In his new book The Blade Artist, Irvine Welsh has re-cut one of him most memorable characters to create a modern day dissection of a psychotic mind. It’s essentially American Psycho meets Get Carter in the eye of Welsh’s grim portrayal of Leith, swirling up characters from Trainspotting and making Frank Begbie the focal point for all the carnage as a twisted anti-hero with a newfound creative flare.
The ultra-violent thriller sliced it’s way onto hardback release on the 7th April 2016 and while it delivers a dark portrayal of retribution, there are a lot of layers sitting behind the genre that defines it. This starts with some very clever misdirection from Welsh in the opening sequences of the book, which starts out with a family trip to the beach in sunny California. It’s a very convincing piece of literature that is so palpable that everything that follows is completely incongruous to what you might have first thought about how the story would develop.
The family in question includes dad Jim Francis, who’s Scottish roots have been re-defined by his transformation into a famous artist and his new clean-living lifestyle with his wife Melanie and two young children. From the horror story retribution setup, the plot shifts on banks of sand to tilt in the direction of menace for anyone that appears to be a threat to this seemingly innocuous family.
This starts off with Jim facing down two cons that approach them on the beach and quickly escalates towards his masterpiece of vengeance, which gets a shot in the arm as he’s forced back to Scotland when his son Shaun in knifed to death in his flat. While Jim is off trying to pick through the broken shards of his past, Melanie is left to deal with the news that one of the men from the beach has washed up dead.
It takes a while for the penny to drop, but when it does it’s a game-changing mental leap as you realise that Jim’s someone you probably already know from Irvine Welsh’s Trainstpotting and you start to recognise the signs that Francis Begbie’s in town. From this point on it’s a moral conundrum as it becomes increasingly clear that his new life doesn’t mean he’s left his violent psychopathic ways behind him, no matter how much he appears to have rehabilitated.
Much of The Blade Artist comes back to an ongoing theme of Ervine Welsh’s work as addiction piles on top of addiction to construct the lives of the dregs, retired prison guards, family members and enemies that make up the visceral story. Frank’s targets may well be the scum of the earth, but there’s nothing particularly righteous about his motives as it’s all just another kind of fix for Jim. Now he’s got the added mistress charm of artistic license to bow down to, which elevates the book into new walks of life in a scary kind of way.
While it works well in questioning the nature of addiction in various forms in and among the ultra violent context of Francis Begbie’s return to Leith, there’s a distinct feeing that it’s the psychotic third cousin, twice removed of the more impactful Trainspotting. When you’re debut novel is so significant, it’s always going to be difficult to stack up to it, which is as much a benefit as it is a curse for Irvine Welsh.
The Blade Artist may not speak to you as personally as his very first novel did, but it does slice a carefully placed incision in your psynapses by crafting a brutal story of unstoppable addiction to violence. It’s a dark and stylish novel that will mess with your moral compass, asking if a positive outcome justifies some seriously thugged up crimes. However, we’re just not too sure there’s enough connection to hold you in its shrapnel-flecked eye for very long.
Irvine Welsh, The Blade Artist review: 3.5/5