If Marabou Stork Nightmares diagnoses the ineffectiveness of the court system, Welsh’s third novel Filth turns its gaze on another state institution, the police. In contrast to the decentred nature of earlier fictions, Filth mimics the narrative logic of crime writing whereby the plot traditionally revolves around an outspoken detective figure and his attempts to solve a murder. In this case Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is on the hunt for the killer of Efan Wurie, a journalist whose father is the ambassador for Ghana.
As with many forms of crime writing, the plot exists as a loose framework upon which to hang the figure of the detective. Critic John Scagg’s describes the ‘Private I. ’ of detective fiction as a form of ‘Private Eye’, one which grants the reader a unique perspective on the world of the text . [i] In contrast to the quixotic Marlowe of Raymond Chandler or the stubbornly righteous Rebus of Ian Rankin, Bruce Robertson is an anti-hero, an accumulation of all that is most loathsome in Welsh’s earlier creations.
Far from the enigmatic justice seeker, Robertson is a racist, misogynistic, homophobe. He combines a misanthropic personality with heavy drinking, drug taking and a ruthless desire to climb the career ladder within the police. Similar to Roy Strang in Marabou Stork Nightmares, Robertson is a character that it is difficult to spend time with. As the novel progresses we learn that, far from hunting Wurie’s killer, the detective is attempting a cover up as he in fact is the murderer. Unable to form bonds with family, friends or colleagues the novel ends with Robertson committing suicide.
If Filth sees the development of more extravagant plots, the same could also be said about the novel’s form. Welsh attempts to develop, arguably with limited success, the kind of narrative experimentalism that defined his earlier fiction. Robertson’s first person narrative is sporadically interrupted by that of a tapeworm which, due to his unhealthy lifestyle, is slowly gestating in his stomach. The worm’s voice appears in speech bubbles over the top of the main narrative, gradually taking up more space as the book progresses.
The tapeworm becomes the voice of Robertson’s conscience which, by the end of the novel, reveals his personal history and the events which moulded his detestable character. Welsh’s sojourn into crime writing is indicative of his earlier fiction in that it is the sociological implications opened up by the genre he is particularly interested in. As Aaron Kelly argues: ‘Welsh makes subversive use of the detective thriller in Filth to turn the genre’s formal logic of pursuing crime towards a questioning of the very legitimacy of the police and the state. ’