Irvine Welsh’s 1993 debut novel Train-spotting flicked a hearty V-sign in the face of alarm-clock Britain. ‘Ah choose no tae choose life,’ crows its giro-cheating antihero Mark Renton, proudly enslaved to heroin instead of mortgage repayments. But when Welsh revisited his native Leith for a 2012 prequel, Skagboys, he threw over this bourgeois-taunting amorality for blunter politics: Renton, it transpired, first turned to heroin for pain relief after police beat him up on a picket line during the 1984 miners’ strike.
In Welsh’s latest novel, it’s the turn of Renton’s psychopathically violent frenemy, Francis Begbie, to get an origin story involving the abuse of state power. As a boy (we now see) Begbie struggled with dyslexia. The regular chorus of classroom laughter was led by his ‘bullish, rugby-playing’ teacher, Hetherington, ‘leather elbow patches on his checked jacket [Tories, eh?]…. I raged inside’, Begbie recalls. ‘I learned that letting that rage out was the way to stop the laughter: to stop it by turning it into blood and tears.’
Anyone who finds that hard to swallow may struggle with The Blade Artist’s central premise. Begbie, now in his fifties, several jail terms down the line, has anger-managed himself out of Scotland and into a new life, under the name Jim Francis, in California. A successful sculptor (his grotesquely mutilated busts of film stars are hailed as satirical embodiments of the vengeful envy driving celebrity culture), he spends his downtime at the beach with his two young daughters and his wife, an American art therapist who turns out to have been on placement at the prison where Begbie was banged up in Porno, the 2010 sequel to Trainspotting.
Ever since Trainspotting — made up of discrete episodes held together by a strong narrative voice — Welsh has leant on crime plots to structure his novels.