Crime by Irvine Welsh

22/06/08, Scotland on Sunday

If Crime were described as ‘Irvine Welsh takes on paedophilia’, you would be forgiven for dreading that he would bring to that knotty and highly flammable topic all the subtlety and grace of a bull dancing on a pinhead and you would be right, so it seems more charitable to approach Crime as Welsh’s take on crime-fiction.

Ray Lennox, a thirty-five-year-old detective inspector from Edinburgh, is recovering from – surprise coming up, close your eyes – cocaine and alcohol abuse and a child rape and murder case that has taken a heavy toll on his mental health. He goes to Florida on leave with his fiancée, Trudi, but you can take the guy out of the-edgy-hell-that-is-Edinburgh … So, with the logic of writing-by-numbers, Suffering and Anguish push Lennox not just into the arms of alcohol and cocaine again but also in the path of paedophiles and an organised network of child-abusers.

The undead of what he perceives to be his failure in saving the life of little Britney Hamil back in Scotland can only be put to rest if he can be made to retread the same territory but this time with a live ten-year-old girl in tow, so Tianna, already sexually abused and now with a posse of very nasty men after her, duly appears, her safekeeping in Lennox’s hands. Our anguished and suffering hero saves the girl, exposes an evil network of ruthless and determined paedophiles, and defeats poachers turned gamekeepers. All this is intercut with an unfolding account of the Britney Hamil case and even a backstory explaining Lennox’s overwhelming obsession with child abuse.

Welsh has worked hard at the plot: he has ripped off a few crime novels and spliced it with the usual clichés of his fear and loathing in Scotland, a topic that, like the seaside donkey, now needs a very long holiday. Realism rests on a collusive pact between author and reader: we choose to believe that the words on the page represent life truly because there is an ‘as if’ equivalence at work and the author tries to make the book and its constituent elements – plot, character, events – as credible as possible. When these elements have all the lifelikeness and fluidity of garish marionettes being jerked around by a puppeteer with broken fingers, it is difficult to enter into that contract with the author or his work. If you want to read a real novel about paedophilia, try A.M. Homes’s The End of Alice; if you want exceptional crime-fiction with a damaged, alcoholic anti-hero, try the Matt Scudder series by Lawrence Block; if you want crime-fiction that chillingly addresses the notion of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, try LA Confidential. Whatever you do, don’t touch this particular book.

The characters are so unconvincing that they make the stylised ‘Gents’ and ‘Ladies’ figures on toilet-doors seem like people in a James novel. Like an anti-Midas, everything that Welsh touches turns into unalloyed MDF. Here is an example of the novelist as bully, wielding a cosh, hitting the reader on the head over and over again in an effort to beat him into believing the characters and the sequence of events. On every page, Welsh shouts to remind us of the damage from the Britney Hamil case that has marked Lennox. Soon this becomes inseparable from a 60-page hangover and the craving for drugs. You see, he is really, really damaged, the petit choux.

The dominant tone is hysteria: throats are always ‘ravaged’, bile always ‘scours innards’, voices are rendered silent in ‘starched trachea’, ‘sabotaging frogs jam throats’, ‘shivery spasms’ repeatedly seize our hero, thoughts ‘gatecrash’, ‘hearts thrash, and there is the tint of metal in the mouth’, ‘panic rises in the chest’, Lennox ‘swallows down more nothingness in his throat’, ‘the conversations … are like bursts of intense fire from an AK47’. What a cornucopia of rage and jittery aggression there is, all as moving as that of a fly trapped between the sashes of a window and as absorbing. This kind of overwrought, overcooked, demented prose, nothing more than a high-decibel gibbering, strains so hard to convince that it exposes its absolute lack of conviction. As they say in Florida, we do not feel your pain.

There is a dangerously fuzzy moral calculus informing the heart of the book. As if to buy more edgy-cred for his hero and ‘shades of grey’ ambivalence for his own writing, Welsh has Lennox sexually tempted by Tianna and has him conquer the moment. It is such a risibly unconvincing piece of staging, laboured, extraneous, and with such a palpable design on readers, that it serves only to emphasise the black-and-white polarisations of Welsh’s parodic, unidimensional world.

No amount of telling us repeatedly what to think or feel, in various combinatorial guises of adverbial overdrive, or shouting ‘nonce’ on every page, will buy credibility. A rancid cynicism has made Welsh latch on to paedophilia, the hot topic de nos jours, so that the royalty cheques keep hitting the doormat. As a capitalist, Welsh is a roaring success, as a writer, he has a few light years to travel.