It’s the future. Or ever so slightly the future. Recognisably now but, you know, nudged tentatively a few weeks into the future. People remember when all the sheep were burned as part of the foot and mouth epidemic. So they know what we know, more or less. It’s London (isn’t it always?). There’s an epidemic. People are dropping like flies. It’s called the sweats. It’s sort of like the flu. Only it kills you. You could be making your way up the escalator, escaping from the tube into daylight and someone will go. Mostly everyone around will carry on because, you know, what can you do? This is the background of Louise Welsh’s latest novel, A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of a proposed trilogy in which the Sweats (we imagine) will be playing itself out in the background.
The foreground is a more typical crime landscape. If you approached this book as a fan of Kate Atkinson’s crime novels, you’ll have an idea about what to expect (people behaving more as people recognisably do than people normally do in more typical crime novels). Louise Welsh is something of a literary writer, too, so she isn’t afraid to meander a little, isn’t afraid to have her characters ruminate, start down blind alleys, scratch heads, fall asleep. Our narrator is Stevie Flint, a salesgirl on one of those shopping channels. She’s good at what she does. Her boyfriend Simon, a surgeon, is late for their date at some private member’s club. Stevie takes his delay and eventual no show with equanimity. They haven’t been seeing each other long. Maybe it isn’t going to be the great love of her life. Maybe she’ll end it.
Except, it turns out, Simon is dead in his bed – and quite possibly he’s been murdered. He’s left her a laptop with some pretty strict instructions. Only the one person he’s suggested it might be safe to talk to is also dead (of the Sweats). And a journalist he was talking to, possibly in the capacity of whistleblower – yeah, you’ve guessed it, the journalist is also dead. The police aren’t interested because they’ve got an epidemic on their hands. And lots of people are dying. Lots and lots of people are dying. Before the end of the novel, the hospital will be abandoned to the rats and the bodies will be piled up every which way. Empty cars, or cars driven by dead drivers, line the streets. It gets pretty ugly pretty fast. But Stevie is honourable and fights her way through all of this to try and get to the bottom of what went on with Simon.
For the most part it’s a pacey read. She manages to keep Stevie moving, and sustain our interest, through 350 or so pages and fashion an intricate narrative that involves medical experimentation in amongst all of the grim horror of an epidemic. For those readers who like their books to be realistic or have realistic characters performing in realistic ways, A Lovely Way to Burn should provide all of the prerequisite thrills and spills. When Welsh most fervently embraces crime (as she does during the climactic stand off for example), the novel is curiously least effective, as if when we know exactly what is going to happen, the tension eases up somewhat. But this is a minor point. As the opening of a series of three books, it’s certainly good enough to draw you back for part two (Death is a Welcome Guest, expected later in 2015).
Any Cop?: Whilst it may not stand exactly shoulder to shoulder with her excellent debut, The Cutting Room, it remains a good enough book to warrant your reading.