Having enjoyed last January’s The Second Cut, Louise Welsh’s sequel to The Cutting Room, I couldn’t resist To the Dogs, particularly after visiting Glasgow in June. Welsh’s new novel follows ambitious vice chancellor Jim Brennan, called away from Beijing when his son is arrested on a drugs charge.
He had forgotten how afraid he had been of prison when he was a boy. The building whose walls felt impregnated with ghosts, the men who resided behind the cold bricks, the atmosphere of violence. Studying criminology had smothered the nightmares of dark shadows and clanking metal that haunted him in childhood. The memories returned now like a familiar smell.
Jim’s father was a well-connected gangster, now dead but not much mourned by his son. Jim’s in Beijing for a graduation ceremony at the institute associated with his university. It’s no surprise that Eliot has landed himself in trouble having been a constant source of worry but this time there are repercussions. Jim catches the first plane home, heading straight for the police station before calling in at the Fusilier, his father’s old haunt, in desperate need of a drink where he bumps into Eddie, an old schoolmate, now a solicitor. Jetlag and too many beers take their toll. By the time he wakes up with an appalling hangover, his wife Maggie has engaged Eddie to represent Eliot. They’re a busy couple, Maggie overseeing a challenging new building development, Jim chairing meetings about the university’s new learning hub, schmoozing potential donors while trying to squeeze in an investigation of a Chinese student’s disappearance but Eliot is his priority. Before long, he finds himself dragged back into the world he’d assumed he’d long since left behind while navigating the ethical grey area of university funding. One world might look down on the other but neither, it seems, is squeaky clean.
You do what you have to, professor. But, remember, we’ve got long arms. You might think you’re safe, up there in your ivory tower, but we’re naughty monkeys. We can scale those high walls, nae bother.
I rarely review crime novels and each time I do, I find it tricky, nervous of accidentally dropping in a spoiler, so I’ll keep this brief. From her acknowledgements, it’s clear Welsh has strong views on the theme of university finance, views shared by my very own academic. Her cleverly plotted novel neatly contrasts straightforward crime with the dubious morality of accepting funding from repressive regimes. Corruption can be a slippery thing to define: it takes many forms as Welsh makes clear. Jim is a pleasingly complex character, a good man determined to put the safety of his family before everything else, slipping back into the world he’d turned his back on while finding ways to justify donations from sources others find repugnant in the name of advancing education. I raced through this pacy slice of campus crime. Highly recommended, even if you’re not a crime reader.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781838859817 352 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)