The opening pages of The Blade Artist read like the antithetical yoking of a delicate and diaphanous Stephen Daedalus-like epiphany and a sinister crime novel sequence. The location is an Edenic beach in sun-soaked California, the focal consciousness an apparently ideal Jim Francis holding up his equally Edenic daughter Eve to the sunlight.
Even before the serpent enters the scene in the shape of two hardened criminals, Welsh’s style alerts you discreetly to the imperfect nature of the moment in such harshly alliterated metaphors as the daughter’s “bubbling, machine-gun giggles urging him to continue the game”.
The incipit of this novel is as gripping as any first-rate thriller recounted with the panache of a consummate literary artist. As always with Welsh, dialogue keeps the Scottish brogue sparking and snagging delightfully in your ear. Events gather thick and fast and the tension hardly abates until the riveting finale. The frequent, almost inevitable, sagging-in-the-middle phenomenon that occurs in most novels is scarcely perceptible here and it only lasts a few pages at the start of the protagonist’s stay in Scotland, before the plot begins to thicken nicely again.
A former criminal himself, Jim Francis has become a perfectly integrated member of Western Seaboard sunny society. He has managed to turn his tormented, lacerating, but sublimated, artwork for a profit, launching a highly popular Schadenfreude art movement.
After the initially disquieting encounter on the beach with the two ominous men, Francis is called back to Scotland for the burial of his mysteriously murdered son. With the firm intention of staying clean and keeping his temper and his beloved wife, Francis’s resolve soon dissolves when he reaches his home town. All his old cronies and family expect him to avenge the loss of his son and it’s hard to resist the sway of Mr Hyde when he’s still constantly lurking in the shadows, just a blade’s throw away.
Welsh fans will know in advance who Jim Francis really is – he’s one of the time-honoured cast of Welsh’s memorable dramatis personae – but I won’t spoil things more for those who don’t know. Suffice it to say that the onomastic mask device works wonders both in terms of opening suspense and intertextuality as the reader comes to grips with the fact that the story is a reworking of the Gothic concept of the self-divided man. Polarizing more radically the psycho-geographical duality offered in the topography of Edinburgh in Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by resorting to California as a second location, Welsh extends the plot and reach of Stevenson’s classic.
The novel also interestingly toys with the reader’s sympathies for Jim Francis. Welsh is adept at introducing sharp, jarring reminders of the hero’s potential not just for ultra-violent reaction but for sudden, shocking psychological cruelty when he tells his son with brutal, sadistic frankness that “I liked the idea ay having sons, but I was never really interested in you or Sean. Never loved youse like I do my girls. My beautiful, rich, spoiled daughters. You boys, he shakes his head, – tae me there was never any real point in you boys.”
Although the identity of the murderer comes as something of a surprise at the end of the story, the novel’s main interest derives less from its detective novel scenario than from Welsh’s ability to explore his protagonist’s inner struggle to contain the beast within. As the Camusian epigraph to the novel suggests, “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is”. It’s a philosophical thought that Francis explores at great length in a number of more than animalistic, action-packed scenes. Some of these are not for the faint-hearted, as the protagonist relishes the gritty, gory details of ‘artistic’ murder but there is much to be celebrated elsewhere in this resourceful, engagingly lively novel.
By Erik Martiny
The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape, 7th April 2016