I was the reviews editor at Waterstone’s Books Quarterly when Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room was published 20 years ago. I wasn’t particularly inclined to read it, not being a crime fiction fan, but of course needed to for work and what a treat I’d have missed if I hadn’t. The star of the show was Rilke, given to dicey sexual encounters in Glasgow parks by night, mixing with morally dubious individuals in his job as an antiquities auctioneer by day: a brilliantly realised character who’s stayed with me for two decades. The announcement of The Second Cut, made me a wary – so often sequels can be disappointing – but I couldn’t resist and rather like the first time around I’m so glad I didn’t.
All we had found was an absence. We had both worked with enough collectors of elusive objects to know that absences did not mean there was nothing there
Rilke’s at a wedding when Jojo turns up, far from sober and likely to be disruptive. One of the bridegrooms tips him the wink and Rilke takes his friend off to a pub, resisting Jojo’s invitation to an orgy. The next time Rilke sees Jojo he’s on a mortuary slab. Rilke thinks that’s the last of it until he gets a call from an art student who’d been sharing Jojo’s flat, faced with burying him given Jojo’s lack of family. Rilke finds himself pulled in deeper than he wants but is inveigled into making a deal in payment for Jojo’s funeral which will cost him dear. Meanwhile, Bowery Auctions is struggling post-Covid. Rose is eager to take up the tip Jojo passed to Rilke before he died. There’s a house clearance two hours out of Glasgow which looks promising, necessary to pay for his mother’s move to a care home according to Alec Forrest and his cousin. As Rose, Rilke and their team sort through the contents of Ballantyne House, Rilke is still troubled by what might have happened to Jojo and wondering about Patricia Forrest no trace of whom is evident. Even Rose, who’s desperate for the sale’s commission, is troubled. As the week wears on, Rilke makes a serious of discoveries, attracting the attention of Glasgow’s most vicious gangster, while Rose continues with her on-again, off-again relationship with Inspector Anderson.
A lot of men who live on the edges see themselves as lone samurai, travelling through the world, guided by their own moral code. I am not immune to that kind of romanticism myself
No need to fear a substandard sequel here. Narrated in Rilke’s voice, The Second Cut is a witty, dark novel full of sharp repartee, engrossing and tightly plotted. Welsh’s descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric and Rose’s outfits are an absolute treat. Rilke is as snarky as I remember him, something which lands him in deep trouble, still keen on nocturnal adventures, set up via Grindr these days, but more circumspect. He’s a pleasingly complex character, inhabiting the shadowy territory that both his risky predilections and his work thrust him into yet troubled by a conscience that won’t let up. I raced through this one not because I was desperate to get to its resolution more that it’s such a classy piece of writing I couldn’t put it down. I wonder if Welsh needed to get Rilke out of her system or if he might have a third outing before retiring, although I’m not sure how he’d cope with that idea.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781838850869 384 pages Hardback