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The Blade Artist, by Irvine Welsh

Book review by Jack Bourke

“No door suggests great wealth, so he opts for the one that gives the strongest impression of teeming squalor.”

So muses Jim Francis as he searches for his ex-partner’s flat on his return to Edinburgh from California. Jim has left his new wife and young daughters behind in the golden state to attend the funeral of his firstborn child, Sean. On his return to Edinburgh he finds a city that it is familiar yet distant; gentrified yet still rife with undercurrents of the violent, seedy past from which he managed to escape.

Jim Francis, as we soon learn, is an alias for Francis Begbie who fans of Irvine Welsh will recognise from previous novels, most notably Trainspotting. The aggressive, sadistic Begbie, it is revealed, served many years in prison for a string of violent crimes in the interim between now and the 1980s when the aforementioned novel was set. It was here that the seeds of his new life in California were sown, through an encounter with a beautiful art therapist, Melanie, who encouraged Begbie’s artistic abilities which eventually led him to fame in the art world. On his release, the two continued the relationship they began while he was behind bars and moved to California together to start a family. Here, the violence that marked his life in Scotland is channelled into creating portraits of disfigured celebrities, an artistic style which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the mega rich of Hollywood have a taste for.

Despite her knowledge of his background, Melanie is oblivious at first to the vengeful nature of Jim’s character. On his return to Edinburgh, Begbie quickly turns from mourner to detective, spurred on by former friends who haven’t forgotten the violent past that gave him his fearsome reputation around the city. Everyone he encounters seems to have a prime suspect on their lips – Anton Miller, a new breed of Edinburgh gangster who swept to prominence through a wave of ruthless drive-by shootings and murders. However, as the novel progresses it appears that Sean Begbie’s life was a more complex affair than at first glance and there are many former friends of his that are quick to point the finger away from themselves when his father comes looking for answers.

The Blade Artist is short and fast-paced, employing a more linear plot than some of Welsh’s previous books. However, it’s also peppered with glimpses of Begbie’s childhood which gives the reader supplemental information about his adolescence. It is revealed that his penchant for violence stems from his anger at his former teacher and classmates who berated him for his poor reading skills which, in turn, was due to a severe form of dyslexia that wasn’t diagnosed until years later. These short asides, however, do not detract from the pace of the story which, at under 300 pages and sparse on the Scots compared to Trainspotting, is eminently readable. Recommended!