THE CUTTING ROOM is Louise Welsh's debut novel, published for the first time by Text Publishing in Australia in 2006.
Rilke's not exactly the archetypal hero accidental investigator. He's in his 40's; his personal hygiene is a bit offhand; he's an auctioneer for one of Glasgow's less than salubrious auction houses and he's gay with a taste for anonymous sexual encounters anywhere, anytime.
When summoned by Miss McKindless to her recently deceased brother's home, stuffed full with antiques, the likes of which Rilke's firm have never been able to get hold of. Despite her demand that the entire house be cleared in a week, Rilke readily agrees to the windfall. When she insists that Rilke personally clear her brother's private room in the attic he goes along with that as well, although she's very particular that everything in it must be destroyed. Naturally Rilke can't resist a very good look around and in amongst the very impressive collection of exclusive erotica, he finds a cache of photographs. The photographs include some of the dead man along with many that have a snuff porn theme. Rilke is immediately drawn to finding out where these photos came from and who the girl depicted could be.
Despite the fact that the search for the origins of the photos and the girl herself is a very fruitless task - the photos are obviously old, there is no indication of where they came from or where taken or anything that could possibly provide any sort of lead, Rilke can't leave well enough alone. He says himself "Let's just say I can't leave her there" when pressed to chuck it all in. And herein lies one of the great dichotomy's of the book. Rilke is in many ways a very confrontational character. His pursuit of sexual pleasure is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit mucky. His (and those of his boss Rose's) ethics are a tad on the questionable side, and yet he continues the quest to find out something about these photos in a way that is extremely human and decent. At the same time, he's not depicted as a lone wolf, hard man who cares - typical of many crime fiction books. He is extremely cynical, he's a realist.
Along with Rilke there's a supporting cast of wonderful characters - Rose, his slightly overblown, vaguely past it, sexual predator boss, whose best friend is ultimately Rilke - the one man who just isn't vaguely interested in her sexually no matter what she does. There's Les the drug-dealing transvestite. There's a bunch of reprobate second hand dealers in everything from books to porn, furniture to junk. There's the old schoolfriend, now policeman, who does Rilke more than one favour by dragging him out of some difficult 'legal' situations. All of the supporting characters are drawn as vividly as the Rilke and again, there are some things to like and some things to loathe about many of them.
Ultimately THE CUTTING ROOM is a fascinating book - part morality tale, part crime fiction, part character study, vaguely Gothic, grotty and steeped in a sense of place and people. If you are interested in the non-black and white, if you can let the obvious flaws in somebody's character roll and look beneath to find a true nature, you should enjoy this book.