Review: Death is a Welcome Guest by Louise Welsh
La Peste of times…
With the first in the Plague Times trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn, Louise Welsh wove the twists and turns of a detective thriller into the dystopian nightmare of a global pandemic. In crumbling post-infection London, the memorable Stevie Flint sought justice for her boyfriend’s murder and proved a worthy hero for Welsh’s new genre hybrid: apocalypse noir, if you will.
Death is a Welcome Guest returns to London and rewinds to just a few days before “the sweats”. Our new protagonist is Magnus McFall, an up-and-coming comedian in a world about to lose its sense of humour. The night before his first big support slot, a drunken act of heroism lands him in prison, locked up with violent criminals as guards and inmates alike succumb to the disease. Magnus emerges to a country transformed by the virus. In the quest to get back to his family in Orkney he falls in with a group of survivors holed up in a country house. Their leaders see the virus as an Old Testament-style purge, a chance for a fresh start, however while they are immune to the bug Magnus finds they are not immune to homicide. When he finds himself investigating a murder, we slowly realise Louise Welsh has once again seeded a much-loved crime scenario inside her post-pandemic hell. There’s no sleuth, no butler to cast suspicions on, but Welcome Guest is in many respects a big-house murder mystery.
The Plague Times novels pose an interesting dilemma. Crime fiction is celebrated for providing a perverse comfort: detective restores order, exorcises death. But who cares to solve a murder when death has already taken the majority? In a time of plague, life becomes either very valuable or very cheap. While a sense of justice may be all anyone has left to keep them going, Death is not so much the guest at this party, he’s the host.
Given the publication dates, this episode, in particular, might one day be read as Welsh’s commentary on indyref. It begins in a London rotting with literal corruption; it is Scotland Magnus looks to with hope. While the survivors he meets beyond the capital are a diverse bunch, their utopian pitch sounds distinctly conservative. Despite his pull to the North, the rest of the community insist that Magnus must stay, that they will be better together and Union flags make a potent appearance at the novel’s climax.
Yet, the novel’s primary source material is not recent British politics, but history. The author commands a historian’s eye for the sociology of mass-mortality, ultimately posing the question: which is the worse horror, to perish in a holocaust or to survive it? Welsh has already named as her inspiration the nightmare visions of a Cold War childhood: the BBC classics, Survivors and Threads. Such thought-experiments in catastrophe let writers take society apart to see what makes it tick. The horror is in the truth of what we find out.
As the grim shade of animosity between old superpowers haunts us once again, we realise those bad dreams never went away.
This review first appeared in Gutter 14
Death is a Welcome Guest by Louise Welsh
John Murray, RRP £14.99, 374pp