The pornography trade and a half-century-old murder drive the plot of The Cutting Room, a stunning first novel by the Scottish writer Louise Welsh. The narrator of this “noir thriller” is a gay antiques dealer working for a Glasgow auction house perpetually on the verge of insolvency.
A man who has learned to keep his expectations low, Rilke does not anticipate that the estate of an elderly man will provide much profit for his employers, so he is surprised when the house yields a trove of fine antiques. But his wonder turns to horror when he discovers, among a vast collection of pornography, a series of photos depicting the torture and murder of a young woman. His attempt to uncover the truth about the photos quickly becomes an obsession that leads him on a journey into a subterranean sex market far different from the gay underground of clubs and after-hours cruising sites that he frequents.
In Rilke, Welsh has created a complex, convincing character. Writing in the first person, she provides the reader with seemingly uncensored access to Rilke’s mind, while the character himself reveals little awareness of the reader’s presence; he neither justifies nor expresses guilt for his sexual activity, and he refrains from proselytizing about victimless crimes. Still, the novel conveys a strong moral message, defining pornography in terms of violence and degradation and demonstrating the virtues of tolerance and respect for those who do no harm to others in pursuing their desires.
The Cutting Room has much to offer besides a compelling plot and engaging narrator: a colorful cast of minor characters, entertaining behind-the-scenes excursions into the antiques trade, and a wealth of elegant phrasing.