Sometimes I’m sent books to review. Sometimes I put in specific requests. I asked to be sent a copy of Louise Welsh’s fourth novel, Naming the Bones. I knew nothing about the book and here’s all I knew about the author: she used to run a second-hand bookshop on Dowanside Lane in the west end of Glasgow and one of the better second-hand bookshops it was, too. I visited regularly and so I saw Louise often until the shop relocated and then vanished completely. The last time I remember seeing her she was cycling along Great Western Road or thereabouts. She was a soft-spoken, quiet, wee thing – she really is totie (probably about five feet tall) – but pleasant enough; she has a face that always looks as if it’s smiling. I doubt we passed more than the time of day if I’m being honest but it’s always interesting when someone you know, even someone you only know in passing, is cast in a different light. She never looked like a writer but then what does a writer look like, eh?
When the book arrived there was little to give away what was inside. The cover you can see: a stormy sea, an overcast sky and her name three times bigger than the title embossed on the cover. I’d heard that she was a crime novelist and indeed after a quick check I confirmed that her first novel, The Cutting Room, was joint winner of the 2002 Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year Award and the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger. So I don’t suppose it was unreasonable of me to assume this would be similar fare especially considering the blub of the back, which I’ll reprint here in full:
A TALE OF LITERATURE, OBSESSION AND BURIED SECRETS
Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here?
Loaded with Welsh’s trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, Naming the Bones is Welsh’s darkest and most irresistible yet.
‘It’s not magic that takes us to another world – it’s storytelling. And Louise Welsh is master of that dark art.’ – VAL McDERMID
I think one of the hardest jobs in the world must be marketing. You can’t fault your publisher for wanting to sell your book. You want them to sell your book. But I wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed with their purchase because it wasn’t what they expected. Murray Watson does indeed end up knee-deep in mud but it takes him 350 pretty much mud-free pages to get there – and the book is only 389 pages long. A lot happens before he ends up in that field. My gut feeling is that the cover is meant for people who have read her before and have simply been waiting patiently for her next book. A nice position for any author to be in.
There are other things here that lead you to draw certain conclusions. A recommendation by crime novelist Val McDermid whose own works are known for their graphic depictions of violence and torture and the use of the word “dark” twice certainly suggests something unpleasant might take place between the covers. McDermid mentions “magic” too which was a central theme of Louise’s novel The Bullet Trick where the protagonist was a magician so it’s likely she’s not talking about this book specifically.
The product description on the Amazon website is slightly better:
SOME SECRETS ARE BEST LEFT BURIED - Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away, and yet it is because of the mysterious writer, Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore. Loaded with Welsh's trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, this adventure novel weaves the lives of Murray and Archie together in a tale of literature, obsession and dark magic.
Better. But not perfect. I’m a bit hazy on what “gothic charisma” might be. Gothic is a word that gets a bit mis- and overused and it can be confusing. There is precious little in this novel I could call gothic (having just boned up on the subject to review a couple of other books) and I know Louise knows exactly what the word means: she wrote an article in The Glasgow Herald to support the Radio 4 feature A Gothic Quest where she talks about the history of the word and in particular the history of Scottish Gothic fiction. In interview she’s talked at length about her affection for gothic literature (Robert Louis Stevenson being listed as one of her influences) and there’s no doubt that she feels her first novel uses “gothic rather than crime conventions” but I’m wondering if she’s worked that out of her system in this book. In fact, since her second book, a novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, charts the last days of playwright Christopher Marlowe, I think she might have worked it out of her system in her first book. But ‘dark’ sells. And so do titles with the word ‘bones’ in them.
There are areas of the book where the gothic could be turned up but the opportunity is missed. Some of the opening half of the book takes place in Edinburgh, for example, but I never got the feel for Rankin’s “hidden Edinburgh” and the same goes for the scenes on the island of Lismore which could have had a Wicker Man vibe but that’s not the direction she takes. “Missed” is probably not the right word. Louise makes a conscious choice; don’t read into this that I think she’s failed to do what she intended to do. That’s the problem with blurbs, they can leave you feeling disappointed with a perfectly good novel because it isn’t what it says on the tin. There is nothing wrong with her descriptions: I recognised many of the places she talks about; she has a flair for nuanced descriptions in fact:
They walked down the bridge a little way and stood looking down onto old Edinburgh. Meikle nodded at the darkened street below. ‘From up here, it could be a hundred years ago.’
In the street below, two old men with open cans of lager in their hands made unsteady progress, arm in arm. ‘Classic Edinburgh: up here it’s hustle and bustle, down there it’s drink and decay. Like lifting a stone.’ Down below, the old men lowered themselves onto the kerbside. One of them gestured expansively, elaborating on some point while his companion tipped his beer can to his mouth. Transport them to a gastro-pub and they might be two professors of English literature debating the finer points of theory.
