strange but I read this novel (back in 2011) because one night I dreamed that I was reading this novel (and another one by Dennis Lehane, Sacred). Of course I had been aware of the existence of Lehane’s novels when I dreamed about them, but I hadn’t planned to read them. But then I thought, why not – it doesn’t happen everyday that I dream about unread novels. Anyway, I must add that – strange dream or not – Shutter Island didn’t change my life and Lehane didn’t immediately become my all-time favorite author – but I didn’t regret having spent a couple of hours with this book, either.

And this is something to say, because Shutter Island is basically a huge bundle of clichés: the tough-but-broken-hearted cop (who hadn’t been able to accept the death of his wife) and his young-and-inexperienced sidekick arrive at an ominous prison island which specializes in the treatment and detention of criminals with a mental illness. The cops arrive to solve a strange case: a convict had mysteriously disappeared without a trace – which is not a small feat in such a well-defended detention center. However, the tough cop isn’t only interested in unveiling the mystery – he also wants to take revenge for the death of his wife. But then a raging hurricane cuts the island off from the mainland, and along with the increasing sense of claustrophobia, panic and paranoia also set in; and after a while it appears that in fact nothing is what it seems.

Typing the previous paragraph was almost painful for me because of the banality of every single plot element. Each character, each setting, each event reminded me of characters, settings, plot details from other crime novels / thrillers, even though I’m not a huge fan of these genres. What is surprising, though, is that Shutter Island isn’t a bad book by any means: Lehane managed to contrive a strangely unnerving and frightening story out of all these clichés, and the oppressive atmosphere he created in the novel is unique. What’s more, Shutter Island is well-written, exciting, fast-paced and sometimes even funny – still, its most outstanding feature is that it’s not outstanding at all.

It may not sound much, but the best I can say about this novel is that there’s nothing I could criticize it for. It’s exactly what I would expect from a contemporary crime novel: Lehane’s writing is easy and amusing, the story is clever and man-scaled, and there are no redundant or irrelevant elements in it. Of course, I didn’t expect a cathartic experience, and I didn’t get one either, but – even though I’m secretly waiting for catharsis to happen in every single book I read – that’s okay, I guess.

All in all, Shutter Island is a good and entertaining novel: it’s not shallow, it makes your brain work, it’s pleasantly dark and ambiguous, but it’s also a fast and easy read.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

I love to read books I know nothing about, and this was one such book. I noticed it in the book store while I was helping my friend find a gift for her boyfriend, and I liked its title, its cover and the fact that according to the blurb the protagonist was called Rilke so much that I wanted to read it immediately. I don’t want to be mystical – I don’t claim that books mysteriously call out to me. They do not. But sometimes a cover, a title or a name starts off a chain of associations in my mind or reminds me of certain events in such a way that I get irrepressibly curious and I want to know the book in question at once.

The Cutting Room is set in Glasgow, and the main character is the already mentioned Rilke. In spite of his poet-name, Rilke isn’t a dreamy, poetic, sophisticated character, rather, he is a cynical and cunning man. He works for an auction house as an auctioneer and the manager of collections, besides, he smokes and drinks a lot and likes to go for night walks to the park where he engages in quick sex with other loitering men. At first sight he is a bitter man with a heart made of stone, but it soon turns out that he is softer than he seems. One day he comes across an envelope full of pornographic photos while working on a collection. Most of the photos are typical pornographic shots, however, there are a couple of snuff photos, including some depicting a girl with her throat cut.

Rilke is very much disturbed by the pictures, therefore he starts out on a meaningless quest: he tries to find out whether the photos are real or staged because even though the pictures seem to have been taken at least 50 years ago, therefore the chances to uncover anything about them are slim, Rilke simply cannot get them out of his head. In order to find out something definite, he puts himself into danger, neglects his duties and gets entangled in a web of lies – and in the meantime he digs deeper and deeper into the Glasgow underworld where – despite all his previous criminal experiences – he seems like a naive young boy and where he has to face such facts which wear out even his not-too-sensitive soul.

The Cutting Room is supposed to be a crime novel/thriller, however, the investigation itself is not too interesting and the solution is not as elegant as, say, that of an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, I wouldn’t even call Rilke’s actions an „investigation” – I’d rather say it’s a manic quest in which it is painfully obvious from the very beginning that even if he gets the answer to his question, it won’t be satisfactory or won’t mean anything at all. All this is not a problem, by the way, all I’m saying is that you’d better not read this novel as a crime story because it’s not too good as such, but as a „literary” novel, it is excellent.

For instance, the way Welsh depicts how Rilke’s obsession keeps growing and how he loses touch with his ordinary reality is brilliant. The time frame of the story (minus the epilogue) is only a couple of weeks, but these few weeks are more than enough for Rilke to become dangerously disoriented and to begin to question how real reality is and what is behind that. The theme of the pornographic photos is also related to Rilke’s re-interpretation of reality: according to the official standpoint, „real” snuff porn doesn’t exist, and pictures sold as snuff all show staged scenes – however, there’s no way of knowing for sure if this is true or not. The reality Rilke encounters is unknowable, and frightening – and Welsh shows this scary quality very effectively.

Besides this, the settings and the atmosphere of the novel are also unique – it’s been a long time since I read any book as dark, bizarre and oppressing as The Cutting Room. The dingy, shady flat of Rilke’s boss, Rose, full of feminine secrets; the gay bar where transgender men can truly become women once a month; the obscure book shop which hides a cellar labyrinth underneath; or the pokey home of Rilke’s old friend, the drug dealer Leslie – in all these places people are not what they seem: the clientele of the gay bar consists of women who are in fact men, Leslie, the tough drug dealer turns out to be not-so-tough, and so on. And the way reality and illusion, true and false mingle in the novel, and Rilke’s futile quest to learn the truth makes this novel truly uncanny (and therefore truly exciting for me).