The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002


Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Robert Edric

Canongate Crime

General Enquiries:
City Information Service
at Hull Central Library
Tel: 01482 223344
E-mail: [email protected]

{ Critical Eye � on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Canongate Crime: Louise Welsh and Alex Gray
Central Library, 15 November

Another disappointingly low turnout at the Central Library would seem to belie the massive popularity of crime fiction. Judging by the size of the audience one might be forgiven for thinking this to be a reading from a hefty tome dedicated to some obscure branch of thermodynamics, and not from the debut novels of two exciting new writers of tartan noir.

Welsh and Gray both share an in-depth knowledge of Glasgow, as both have spent many years of their lives in that fine, feisty city. Both women work in what could arguably be seen as the same genre. However, the differences between the pair and their work are at least as interesting as their apparent similarities. Gray is possessed of a genteel, folksy glamour, all aswirl with printed scarves, golden jewellery and ash blonde bob. She reads, book spread open on the palm of her hand, which hovers above the lectern like a bird of prey, graceful yet ominous. By contrast Welsh, clad in black and gripping the lectern as she glances up at us over her square, black glasses, comes on as some former Goth rocker turned scary, streetsmart barrister.

Welsh mocks the self-righteous and champions the under- or misrepresented. She narrates her story through a large crew of outcasts, oddballs and morbid grotesques, who deliver their detailed, quirky observations in a mix of dry wit and savvy banter. The author's deadpan delivery perfectly complements the wry, shrewd comments of her characters as they reveal to us human nature as a quite commonplace blend of avarice, cunning and lack of scruples. Welsh seems to own a cynical fondness and respectful curiosity for Glasgow and its inhabitants, and appears determined not to idealise or romanticise the city, while attempting to fairly reflect the cultural diversity of the population. For Welsh, Glasgow is a city where anything can happen.

Like Welsh, Gray obviously has a deep affection for Glasgow, though hers could be described as possessing a greater abundance of civic pride; she reminds us, on several occasions, that Glasgow is a 'city of culture'. Though she recognises that the city has problems associated with unemployment, drugs, poverty and violence, she is concerned that the reader must access a balanced picture of Glasgow though the city she constructs.

Gray shows us Glasgow through the eyes of an outsider, a Jewish psychologist from London who is in love with the city. As he goes about his quest for truth, the reader is struck by how normal the murder sites seem. The locations he visits seem mundane, as he tries to imagine them under those very different and brutal circumstances that transformed ordinary streets and houses into crime scenes. Everything leaves some sort of mark on the place: just as a bonfire leaves a smouldering pile of ash, the murder victims leave their ghosts behind. As each detail is presented to us, one is gripped by a creeping sense of dreadful revelation drawing ever near.

Gray explains that she writes crime fiction because she likes to read it. Like many authors, it seems that Gray became a writer because she was first a reader. Coupled to this, however, is her strong sense of moral outrage at the violation of the sanctity of human life. Her concern is not so much whodunnit, but why. Underlying her writing is a powerful liberalism, where every one of us has an important part to play in shaping the world in which we all must live.

Welsh, like Gray, shares this liberalism. She feels a great responsibility for the recovery of lost voices, especially those of the victims of crime. She expresses the discomfort she experienced when writing about her female victims, and her determination not to become a titillating, objectifying voyeur. Welsh is also a reader of crime fiction, but emphasises her preference for thrillers over horror: the tension, suspense and eventual resolution provide a far greater pleasure for writer and reader alike than page after page of endless spatter and grue.

Naturally, both writers share an abhorrence for real-life crime, though both cannot deny being drawn to the darker stuff of life. They seem to agree that the safe, ordered world that many of us are lucky enough to inhabit is only the turn of a corner away from much less happy circumstances. Civilisation is just the thinnest of veneers, waiting to be stripped away. We are all of us, it seems, working against a darkness that is as much a part of us as it is the world we share.