Throwback Thursday: The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Today I’m looking back at my post on The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh, a dark, psychological thriller, full of atmosphere and claustrophobic tension. I first reviewed it on August 29, 2012.

My review begins:

The Girl on the Stairs is Louise Welsh’s latest book. It’s a book that once I started reading it I just had to finish it. It’s full of suspense and increasing tension as Jane moves to an apartment in Berlin to join her partner, Petra. Everything is new to her, she only speaks a little German, she doesn’t know the area and has no friends there. And she’s pregnant.

Click here to read my full review


The Second Cut by Louise Welsh

Canongate Books| 27 January 2022| 372 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 3.5*


Auctioneer Rilke has been trying to stay out of trouble, keeping his life more or less respectable. Business has been slow at Bowery Auctions, so when an old friend, Jojo, gives Rilke a tip-off for a house clearance, life seems to be looking up. The next day Jojo washes up dead.

Jojo liked Grindr hook-ups and recreational drugs – is that the reason the police won’t investigate? And if Rilke doesn’t find out what happened to Jojo, who will?

Thrilling and atmospheric, The Second Cut delves into the dark side of twenty-first century Glasgow. Twenty years on from his appearance in The Cutting Room, Rilke is still walking a moral tightrope between good and bad, saint and sinner.(Amazon UK)

I enjoyed reading Louise Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room back in 2005, even though it was not the usual type of book that I read, and was way out of my comfort zone. I remember that its dark, edgy atmosphere made it compelling reading about Rilke an auctioneer who discovered a collection of violent and highly disturbing photographs. So when I saw that she’d written another novel, about, Rilke, The Second Cut I was keen to read it. I had forgotten most of the detail in The Cutting Room, but that didn’t matter as this book reads well as a standalone.

Twenty years have passed since the first book was published and much has changed in the world, but Rilke at forty seven years old, is now only four years older in this second book, still an auctioneer at Glasgow’s Bowery Auctions and ‘too tall, too thin and too cadaverous to look like anything other than a vampire on the make’. I found this somewhat confusing as The Second Cut is clearly set in the present day, with all the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years regarding the rights of LBGTQ+ people, and the references to Covid.

Just like The Cutting Room, I found this compelling reading, but not always comfortable reading, particularly about the darker side of Glasgow’s violent underworld and gay scene. The characters are vividly drawn and from start to end the pace is fast, and the details about the auction house are fascinating. There are two main threads – the first is Rilke’s determination to find out how and why his old acquaintance Jojo turned up dead on a doorstep.

Aand the second follows his suspicions about the truth behind the house clearance of Ballantyne House, a neglected Georgian house in Galloway, less than two hours from Glasgow. It was crammed with many valuable items along with the dross. It was owned by Mrs Forrest, an old lady who had been a concert pianist but was now suffering from dementia, so her son and nephew were dealing with the sale of the property and its contents. I read a lot of crime fiction, so I soon guessed what had happened to Mrs Forrest, and similarly I was immediately suspicious about what was going on in the polytunnels.

But it’s the gay scene that is the main focus of the book and in her Afterword Louise Welsh explains that she had written The Cutting Room twenty years ago in a white-hot rage about the intensity of the hostile environment against LBGTQ+ people. Although much has changed since then with equal marriages, increased visibility, access to hate laws, improved awareness of queer and trans rights, with a general consensus that violence and prejudice against LBGTQ+ people is wrong, outrages still occur. She writes that the Glasgow she inhabits is largely better, in terms of sexuality, than it was twenty years ago. I have to say that some of the scenes in The Second Cut seem to be stuck in the past – or have I got that wrong?

Many thanks to Canongate Books for a review copy via NetGalley

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh: Mini Review

A Lovely Way to Burn

John Murray|2004|358 pages|Hardback| Library book|4*

I’ve read a few of Louise Welsh’s books and enjoyed each one so when I saw this on the library shelves I borrowed it. I agree with Val McDermid’s description of it on the back cover: ‘a terrifying journey into the possible, this is dystopia for today. Feral, frightening and fascinating, A Lovely Way to Burn gripped and chilled me in equal measure.

Once I started reading I just didn’t want to stop. I was gripped as Stevie Flint, a presenter on a TV show, Shop TV, finds her boyfriend, surgeon Simon Sharkey, lying dead in his apartment. At first it appeared that he had died of natural causes and then that he had killed himself. But he had left a hidden note for her with instructions to deliver his laptop to Malcolm Rhea, a colleague at St Thomas’s Hospital. Under no circumstances was she to take it to the police or to entrust it anyone except Rhea. Stevie is determined to find out what happened to him. Her search takes her into the most dangerous situations.

It is a horrifying vision of what could happen when a new and unidentified virus, known as ‘the sweats’ sweeps the globe. London quickly descends into chaos – supermarkets are looted, roads are gridlocked as people try to flee the infection, then society just crumbles as people look out only for themselves, rioting and eventually succumbing to the mysterious illness and dying. 

