‘To the Dogs’, by Louise Welsh

To the Dogs, the twelfth novel from Louise Welsh, is another examination of the Glasgow crime scene, and the intersection between academia, global politics, local hardmen and corporate corruption makes for a dazzling and unpredictable read. 

Professor Jim Brennan is a senior figure at the university and looking a shoe in for a promotion to Principal, the upper echelons of the management team. A leading figure in the field of architecture, he is a guest speaker at a conference in China where he hopes to secure funding for a prestigious project in Glasgow.  Such a life is a far cry from his upbringing in a working-class Glaswegian family where his father, a career criminal of considerable influence and significance, ruled the proverbial roost and whose memory means the family are still able to instil fear even after his death. 

We find ourselves in 2017, Brennan waiting in a reception area which ‘had been designed with an eye for vomit and violence wipe-clean surfaces, plastic chairs bolted to the floor, the counter shielded behind a Perspex screen […] Dark outside, stark inside. Off Peak time for crime’ (p. 3). The lyrical manner of Welsh’s writing paints a soulless and grim scene in which Eliot (Brennan’s son) is being charged and interviewed after a dealing-grade quantity of drugs have been discovered at his house. Brennan hints at a darker side to his own past, a sotto voce thought that ‘It was his own fate the boy was playing out, a generation delayed’ (p. 5). This is the allusion to a family which has had an inherent affinity with criminal activity. Later Jim will describe his own fear of prisons: ‘The building whose walls felt impregnated with ghosts, the men who resided behind the cold bricks, the atmosphere of violence’ (p. 59). The past is always present. Jim’s childhood and adolescence were violent, dark and demoralising. Whilst he escaped professionally and materially, his formative years continue in his memories and some of his attitudes. 

Brennan’s place of escape is the Fusilier where, ironically, his son was arrested: ‘its flat roof was bereft of the coiled edging of the barbed wire that used to protect it, though the windows were still guarded by metal shutters’ (p. 9) It is here he will exploit his contacts in order to identify the people who have coerced or facilitated his son’s entry into the world of drugs. His wife warns ‘It isn’t your world anymore, Jim’ (p. 10) and his observations upon entering the pub make it clear the atmosphere and the clientele have certainly undergone a sea change. Later Brennan will find himself at the behest of Henders, a Glasgow building magnate who promises to look after Eliot whilst he is in jail but requires a particularly nuanced favour from Jim involving a financially lucrative the company could bid for. Filthy lucre runs amok in Glasgow but hasn’t that always been the case?

Brennan encounters Eddie Cranston – solicitor and notary – who doubles as a practitioner in social outreach for teenage boys whose paths may be wayward without a firm hand and a male role model to guide them. His attempts to finagle his way into Brennan’s life, via Eliot, and the subsequent entanglements this creates between them and the underworld are one of the main dynamics in the novel, two characters from the same fraternity but radically different relationships with their environment.

The second dynamic, which takes the reader to a more global political conflict, relates to Jim being contacted about a Chinese student who has gone missing in Beijing. One of the broader debates between members of Brennan’s politically minded family and friends (Becca, particularly) is the role of Capitalism and money in the higher education system and the levels of and motivation for collaboration and expansion into China (and other economic powerhouses such as India). Welsh has articulated her unease around the presence of Confucious Institutes on British campuses and it is this parallel story within the narrative that highlights the real impact of compromise and turning a blind eye. Discretion and deniability are represented as decisive characteristics at several points of the novel. 

Ultimately one of the questions which lies deep at the heart of To the Dogs is a question of filial loyalties and how far parents will go for their children. The tensions between finding solutions to problems using the old ways, known to Brennan’s father, and the more modern machinations which present as a struggle between the middle-class reputational respectability of Brennan and Maggie, professionals in their own right, and the desire and need to solve the situations their son has found himself in course through the Gothic lines of this crime novel (though Welsh declares it also to be a campus novel). It remains to be seen if Brennan will become another string on Welsh’s finely tuned bow but this reviewer is certainly keen to see where she explores next. 

To the Dogs is published by Canongate

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