Obsessions are dangerous, yet they are also so human. They drive the most amazing and visionary projects—and fuel the darkest, most horrible passions. Obsessions play a fundamental role in The Cutting Room, both in the actions of the dead antagonist and in Rilke, the protagonist and auctioneer who stumbles across snuff photographs while processing an estate and begins to wonder if they are real.
I'll call this a mystery, because it is, but it's not the typical formula mystery of a professional or even an amateur detective following the trail of clues. Rilke is more than amateur, and he doesn't so much solve the mystery of Mr. McKindless as he does stumble around until the mystery solves itself. If I might, I will employ a cinematic metaphor and liken Louise Welsh to the director of a movie: she chooses to focus the story and each scene in such a way that while the mystery is still the primary plot of the book, it does not seem to form the substance of each scene. The mystery is the priority for Rilke, but it is not the priority for the reader. Instead, Welsh takes us on a tour of shady Glaswegian businesses and drug dealers, explores Rilke's casual approach to sexual partners, and encourages us to contemplate the deeper implications of the McKindless photos.
The Cutting Room both benefits and suffers from this stylistic decision. I don't read mystery novels as much as I used to, but when I was young they were my bread and butter: Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were some of the first series I can remember devouring by myself; later I graduated to the real good stuff: Agatha Christie. While I've drifted away from the genre, my appreciation for it has never lessened. I'm sure there are some mystery novels that deserve to be called "pulp" or even secretly yearn within their pages to be thrillers, but in general I think mystery is a fascinating genre that fuses the excitement of conflict with the intricacies of human psychology. So the best mystery novels are also usually quite deep, and here The Cutting Room is no exception. Welsh meditates on the various possibilities: the photos could be faked, staged; they could be real, a living, breathing woman could have been killed for someone's entertainment and sexual gratification. Later, she connects these possibilities to the more contemporary political issue of human smuggling and the prostitution and rape of Eastern European women. Some of her characters make some pretty explicit speeches about the shortcomings of the international justice system in countering and preventing such smuggling rings from operating. However, the dialogue always rings true to the character and scene and mood at the time; Welsh never cross the line to become preachy.
I do have some qualms about Rilke's voice. Wonderful things are possible with first-person narration, and nothing pleases me more than when an author manages to create a narrator who just speaks to you. When you're reading such a narrator, the words themselves seem to convey more meaning than is possible, and the narrator's voice will begin to do the work of establishing depth and tone. This is why I love another mystery series, the Dresden Files. Unfortunately, I find Rilke a difficult narrator to enjoy. His speech is often fragmented, his descriptions packed inside nested dependent clauses. The story itself takes place over the course of a week, but Rilke's sense of time is highly fluid and not exactly precise.
The combination of Rilke's narration and Welsh's stylistic decisions regarding the emphasis on the mystery mean that The Cutting Room has a somewhat distant or dreamlike quality to it. It is as if the action is happening slightly out of sync with everything; if you were to look over at the clock, the hands would be moving more slowly than you might expect. Here's a passage, pulled totally at random when I opened the book to that page:
For people who weren't drinking much, the girls certainly had a buzz on. There was an air of anticipation, a first night atmosphere. A haggard redhead clicked open her handbag mirror and sighed at her reflection. She stretched her mouth out to a long ghastly grin and freshened her lipstick. She passed the mirror to the girl next to her, who grimaced, then repainted her own lips a dark shade of magenta.
Someone settled another cocktail in front of me. It tasted fine, pleasantly palatable. I wondered why I didn't drink them more often. From now on my tipple would be pink and fizzy and made with double measures of gin. I raised my glass and saluted the company. A few of the girls raised theirs in response.
Hopefully this conveys the almost hyperaware way Welsh sets a scene through Rilke's observations. And I don't mean this as criticism, because it's not a bad stylistic choice at all. However, I do think it prevented me from viewing any of the other characters as fully three-dimensional personalities; to me, they all seemed too distilled when filtered through Rilke. This is a danger of any story narrated in first-person, but it is not one that The Cutting Room overcomes.
The epilogue is a departure from the rest of the book and feels unnecessary. I loved the ending, in which Welsh, through the narration, makes us think that one character is dead but then pulls back on the scene to reveal her still alive. I loathe this trick when it is played on television, with the heavy implication followed by a cut to a tombstone and then a pull back to reveal a completely different name. In literature, however, I feel like it's less cheap—lacking the visual trickery seems to add weight to the device. Anyway, The Cutting Room climaxes with the auction of McKindless' estate and a revelation that sends Rilke's plans spiralling out of control. It provides a satisfactory resolution to the mystery without the additional epilogue.
Speaking of that mystery, which never really seemed the primary focus, I confess I wasn't all that interested in learning whether the snuff photos were real. Fortunately, because of the way Welsh chooses to tell the story, this is not a problem, for I found plenty of interest: her descriptions of Glasgow's villains, Rilke's ruminations on death and the business of estate auctions, and Welsh's portrayal of Rilke's homosexuality. This is a mystery novel, but it is also a very well-rounded one. And while it lacks some of the urgency or focus of a more dedicated mystery, while its main character isn't a great detective (in fact, he is downright lousy at detection), I still managed to enjoy it thoroughly. I inherited The Cutting Room from a friend who moved away, and it is probably not something I would have picked up on my own, even from a library display. It has proved to be a fortunate discovery.