THE BULLET TRICK - Louise Welsh
Stage magician William Wilson lives a pretty hand to mouth type of existence as an opening act. In these way past vaudeville days, a stage magician is not really all that in demand. He also doesn't get many gigs at retirement parties for policemen, but Detective Inspector James Montgomery has the nickname of “The Magician” and somebody thought Wilson's appearance would be funny. The stage show certainly goes okay, but afterwards the reason why he's the particular magician asked to do the gig is revealed. It seems that Montgomery is carrying something in his wallet that Bill, the owner of the club hosting the party, really wants. And Wilson does a very good line in pocket dipping.
Despite Wilson not wanting to get involved, there are a lot of reasons to reconsider, not least of all a large number of bookie IOU's, now in Bill's hands, so the envelope is stolen. Wilson then has to scarper out the back of the club holding the envelope for safe-keeping when Montgomery realises it's gone and tackles Bill and his partner Sam to get it back. Sending the envelope on to his mother for safekeeping, Wilson has gone to Berlin to work in a club there, when he hears that Bill and Sam have been found dead in the club, and Montgomery starts ringing Wilson's mobile phone.
In Berlin, Wilson hooks up with Sylvie who performs in his act, despite there being something very reckless about her, and something really weird about her background and her Uncle Dix – is he or isn't he really her uncle and what is it about both of them that's just not quite right. And now, a veil really must be drawn to avoid giving away anything. Suffice to say that Wilson has found himself eventually back in the UK, avoiding Montgomery, intrigued by what was in the envelope; what happened to Bill and Sam; and tortured by events in Berlin.
The book switches viewpoint chapter by chapter, from the events that lead up to the time that Wilson spends in Berlin and where he is post Berlin – back in the UK, despondent, drifting and lost.
As with her first book, THE CUTTING ROOM, Welsh has again created a complicated character set of characters. The motivation for Wilson's investigating the contents of the envelope are a bit vague / quixotic; the reasons for him drifting lost after Berlin could be read as incomprehensible by the sensible / reasonable amongst us. Sylvie's motivations are never clear, her background left sufficiently ambiguous that you can leap to all sorts of conclusions, but the evidence might just not be there. Again, there's a strong, gloriously over the top cast of supporting characters, right down to Wilson's agent and his secretary. The secretary is but a brief pencil sketch in terms of the overall novel, but it's so powerfully written – she's a marvellous inconsequential character. One of the strength's of Welsh's is the marvellous ambiguity of many of the characters actions, the strength of the characterisation – be they “nice” or “nasty”. There's always a feeling that you'd know these people if you saw them in a pub.
And finally there's atmosphere. In The Cutting Room there was a lovely feeling of the voyeuristic, dusty, dirty clearing out of other people's houses. THE BULLET TRICK is a stagey, magical, high camp performance; but not so far behind the spotlight there's a back stage area where the tissues are used and the carpets are dirty and the cigarette smoke's stained the walls yellow. Highly recommended.
Sometimes an author can make a considerable mark with their first book (as Louise Welsh did with The Cutting Room and almost immediately lose momentum with their next outing. The Bullet Trick is proof that Welsh is no one-trick pony, and this highly entertaining (if, at times, baffling) novel will be gratefully received by those who like their fiction eccentric and unabashed--Welsh doesn't shy away from presenting us with the more extreme forms of human behaviour, sexual or otherwise.
The protagonist here is a Glaswegian conjurer who has seen better days. Those who know their literature of the Gothic (and Louise Welsh is certainly of that number!) will no doubt spot that the author has christened her anti-hero William Wilson--the same name, in fact, as the luckless hero of the Edgar Allen Poe tale of sinister duality. Welsh's Wilson is desperate to escape from his crushing existence in Glasgow, and jumps at the chance to perform his conjuring tricks in the cabarets of Berlin. Leaving behind people who he most definitely wants out his life in this free and easy foreign city seems like the best move of his career. But Welsh implies that (like the Poe character with whom he shares his name), Wilson's real problems lie within himself, with the external danger he encounters a manifestation of the sickness in his own soul.
If the above makes The Bullet Trick sound like a depressing read, nothing could be further from the truth. This is exuberant stuff, floridly plotted and crammed full of the kind of over-the-top characters that we encounter far too little these days in most parochial fiction. It's also worth noting the Welsh's second novel could not be more different from its predecessor, and if she is going to come up with something quite distinct with every new book, that alone is going to mark her out from most of her contemporaries.