It’s amazing what a linguistically gifted writer can do once he decides to wander outside the confines of his comfort zone. Scotsman Irvine Welsh has had the peculiar limbo of the post-industrial, working-class, substance-addicted, emotionally decrepit, football-loyal contemporary white man on lock since his 1993 Trainspotting debut, and even though he’s altered settings here and there, that breed of male is primarily who interests him. Welsh doesn’t totally abandon him in Crime — his seventh and latest novel, just issued in the United States — but he isn’t solely concerned with this guy’s ornery psychology, loveless carnal distractions, and internal voice, written in an idiomatic Scottish argot. Instead, Welsh funnels all these emotional tics and character flaws through a very specific sieve to create one of his most emotionally gripping page-turners to date.
Welsh introduces Ray Lennox when the man is sliding toward a downward spiral but hasn’t hit bottom — or started gaining speed — just yet. His right hand is bruised, battered, and bandaged, with only an antidepressant script for emotional comfort since his NA membership forbids him from taking anything stronger. He really shouldn’t even be drinking — his fiancée Trudi knows all too well that drinking leads to bingeing, bingeing leads to cocaine, and cocaine leads to Ray in anonymous women’s beds — but Ray needs to do something, anything to calm his nerves. Besides, he’s on holiday — not that he had a choice in the matter. The mid-30s Edinburgh police detective is traveling to Miami with Trudi presumably to plan their wedding, of which her copy of Perfect Bride constantly reminds him, but it’s a forced leave of absence following a near total breakdown during the course of Ray’s most recent investigation.
A few months earlier, Ray was the lead detective on the Britney Hamil case, a 7-year-old working-class girl who was abducted on her way to school. As the first few hours of her disappearance became 24 hours and then 48, all the cops, Ray included, suspected how the girl was going to be found. What Ray couldn’t have expected was how completely Britney Hamil was going to debilitate him, and how much his decisions on her case were going to shape and influence how he felt about himself and his own life.
So when an argument with Trudi leads to what she feared a binge would, and Ray finds himself entangled with Starry and Robyn, two nightcrawling young women and the dodgy men whose company they keep, Ray finally meets the brick wall of his own psyche. One of these men tries to molest Robyn’s 10-year-old daughter Tianna, and Ray — drunk, stoned, and a foreign law-enforcement officer in an unfamiliar land — decides he must protect this young woman the way he wasn’t able to protect Britney. Which means hiring a car and fleeing from every threat to the young girl.
Welsh intertwines three disparate plot threads — Ray working the Britney Hamil case, Ray and Tianna’s sometimes comical, sometimes intense roundelay in south Florida, and Ray’s own childhood — to push Crime forward at a brisk pace, and he’s versed enough with the genre to know that they’ll have to intersect calamitously at some point. True to the one-word book title that literalizes his themes (see also: 1998’s Filth, 2001’s Glue, and 2002’s Porno), Crime schematically is Welsh doing American airport fiction, plopping one of his usual Scotsmen inside a ripped-from-the-headlines American obsession set in Carl Hiassen’s colorful mix of southern Florida’s nouveau wealth and hard-scrabble shadiness.
Welsh, though, skillfully inserts his voice and concerns into the form, absconding from his typical slang-heavy sentences in favor of a more fluid narrative voice, and saving his verbal pyrotechnics for Ray’s thoughts and dialog. And while some plot points, characters, and motivations are just as superficial and pat as mainstream crime novels’ are, Welsh compellingly makes this version of it his own, crafting his Hearts of Midlothian Football Club-obsessed Ray as a genuine fish out of water in what may be an American pedophilia underworld. It’s grotesque and funny, suspenseful, and genuinely unsettling at times. And while Welsh has not equaled some of the best emerging crime writers coming out of the United Kingdom — check out Irish novelist Declan Hughes’ eloquent, rock-solid series featuring reluctant Dublin PI Ed Loy — he does score a minor coup with Crime. The drug-culture writer who debuted with two junkies staring at a Jean-Claude Van Damme video and clarifying a character’s sobriquets with one of the most bluntly honest explanations in contemporary cult fiction — Sick Boy called such “no because he’s eywis sick wi junk withdrawl, but because he’s just one sick cunt” — has finely crafted a mass-market book worthy of sitting alongside some of the heavyweights of the genre at the airport bookstore. Perhaps the man still has some subversion left in him yet. •