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Literature / The Blade Artist

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The Blade Artist (2016) is the eleventh novel by Irvine Welsh, and unusually focuses primarily on one member of "The Leith Mythos", the infamous Scottish hardman/psychopath Francis "Franco" Begbie. Picking up in the present day many years after the events of Porno, Franco has done what nobody can fathom and gone straight, via the classic Choose Life monologue (the non-snarky version) once stated by his old friend Mark Renton. But his life is better than just a drab old middle class existence; he's married Melanie, a wealthy American prison therapist who helped turn his life around during his latest stint in jail. Now going by "Jim Francis", he's become a success in his own right by sculpting head busts of famous British and American figures and then mutilating them in shocking and various ways, exhibiting them as an artist in California. He views with contempt those who think he's just putting on an act or that he'll relapse in a moment's notice. The father of two lovely little girls, and having dumped alcohol and tobacco, he's a picture of self-control and reformation, and the psycho villain days are well behind him... or are they?


To achieve this cushy new lifestyle, Jim had to leave Leith and his old life behind, and that he did for six long years. But he receives a phone call from his younger sister Elspeth, who tells him that his abandoned son Sean Begbie has been murdered. Determined to find the killer, Franco returns to Edinburgh and becomes reacquainted with several important figures from his past. These include his brother Joe Begbie, an alcoholic drifter, Elspeth herself, who doubts his motives and reformation (unlike her husband Greg, who sees the best in everyone), his other estranged son, Michael, his ex-girlfriend (and who he used to abuse) June, the mother of the boys, and notable figures on both sides of the law. As he investigates the crime, Begbie faces the judgemental expectations of many who expect him to conjure his old psychosis and "solve" problems that way, while also confronting his historical demons and the realities of Leith in the current day. And as Melanie learns the horrifying truth about a pair of thugs who threatened her family just before Jim left, she starts to worry about her husband's troubled past and ambiguous present...


In 2013 Welsh published a short story in the street newspaper The Big Issue named He Ain't Lager which serves as a mini-prequel to the novel, establishing Franco's engagement to Melanie, Elspeth's suspicious lack of trust in his change of character, Joe's growing alcoholism and Valerie Begbie's losing fight against cancer. This was itself preceded by a story called Elspeth's Boyfriend, roughly contemporaneous with Porno (i.e. prior to Franco's reformation), which introduced Greg to the Begbie family and showed how they celebrate Christmas. This latter story was included in the short story collection Reheated Cabbage (2009).

Provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ascended Extra: As the book revolves around Franco, his friends, family and business associates from previous novels go from being satellite characters to having major roles, such as: Elspeth, Greg, Joe, Sean, Michael, Larry Wylie, Nelly, June, Cha Morrison, and Davie "Tyrone" Power.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The last page has Begbie running into someone strongly implied to be Renton. It's a bit more optimistic because he's on a crowded plane and has just promised his wife that his violent days are behind him.
  • Character Development: Begbie has gone through some, becoming more well-read, amicable and accepting of others, though his violent, psychopathic tendencies and urges - apparently stemming from what American analysts diagnose as intermittent explosive disorder - tend to resurface.
  • Continuity Nod: As in most of Welsh's work, various characters from other books make cameo appearances or are referenced to, including: Juice Terry, Spud, Gav Temperley, Tommy, John Strang and Renton.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Like the book itself, all the chapters lead with "The". The sequence of chapters named "The Delivery Boy 1-5" pertain to Franco's past with his grandfather's misdeeds and his own Start of Darkness, and they are written in italic text. The chapters "The Dance Partner 1-6" describe the early period when he met with and lived with Melanie in italics and then her present day experiences in his absence written in normal print. The other chapters refer to significant places, people or events, e.g. "The Sister" when he meets Elspeth after his flight.
  • Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club: Davie "Tyrone" Power's criminal association is described as this. It's threatened by the rise of the more chaotic and blatantly violent younger criminal enterprise lead by Anton Miller.
  • Let the Past Burn: Begbie torches "The howf", an old docklands outbuilding appropriated by Grandad Jock and his friends as their HQ. It's associated with a lot of evil, being nearby to where they killed Johnnie Tweed. It's also where Jock told Franco as a teenager to smash Joe's face in with a brick, one of his earliest acts of cruelty (if motivated in part by self defence). Of course though, the burning serves a secondary purpose: to burn the sliced up Larry and his murderer Anton both to death.
  • Man on Fire: Anton after Franco pulls a Kill It with Fire on him.
  • Meaningful Rename: Franco changed his name to Jim Francis on marrying Melanie Francis and moving to America. While it's fairly rare for a man to take his wife's name, it also serves as a pseudo-anagram of Francis James (i.e. Jim) Begbie. When he returns to Leith, he becomes referred to in the narration and by the characters as Franco Begbie again, foreshadowing his symbolic return to his dark past.
    • Despite never marrying him, the depressed and rejected June Chisolm took on the Begbie name for herself and their sons.
  • Mysterious Past: Zigzagged from Melanie's perspective. She thinks she knows Jim's past and that he's changed for the better, but she comes to experience serious doubts about this both when being informed of the disappearance of two drifters who threatened their family and when she goes to bring him home. At the end she detects honesty in some of what he says and contends herself that she does now understand him but She doesn't.
  • Start A New Life: Begbie has given up his violent ways and settled down with a family in America.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Begbie has to return to Edinburgh after being away for several years.
  • Whole Plot Reference: The story can be read as a homage to Get Carter with a few significant differences, such as the fact that Jack Carter never had his redemption even as a possibility in the film.

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