This is a mystery. It’s not a crime novel. It’s not a police procedural novel. There are no forensic pathologists, world-weary detectives or a sexually dysfunctional psychologist trying to figure out whodunit and to stop them doing it again. No, what we have instead is a university lecturer who’s decided to write a biography about a little known poet who died in a boating accident thirty years earlier at the age of twenty-five. So, yes, someone has died and throughout the book other people we learn have passed away and some even meet their end during the events described in the book but it still doesn’t feel like a crime novel even though crimes have been and are committed. Yes, Dr. Murray is trying to piece together the life of the writer Archie Lunan, but he thinks he’s doing research not playing detective. As far as he’s aware the man died in a tragic accident, end of story.
So, some horrible things happen but this is not a horror novel either despite the sly suggestion on the back of the book. This doesn’t mean that the “dark arts” don’t appear anywhere in the book because they do actually, much to the good doctor’s (and my) surprise, but this is a novel grounded in the real world. So no graphic descriptions of black masses or a cameo appearance by the horned one and even when one character is accused of being a “spellbinder” all she has to say in response is:
Being called a witch isn’t the slander it once was.
More than anything else this is a character study. Most of the people in the book are academics; even the girl in the working man’s pub Murray finds himself in at one point is reading Camus. His brother, John, is an artist. I didn’t mind this; in fact I was pleased that the focus of the book was literature. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t scared we’d end up with caricatures rather than fully fleshed out people; academics so often come across as eccentrics; perhaps it’s a side effect of the job. Our protagonist is who we spend most time with. He’s in every scene. And if you’re going to given that much page time (the literary equivalent of screen time?) then you want a charismatic lead. Tom Hanks managed it in The Da Vinci Code but he’s a bit on the old side to play Murray Watson. I think Ewan McGregor could still pull it off.
Flawed heroes are all the rage. All you have to do is look at Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Val McDermid’s Tony Hill. Murray Watson is having an affair with a married colleague and his dad’s dead and that’s about as conflicted as I found him. Okay, maybe he drinks a little too much and hasn’t been so lucky in love but no one’s perfect. Welsh’s previous protagonists sound more interesting from the reviews and interviews I’ve read but I’m trying to review this book on its own merits . . . which, as you can see, I’m finding hard to do. But Murray Watson is basically a decent bloke who wants to do the right thing. I feel I’m selling him short here. This is how Claire Black described him in her review:
Watson is a fine creation: a flawed self-sabotager, but with enough self-awareness to be thoroughly likeable. The snatches of interior monologue – Watson imagining himself as a movie star, an image dissolved by the flashing outskirts of Edinburgh glimpsed from the train, or bemoaning his ever-present desire for sex – add to his bleak Romanticism.
The novel opens with him beginning his quest:
Murray Watson slit the seal on the cardboard box in front of him and started to sort through the remnants of a life. He lifted a handful of papers and carefully splayed them across the desk. Pages of foolscap, blue-tinted writing paper, leaves torn from school jotters, stationery printed with the address of a London hotel. Some of it was covered in closepacked handwriting, like a convict’s letters home. Others were bare save for a few words and phrases.
One cardboard box with a few tantalising clues: a list of names, a drawing of a stick-woman, pages of sums, three tarot cards, a napkin from a café, a newspaper clipping, an address book with no addresses in it amongst other things. Only once you’ve pretty much reached the end of the book do we know which of these titbits are of any use but that is as it should be. In fact as it was only as I was writing this review that I realised we’d been given so much to start us off.
Murray has taken a sabbatical to write his book. He’s a lecturer at Glasgow University. It’s his dream job. Lunan he discovered by chance in a second-hand bookshop: “a tangerine-tinted studio shot of a thin man with shadows for eyes” catches his eyes and, for the princely sum of fifty pence, the book was his although it takes him a year to get around to actually reading the thing.
It turns out that Lunan had attended the university in his day and some of the professors who were there then are still around. In particular Professor James who “had been everything that Murray, fresh from a comprehensive school staffed by corduroy-clad progressives, had desired in a university professor” a man who “approached the lectern like a United Free Church of Scotland minister about to deliver a sermon to a congregation set on damnation.” Now eighty-seven and well aware that his days are numbered he’s happy to share some of what he knows about the young Lunan who, he reveals, attended his “little group” of writers along with his friend, Bobby Robb, his girlfriend, Christie, and a colleague of Murray’s, Fergus Baine whose wife, Rachel, Murray happens to have been having an affair with.
