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STYLE & CULTURE : BOOK REVIEW

A cop redeems himself

Crime; A Novel; Irvine Welsh; W.W. Norton: 344 pp., $24.95

September 19, 2008|Richard Rayner | Special to The Times

THE HERO of "Crime," the latest novel from Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, is an Edinburgh copper, Ray Lennox, the detective who was featured as a sidekick in the author's 1998 book "Filth."

"Crime" opens with Lennox swilling Bloody Marys on a 747, filled with panic as we often are on airplanes, flying to Miami with his fiancee, Trudi, for a much-needed holiday. She sips chardonnay and thumbs through "Perfect Bride" magazine, thinking she's in for a dreamy couple of weeks in the sun, whereas Ray fears he's in a very bad way, near breakdown after having recently solved a child abduction case.

Ray caught the perpetrator, a pedophile eerily nicknamed Mr. Confectioner, but failed to save the victim, a 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed. For this he punishes himself.

"His thoughts are like a landslide; they seem to subside and settle, then before he knows it they're off again, heading for the same downhill destination," writes Welsh of his hero's semi-doomed state of mind. Ray has a damaged hand; inside, too, he's broken and bleeding.

On landing in Miami, Ray soon busts up with Trudi and flees in search of the booze that acts as one of the book's major propulsive agents. A trek across the city takes him to a sleazy bunker named Club Deuce, where the bar winds like a snake and mirrors everywhere make it impossible to avoid eye contact.

Ray knows now that he's not in Edinburgh, either Old Town or New. "The vodka is a good measure; Lennox liked that about the States, freepour. That sort of stuff alone made the American Revolution worthwhile," Welsh observes, his sense of humor sharp as ever. "He supplements this with a bottle of drinkable European imported beer."

At Club Deuce, Ray is picked up by two women, Starry and Robyn, and the action really gets going. "A lifetime of cigarette consumption seems to induce all the bar's smoke to congregate around Robyn's gray skin and cheap, flashy clothing like iron filings to a magnet," Welsh tells us, the brilliance of the simile providing both the key to Robyn's character and a warning of what's to come.

Robyn's desperate human needs attract trouble, as Ray finds out during a cocaine-fueled party at Robyn's place, when he sees a man molesting Tianna, the woman's 10-year-old daughter.

A fight breaks out, the place is trashed and Ray is left in charge of the girl, soon learning that she's been subjected to systematic abuse. Within hours, he's on the road, his companion a Lolita obsessed by reality TV.

At this point, we wonder where Welsh, not exactly an author known for his restraint, is going. But the influences turn out not to be Dostoevsky's "Demons" (which culminates with awful child rape and murder), Alexander Stuart's chilling "The War Zone" (a journey into the black heart of incest) or even Welsh's own "Filth," but the work of Richard Price, Ian Rankin and, perhaps particularly, William McIlvanney, whose marvelous Laidlaw novels set a high mark when it comes to Scottish writers tackling the subject of "the polis."

"Crime" turns into a more or less straightforward detective novel, in other words, almost an airport thriller like Carl Hiassen, with comedy along the way but an evil conspiracy to be confronted, and beaten. Ray finds redemption, and teaches Tianna that the cycle of abuse can be broken.

"You . . . you're FBI?" stammers Robyn at one point. "No," Ray replies. "I'm from Edinburgh. . . ."

The success of "Trainspotting," Welsh's first novel, about a group of heroin addicts in 1980s Edinburgh, is the badge he wears and the baggage he carries.

"Trainspotting" was a generational happening, a book that won both huge acclaim and popular success and was made into a landmark movie that launched several other notable careers, including those of Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle. Grunge and extreme chemical abuse found a modern voice, and it came from the dingiest parts of a very old city north of the English border.

This was a tough act to follow, and sometimes Welsh has had a tough time. A number of British critics weighed the departure that Welsh has made in "Crime" and found it wanting. "The characters are so unconvincing that they make the 'Gents' and 'Ladies' figures on toilet doors seem like people in a Henry James novel. Like an anti-Midas, everything that Welsh touches turns into MDF," wrote the Scotsman.

Another critic suggested that Lennox is unbelievable since, while trying to save the life of a young girl, he nonetheless constantly takes time out to check the Scottish football (soccer) scores.

Actually, that's exactly what a depressed, anxious, controlling, angry character would do, although an American audience might find it hard to understand Welsh's extended telling of how the Edinburgh team, Heart of Midlothian, a.k.a. Hearts, came within 10 minutes of winning the Scottish League in 1986, only to "bottle it" (i.e., lose their nerve) in the end.

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