scenes from secret libraries: louise welsh’s the cutting room

 

immoral filth by a filthy immoralist: just the sort
of reading a sex murdered would bone up on…
(atrocious pun purely accidental)

Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room (2002), quickly found an enthusiastic readership who claimed it for the ranks of the literary crime genre. Some readers, however, remained uncomfortable with aspects of the book. Auctioneer Rilke comes across a set of disturbing photographs while clearing a house in his native Glasgow. The pictures appear to show a woman before and after she is murdered for the sexual gratification of, among others, the recently deceased owner of the house. Feeling compelled to seek out the truth about both parties, and what really happened, Rilke sets out on a journey which takes him via contacts in the second hand trade through to some decidedly dangerous customers operating in a much shadier criminal underworld.  (from Lousie Welsh’s British Council page) 

 

The ladder to the attic was folded against the ceiling, as Miss McKindless had described. I found a pole behind the door and hooked it down. I could see why the old lady would find access impossible. I hadn’t mentioned it, but despite my height, I’m not good at altitude. I put my foot on the first rung, the aluminium rattle sounding loud against the silence of the house, and climbed. The trap had a Yale and a mortise lock. I struggled for a minute or two, holding the ladder with one hand, fumbling around in my pockets for the keys with the other, changing hands, finding the keys, then searching for the right ones in the anonymous jumble. The ground started to slip away. I reeled against the ladder, realising I was about to lose balance, then a key turned smoothly in the mortise, the Yale beside it clicked home, I pushed open the trap door and hauled myself in.

  

I stood for a minute in the dark, half crouched, my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath, then, unsure of the height of the ceiling, cautiously straightened and felt for the light switch. 

  

I was standing in a long, thin room perhaps half the length of the house. Bare floorboards, clean for an attic. The ceiling began midway up the walls, angling to a peak. Three small windows that would let in a little light during the day. Along the right-hand wall were racks of metal shelving holding tidily stacked cardboard boxes. The left wall was covered in waist-high, dark oak bookcases, books neatly arranged. In the centre were a plain office desk and chair, to their left a high-backed armchair, comfortable but scruffy, inherited from some other room, beside it a bottle of malt, Lagavulin. Dead man’s drink. I unscrewed the cap and inhaled a quick scent of iodine and peat which caught the back of my throat. It was the good stuff, right enough. There was no cup so I took the end of my shirt and rubbed it along the mouth of the bottle before taking a good slug. I was curious about the contents of the cardboard boxes but turned first to the bookcase. 

 

It is revealing how people arrange their books. I was once in a house where the couple, man and wife, committed collectors of first editions, had placed every book in a sealed plastic bag, then on the shelves, spine in, pages out. `That way they won’t get sun-damaged,’ they explained. Others arrange books according to height, the tallest first, top shelf, left-hand corner, tapering down to the tiniest at the very bottom. Me, I have them willy-nilly, on suitcase, shelf and floor.

 

Mr McKindless had employed the age-old method of alphabetical by author, with the occasional grouping of publisher. Regimented over three shelves was a large collection of Olympia Press. Little green and white paperbacks pressed together – The Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe, Stradella, White Thighs, The Chariot of Flesh, With Open Mouth … I have always admired Maurice Girodias. He founded the Olympia Press some time in the 1950s in Paris. Pornography was in the family, but before he put his profits into a hotel and lost he was a master of the art. Girodias would invent (un)suitable titles, advertise them as available for sale, and then, depending on the response to his advertisements, commission a writer to produce the book. Many a penurious writer subsisted on his cheques and not a few successful ones lost their royalties. He claimed that some tourists came to the city simply to purchase his titles. I agreed. The Olympia Press concentrated on the avant-garde, particularly sex, and people will travel further than Paris for that. Like many collectors McKindless seemed to have been compelled to own every title. I scanned through the novels. Yes, here it was, the first edition of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch in its slip case. I had never handled one before. All the Henry Miller was here, too.

 

The Olympia novels were just a start. Shelves and shelves of erotic fiction. It was a library that would fetch something. I took a rough note, glad it wasn’t me who would have to manoeuvre the boxes down the ladder. Here was the private man. The personality I had missed below stairs, confined to the attic like a mad Victorian relative.

 

I pulled open the drawer to the desk and had a look inside. Stationery, some nice pens, nothing much. Out of habit my fingers skimmed the underside of the drawer. There was something taped there. I took out my penknife and slit it free. A simple white card. GPM camera-Z Cryptic. I replaced the drawer and slipped the card into my pocket. I considered stopping. Almost left right there. It was the whisky that drew me back. One moredrink, leave the van in the driveway till morning, last orders at the Melrose, then a walk through the park and see what gave. It was the good stuff. A reward for working so hard, being clever enough to arrange a big deal, a pat on the back from me to me. I should know myself: that bottle was too full and I was too empty. I took it with me and started on box number one, the kind of thing all good citizens leave behind, paperwork, old documents, things that really could have been thrown away and kept for why? The next two boxes were pretty much the same, old magazines, records, more paper, my progress was slowing, the bottle halfway lower in its mark than when I began. One more box I decided – leave it on an even number, while I could still negotiate the ladder. At first it looked like more of the same. The general detritus of life, bumf, short for bum fodder, bills filed then kept to no purpose, bank statements – all showing an impressive balance – insurance policies never claimed on.

 

To anyone watching, my investigations would have appeared haphazard, but I have the skill of the searcher. Without looking I can sort silk from cotton velvet, cashmere from angora, I can tell with my finger tips an etching from a print. And I can turn base metal into gold. I think that if there is anything good in a box I will find it. Who knows what’s passed me by?

 

It was an envelope. Just a buff-coloured, thick-papered, document envelope. Straight away I knew it held photographs. I could feel them, the weight, the uniform size, photos not good enough for an album. Two thick rubber bands secured the folds, one pink, one blue. Pink for a girl. Blue for a boy. I pulled the bands off, slipping them tight round my wrist, they caught in the hairs of my arm, swift visions of mad nights. I kept them there, a taut reminder, and slid the photographs into my hand.

 

Mr McKindless is wearing a white shirt and bow tie. His hair has lost some of its Brylcreemed bounce, it lies damp and plastered across his forehead. His attention is focused on the young girl in his arms. She is pretty, pale-faced and lipsticked. Her head thrown backwards in his embrace, her dark curls, ringlets almost, tumbling away from her face. She is naked except for suspenders and stockings, and seems almost asleep. McKindless looks as if he is talking, trying to rouse her. Still she gazes, sleepy and smiling, not at him but towards the man who is entering her…

 

—Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room

 

 

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