Welsh's latest work lacks the thrill of Trainspotting
Fiction: The Blade Artist, Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 288 pages, €16.99
Depending on who you ask, Francis Begbie is one of Irvine Welsh's most thrilling, loose-cannon creations. Mercurial, violent, illiterate and fresh out of damns for anyone or anything, he was the incendiary hardman yin to addict Mark Renton's struggling, hopeless yang. Little wonder that the writer has returned to his Trainspotting characters time and time again (in Skagboys and Porno).
And on the 20th anniversary of the Trainspotting film adaptation, it's safe to say that fans of the novel will be somewhat pleased to find that Welsh has decided to reprise his most cultish character.
Still, few could have predicted the trajectory that Welsh has provided for Begbie. In a turn of events that surprises Francis himself, he is living a life of quietude, and contentment. A husband and father to two girls (Eve and Grace), he is known in the area as a successful painter and sculptor who goes by the name of Jim Francis. Few are any the wiser to his violent past back in Scotland.
"I know you were a bit of a rough diamond in the past, but I always knew you had it in you to become an internationally renowned artist once we'd got you out of Scotland," says his wife, Melanie (his former prison therapist, incidentally).
To be fair, readers will delight at the gulf between the two selves, unlikely as it is.
Every so often, the Francis of old floats - malevolent, psychotic - to within view of the surface. Even the conceit that Begbie has it in him to be A Changed Man is a supremely ticklish one. That he has two All-American Californian daughters is more entertaining still.
With the benefit of hindsight, 'Franco' is still all too aware of his talent for hurting people, and this compulsion is writ large in his art, if you know what to look for. The moral tug-of-war continues throughout; the Begbie who might pull the pin out of a grenade with his teeth and gouge eyes out for kicks is seemingly long gone.
In the main, his past has been left firmly in the dust… until he is summoned back across the Atlantic for the funeral of Sean, a son he wasn't on particularly close terms with. Trainspotting fans will recall that one of Begbie's sons, Michael, was being born as the tale wrapped up, with his name 'doon fae HM Prison Saughton when it was still in June's womb'.
Whether Rents was on the money or otherwise, is probably predictable from the off, but Begbie's regard for his two families couldn't be more polarised. Friends and adversaries expect Begbie to take bloody revenge once he lands in Scotland, and soon, the reader finds itself in thriller territory.
So how does Welsh fare with genre?
Paradoxically, The Blade Artist doesn't seem as assured and stylistically thrilling as his early work. Begbie may have been living in Welsh's head (and ours, for that matter) for nigh on two decades, but he has shape-shifted so much that not even Welsh can seem to keep tabs on him. The onyx-black comedy that made him endearing has bled out in the transition.
Still, The Blade Artist is an ultimately satisfying read, not least because it peels back yet more layers of Begbie's backstory (and who wouldn't want a piece of that?).
A return to form for Welsh?
Not quite. Fans have been waiting for quite some time for him to reach again the heights of his rawer, early work. Maybe 20 years on, we're all just that bit harder to shock.