Lousie Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room, was one of the great successes of 2002 with both of my reading groups and we all looked forward with eager anticipation to subsequent books. Unfortunately, for me at least, none of her later work has quite lived up to that first chilling novel. However, in A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of a trilogy about a plague ridden world, Welsh is back on form as far as I’m concerned and my only serious gripe is that I’m going to have to wait to find out how things turn out in a London where most of the population are falling like flies due to a mysterious disease rather unimaginatively called the sweats.
Stevie Flint, a tele-marketing presenter, contracts the illness early on and becomes of immediate interest to the medical world when she pulls through. However, she is much more concerned with the death of her boyfriend, Simon, especially when it becomes apparent that rather than being one of the first victims of the contagion he has in fact been murdered. Simon has been working on a possible treatment for children with cystic fibrosis and after his death Stevie finds he has left her data on a laptop that he says it is imperative be delivered only to a specifically named colleague. Taking the information along to the hospital where Simon worked, Stevie not only discovers that Dr Reah is already dead but also alerts others amongst her boyfriends’s co-workers of the laptop’s existence and thus begins a chase across the growing chaos of the capital as she tries to discover the nature of the data in her possession whilst evading those people who are determined that it will never be made public.
This is by no means the first work of fiction to imagine an apocalyptic plague capable of wiping out the vast majority of a population. I was in Sheffield when Barry Hines Threads was being filmed and Welsh references this and other works in her acknowledgements. The idea is nevertheless still one that grabs the imagination if only because of the type of scare that we have witnessed in recent years in respect of the likes of Sars and Bird Flu.
In this novel the infection itself is really just the background against which the struggle to suppress the information in Stevie’s possession is fought. It fits into the overall theme only when it allows Welsh to explore how the desire for scientific immortality can override a researcher’s basic humanity. In the race to be the first person to find a cure (for anything) those who have to be sacrificed along the way become nothing more than casualties of war- real victims of friendly fire. I assume that at some point in the next two books the causes behind the sweats is going to be come a focus and that the two medical strands will intertwine. I hope so, because if there is a weakness in this novel it is that there is no indication of any interest in where the plague-like illness has come from and at times it begins to seem like convenient setting rather than something of focal importance.
With that as my only real caveat, I would happily recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good thriller and I will certainly be looking out for the forthcoming books in the trilogy.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for making this available.