The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2006, 375 p.

 The Bullet Trick cover

The novel is set variously in Glasgow, London and Berlin and intercuts between the three at intervals. It starts with William Wilson, mentalist and illusionist, having fled back to Glasgow to hide after a sojourn as a conjuror in the Berlin night club Schall und Rauch has gone wrong. He had only taken that job after a one-off gig at a London venue – a benefit for a retired policeman, Jim Montgomery, nicknamed ‘the Wizard,’ – was followed by the violent deaths of the club’s proprietor Bill and his boyfriend Sam, whose knowledge of Wilson had got him the gig. Bill had prevailed on Wilson to use his palming skills to remove a package he said belonged to him from the detective’s jacket pocket. Montgomery wants it back – even tracking him down to Berlin. Wilson’s need to return to Glasgow depends on his awareness of this and of the possible dangers of the conjuror’s bullet trick of the title. Only once back in Glasgow does Wilson open the package to see what it contains.

This is where the whole enterprise falls into what I might call the standard thriller plot. A single untrained individual besting the world and solving a decades old mystery don’t ever strike me as very likely. Welsh’s gifts as a novelist are many, a feel for character and an eye for description among them. She does this sort of plot well enough but somehow or other the reader (well, me) always suspects that Wilson’s situation isn’t going to turn out to be as black as he paints it.

There is a reminder of the buttoned-up attitudes inculcated into Scots by centuries of Calvinism when Wilson says of an old friend that he, “pulled me into a hug that was traitor to his west coast of Scotland origins.”

The cover of the edition I read is emblazoned with a quote from Kate Atkinson, “Her most thrilling yet.” I was not quite so enthralled, maybe because of the conjuring business. If a faker is telling you something then you must expect fakery. Of the four Welsh novels I have read so far the best has been Tamburlaine Must Die, perhaps due to its historical setting.

Pedant’s corner:- conjurer (I prefer the spelling conjuror,) Saturday Night at the London Palladium (that Palladium TV show was on Sunday nights,) “her bosoms” (a person traditionally only has one of those,) “there were nothing but shadows” (there was nothing,) junky (junkie,) “licensed grocers” (grocer’s.) “The crowd were clapping” (the crowd was clapping,) “the audience were getting used to” (the audience was getting used to.) “He’s doing his standard grades now” (it is – was – a proper noun, Standard Grades,) “over an over” (over and over,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) a missing end quotation mark. “‘You could of found me’” (You could have found me. This was in dialogue but the speaker was German and I suspect would not be so ungrammatical when speaking English.)

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