Usually, when I discover a new author, I like to start with their first book, but I’ve just read A Lovely Way to Burn, (John Murray 2014), Louise Welsh’s most recent crime fiction. I was attracted because the book promises to be the first in a trilogy, The Plague Times, and as I’ve just completed a crime trilogy myself (The Shaman Mysteries, Midnight Ink Books, 2013/4/5) I’m interested to see how other writers approach this form.
Welsh is a Scottish writer, living in Glasgow http://www.louisewelsh.com/index.html
and although I’d never read her before, I knew about her. I’d read reviews of her books as I poured over my weekend papers. The Observer suggests…Welsh mixes a heady cocktail of death, desire and illusion in quick, sharp prose (The Bullet Trick 2006). The Sunday Telegraph said of Tamburlaine Must Die…Utterly engrossing. Elizabethan England has never seemed more beguilingly immediate.
I also know that, like me, Welsh writes short stories, including one for The Erotic Review, (my agent's magazine) as well as essays for Radio 3, reviews, plays and librettos. She’s won awards, and even more interestingly, gets involved with projects such as residencies and collaborations.
This intrigued me, and brought me to A Lovely Way to Burn, which I initially heard described as a ‘dystopian mystery’. But what is particularly shocking is that the setting could be now; this London, this year. Her descriptions of a city collapsing under the weight of a pandemic virus is thrillingly awful, immediately reminding me of the images I’d seen on the TV News of Ebola violently taking hold in so many African countries. In her Acknowledgements, Welsh explained how she’d been influence by her childhood memories of the threat of the A bomb, and by TV classics such as Threads and Survivors. All writers begin a work by being influenced in some way; they take those influences and compost them until they create their own ideas, allowing them to drive a pathway through their own imaginations.A Lovely Way to Burn is not just a book about Doomsday or Armageddon and that makes it fascinating and a gripping read.
At the outbreak of the virus colloquially called ‘the sweats’, Stevie Flint finds her boyfriend dead. She’s on a bit of a downward path; she used to be a journalist but now she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. Stevie falls ill directly after discovering Simon’s body; a day passes during which she’s sure she’s going to die, but she recovers and assumes (rightly) that she’s now immune to the sweats. The police tell her that Simon, who was doctor at a London hospital, died of natural causes, but she finds a letter he’d written, asking her, in the event he ‘disappeared’, to take his laptop to a colleague.
Do not entrust it to anyone else, no matter how polite, kind or authoritative they are...conceal it in your most frivolous bag...
With this letter, I was hooked. Stevie does as she’s bid, but it soon becomes clear she can trust no one. While people are dying in their beds and in the street, and the healthy are fleeing London, she moves around the catastrophic city, amassing her information, investigating her boyfriend’s death. The institutions are in disorder and it’s hard to get anyone to talk, not only because they might want to hide the truth – “keep your distance,” is the perpetual cry – “don’t come near me!” At one point, masked men stop Stevie from entering a residential street. They want to preserve their loved ones from infection, and seem prepared to kill if needs be.
Welsh says about A Lovely Way to Burn…All my novels are quests, but their central characters and locations are very different from each other. I truly hope she can stick to one setting and one protagonist to complete this trilogy. I know how gruelling writing three books on the trot can be. I was aided by Sabbie Dare, a central character who is bold and sassy, compassionate and funny. Welsh will be similarly aided by Stevie Flint. As Simon says in his letter to her…you are clever, persuasive, persistent and resourceful and have enough nous to know that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing. I’m sure Louise Welsh can’t wait to write about Stevie Flint again.