In the sleazier corners of Berlin, London and Glasgow, a down-on-his-luck magician sorts out two killings—and his obsession with a femme fatale—in Welsh’s follow-up to her debut, The Cutting Room (2003).
William Wilson is the kind of crowd-pleasing conjurist who made his career performing well-worn stunts like sawing ladies in half and reading the minds of club patrons whose wallets he’s filched. Which is to say he’s an old-school hack in low demand. So when his agent assigns him to perform at a miserable London bordello for the retirement party of a police honcho, he doesn’t have much reason to say no. But as in any self-respecting noir, Wilson’s in a heap of trouble practically the second he walks through the door; the owner of the bar and his lover, an old acquaintance of Wilson’s, have some mysterious documents they’d like Wilson to hang on to, and Wilson later learns that the two died at the end of that evening in a murder-suicide. Or was it a double murder? Realizing those documents make him a hunted man, Wilson shoves off for Berlin, where he puts together a bawdy, Grand Guignol–style cabaret act with the help of a dancer named Sylvie—whose inscrutable Marlene Dietrich chilliness naturally drives Wilson wild. Shifting between Wilson’s Berlin adventure and his return to Glasgow to solve the crimes, the book requires the reader to keep up with a lot of different plot threads, but the characterizations are often too thin to inspire the effort. A B-list magician is a brilliant idea for an accidental gumshoe—there’s a cheapness to Wilson’s parlor tricks and deceptions that meshes perfectly with the cynical worldview of great noir. But the dialogue here doesn’t have the tough-talking snap that defines the genre, and flabby, exposition-heavy chapters don’t help either. James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler produced plots that were just as convoluted and overheated as this one—but they also knew the value of concision.
An eerie but underfed whodunit.