Irvine Welsh introduced us to Edinburgh detective Ray Lennox in Crime, but it has taken fourteen years for the second in the series – The Long Knives – to emerge. The title is not a metaphor, as the opening chapter describes the castration of a rather unpleasant Conservative MP in an empty warehouse in Leith.
There is no shortage of people who might have wanted Ritchie Gulliver dead. They range from political opponents, via victims of his predatory sexual habits, to activist groups he has offended. Lennox is given the case, and is immediately alerted to a recent incident in London which sounds similar. Home Office civil servant Christopher Piggott-Wilkins has been attacked in the Savoy Hotel. He managed to escape, badly wounded, and immediately transferred himself to a Harley Street hospital, after which what occurred in his suite has been cleaned up, both literally and metaphorically, by un-named but powerful agencies. Piggott-Wilkins has been left with one testicle, while Gulliver’s complete ‘package’ was discovered, draped from the Sir Walter Scott memorial, by an unsuspecting tourist.
After a lighting trip to London to speak to Mark Hollis, the larger-than-life Met copper investigating the Savoy case, Lennox returns to Edinburgh to face a sea of troubles. His fiancee Trudi not only seems to be ignoring his calls, but may have another love in her life. A former colleague, Jim McVittie, has transitioned to female, but has been found horrifically beaten up and is not expected to survive. Before the assault, Lennox meets one of the more ‘in your face’ transexuals in the local scene:
“What appears to be a brawny young man of around six foot four in a blue dress not so much enters as bulldozes in, a charged storm of bristling rage. He has a big hooked nose, and long flowing brown hair, which seems to have been given the attention of crimping tongs fashionable in the eighties. On his face a long scar bubbles thickly from under a trowelling of foundation.”
An investigative journalist has tipped Lennox off that the two cases may be linked to a serious sexual assault at a ski resort some years earlier, and that high class prostitutes – and the men who run them – may be involved.
Readers familiar with Welsh’s style over the years will recognise his trademarks, including the unpunctuated rapid-fire dialogue, the demi-monde of drugs, violence, sex and alcohol, and the underpinning ground-bass that tells us it’s an us-and-them world. There is even a passing reference to the most infamous of the author’s creations, Francis Begbie.
One of the more memorable characters in the drama is the brilliantly over-the-top Mark Hollis. He is more redolent of the glory days of The Sweeney than the current fashion of dancing the Macarena at Gay Pride marches. Hollis provides valuable information to Lennox, and slowly but surely the Edinburgh cop connects the pieces of the jigsaw. The picture that emerges is a chilling one. The killings are the work of a partnership. The man is linked to an act of random cruelty some years previously in Tehran, while his female partner is, indeed, seeking revenge for her abuse in a ski-lift gondola, but when her identity is revealed, Lennox is beyond shocked.
Welsh brings us horrific violence, but also the dark poetry of compassion. I can only liken Ray Lennox’s desire to avenge the murder victims whose suffering is imprinted on his soul, to Derek Raymond’s nameless Sergeant in books like I Was Dora Suarez. This is a magnificent work of fiction, not just a good crime novel. It is published by Jonathan Cape and will be out on 25th August.