Murray tries to make contact with Christie, now a novelist, who has remained on the small island of Lismore after the death of Lunan. After some delay he gets a letter in response from her solicitors declining him access, wishing him every success in his project and reminding him of “the government’s recent anti-stalking legislation.” It seems like his biography has stalled before it’s barely begun. But there are options open to him before he gives up completely. Professor James gives him a number of pointers along with some encouragement although it’s clear he’s not going to do his job for him, Fergus is not especially accommodating but unexpected help comes in the shape of George Meikle, the head bookfinder at the National Library, who had been an old drinking crony of Lunan’s back in the day. Meikle points Murray in the direction of Bobby Robb, a little too late as it turns out, but that doesn’t stop the resourceful doctor and bit-by-bit clue after clue finds its way into his Moleskin notebook.
An ad in the paper looking for information from anyone who knew the late Archie Lunan gets one response, a phone call from Audrey Garrett, the widow of Alan Garrett, a suicidologist, who had taken an interest in Lunan’s untimely death. Her husband had travelled to Lismore to learn more and ended up losing his own life in the process; he crashed his car into a tree. Murray, up until this point anyway, hadn’t seriously considered Lunan’s death as anything more than an accident; on leaving Audrey’s flat however he’s not so sure even though all he comes away with from the visit is a short pencil sketch of Lunan, literally a list with eight items on it.
By this time his sources in Glasgow and Edinburgh have all dried up. He’s left with no choice but to drive to Oban, board the ferry to Lismore and take it from there. We’re at the half point of book now and know surprisingly little still. Of course that’s not true. We know a hell of a lot more than we realise but that’s the way with good mysteries, evidence sits in plain sight but how do you distinguish what’s evidence and what’s not?
And that’s the problem all detectives face, those with badges and those with university diplomas.
There are only supposed to be x number of basic plots, seven some say: The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy, Tragedy, Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches. I’ve sat and thought about this book for a while and really can’t decide which of the first three it is. Murray is on a quest, that’s a given (he wants to find out about Archie Lunan and write his book), but what he finds out is not what he expected; the question is how much his adventure changes him. I have to say that I was completely stunned by his actions following the book’s climax; it made me feel that I’d missed something because I felt he was overreacting (or at least acting out of character) but perhaps not. Put it this way, I didn’t see it coming. You’ll have to decide that yourself.
What I can say is that the book is beautifully and carefully plotted. Its hero may be a little on the passive side (Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones he most certainly is not) but the journey he takes is believable enough. Everyone pretty much has a secret and a piece of the puzzle. Typically in this kind of book we get drip-fed the facts and no one seems willing to tell everything they know on one visit, be it Professor James, his daughter, the landlord of the pub Bobby Robb frequented, Meikle, Fergus, Mrs Dunn (Murray’s landlady on Lismore) or Christie. But that’s fine. We expect that. Frankly we don’t want to know too much too soon. Some of the clues I got right away but there were enough red herrings and dead ends chucked in to make sure I had just a bit too much to keep in my head.
People squabble all the time over the term ‘literary’ and there will be those who will happily think of this book as a literary mystery novel. It is a well-written mystery novel and I was particularly impressed by how often Louise chose just the right word (the word ‘draymen’ to describe brewery delivery men was one) but I’m not sure this is a book where the language is enough; it’s the story that drags you along more than how it is told. Is it a page-turner? Put it this way, I read it in two days and those of you who know how slow I normally read can draw your own conclusions from that.
Naming the Bones is published by Canongate and retails at £12.99.
After studying history at Glasgow University, Louise Welsh established a second-hand bookshop, where she worked for many years. Her first novel, The Cutting Room, won several awards, including the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger, and was jointly awarded the 2002 Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. Louise was granted a Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award in 2003, a Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award in 2004, and a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2005.
She is a regular radio broadcaster, has published many short stories, and has contributed articles and reviews to most of the British broadsheets. She has also written for the stage. The Guardian chose her as a “woman to watch” in 2003.
Her second book, Tamburlaine Must Die, a novella written around the final three days of the poet Christopher Marlowe's life, was published in 2004. Her third novel, The Bullet Trick (2006), is a present-day murder mystery set in Berlin.
She recently collaborated with the composer Stuart MacRae on a chamber opera, Remembrance Day for Scottish Opera's Five:15 series and her play, Memory Cells, opened at The Arches in Glasgow last October. Earlier this year she was a fellow at the Villa Hellebosch, Vollezele, Flanders. Her work has been translated into twenty languages.
She lives in Glasgow with her partner, the writer Zoë Strachan.
You can read the first chapter of the novel online here.