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'unravelling two tangled knots'
on 7 March 2010
In this, her fourth novel, Louise Welsh approaches the notion of crime from a different angle. The standard interpretation, that of the perpetration of an unlawful act, is laid to one side in favour of creating a story that hinges on an act (a series of acts, even) of serious moral wrongdoing. This has the effect of blurring the boundary between the crime-writing genre and literary fiction and, it must be said, the author pulls it off admirably.
Naming the Bones is set in the competitive world of Scottish academia; in particular, the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Doctor Murray Watson, a Glasgow professor of English literature, sets himself the task, by way of writing a book, of restoring the image of Archie Lunan, a promising poet whose early death 30 years previously had consigned him to obscurity.
Lunan had died in mysterious circumstances on the remote Scottish island of Lismore and was buried there. Murray bases his research on a close reading of a slim volume of Lunan's poetry, a box of barely decipherable papers and word-of-mouth testimony of those among his academic peers who claimed to have known Lunan.
However what started as research soon becomes a quest to seek out the truths, not only about Lunan's life and death but also about what lies behind the climate of intrigue, deviancy and betrayal he discovers to be prevalent in the universities.
Thus the reader is presented with the trope of a writer/critic cast in the role of an amateur detective. A role that, incidentally, also serves to send Murray on a journey of self-discovery in which parallels in the lives of his subject and himself become more and more evident.
Louise Welsh's strong points of vivid characterization and intricate plotting are at the forefront of this entertaining novel. Four stars.