After quite a leisurely start the pace picks up, and the tension rises rapidly before reaching a nightmare scenario as decay and disintegration set in. It’s a mix of murder mystery and a surreal and frightening story of a plague. This is the first in Louise Welsh’s Plague Trilogy, but it is complete in itself. I have the second book, Death is a Welcome Guest and it looks as though it has a new set of characters – I’m looking forward to reading it!

First Chapter First Paragraph: A Lovely Way to Burn

eca8f-fistchapEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or is planning to read soon.

This week’s opening is from A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh.

A Lovely Way to Burn (Plague Times, #1)


It begins with a Prologue:

London witnessed three shootings that summer, by men who were part of the Establishment. The first  was the Right Honourable Terry Blackwell, Tory MP for Hove who, instead of going to his consistency as planned, sat in a deck chair on the balcony of his Thames-side apartment on sweltering Saturday in June and shot dead six holidaymakers.


It doesn’t look like murder in a city full of death.

A pandemic called ‘The Sweats’ is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie’s search for Simon’s killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first outbreak in the Plague Times trilogy. Chilling, tense and completely compelling, it’s Louise Welsh writing at the height of her powers.

I’ve borrowed this book from the library as I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Louise Welsh and I’m hoping it’ll be just as hypnotically compulsive reading as her other books.

What do you think – would you read on?

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

It was a treat to read Tamburlaine Must Die, a short book that I read in a day. I can’t remember when I last read a book in a day!

Sometimes novellas, such as this is with just 140 pages, can seem lacking, needing more depth of character or plot, leaving me feeling that it should really have been a full length novel, or an even shorter story. But Tamburlaine Must Die has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world.

I wrote about the opening paragraph and synopsis on Tuesday and almost immediately after I began to read the book. Written in the first person and set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella, but as she writes in the Author’s Note:

History has bequeathed us a tantalising framework of facts – the Elizabethans were as prolific as the Stasi when it came to official documents. Yet the facts can’t tell us the full tale and historian’s theories on Marlowe’s death are ultimately well informed, meticulously researched speculation.

We know that Marlowe dies in a house in Deptford. We know the date of his death and the three men present. We know the nature of the wound that killed him. Everything else is educated guesswork, or in this author’s case, a fiction.

Tamburlaine Must Die conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He is very aware that death is just around the corner:

A dagger can find its way into a belly or a back before the victim spies it. I thought I felt the prickle of surveillance on my shoulders. And though I knew it was most likely the effect of my own blood running faster in my veins, I made my way from the crush of people, trying to keep note of who was around me, checking  if any faces lingered in the thinning crowd. (page 31)

As well as Marlowe, Louise Welsh throws in Dr Dee and Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and refers to Walter Raleigh too. In such a brief book she has managed to convey the political and the seedy underworld of the Elizabethan period, the dishonesty and love of intrigue, the dangers of the plague and the threat of war. Has much changed since then, I wonder.

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh: a Book Review

The Girl on the Stairs

The Girl on the Stairs is Louise Welsh’s latest book. It’s a book that once I started reading it I just had to finish it. It’s full of suspense and increasing tension as Jane moves to an apartment in Berlin to join her partner, Petra. Everything is new to her, she only speaks a little German, she doesn’t know the area and has no friends there. And she’s pregnant.

It begins slowly and calmly, with Jane alone in the flat. Whilst Petra is out at work, she explores the neighbourhood, the streets, the church and the forbidding, derelict building (the backhouse) that overlooks their apartment building at the back.

She meets some of the other residents of the apartment building, their neighbour Dr Mann and his daughter Anna – the girl on the stairs. She hears them arguing and fears Dr Mann is abusing Anna. She ventures out at 3.00am one dark morning drawn by a flickering light in the backhouse, worried that Anna was hiding in there:

Jane looked up towards the looming bulk of the backhouse, hearing the sound of her own breath, shallow and uneven. the light was gone from the window. This was her cue to turn back, but she stepped on, into the dimness of the courtyard, tensing against the cold and the sensation of unseen eyes. The backhouse door gaped; beyond it, nothing but blackness. (page 55)

Then there are the Beckers, who live in the ground-floor flat. Heike Becker is suffering from dementia and insists that Dr Mann had killed his wife and buried her beneath the floorboards in the backhouse.

Jane’s suspicions about her neighbours grow, and her sense of isolation mounts when Petra has to go to Vienna for a week for her work. The book is narrated by Jane, which means that there is only Jane’s perspective on events and as more secrets are revealed I began to wonder just how paranoid Jane was and how much was down to her imagination. Jane tries to befriend Anna, who regards her with suspicion and contempt – are Jane’s fears justified or is she delusional? The uncertainties and ambiguities kept me guessing to the end.

The Girl on the Stairs is a dark, psychological thriller, full of atmosphere and claustrophobic tension. I really enjoyed it.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (2 Aug 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848546483
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848546486
  • Source: Review copy from the publishers
  • My rating: 4.5/5

Friday Finds – Books and a Bookshop

New-to-me books this week are Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh,  and The Sisters who would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle.

Louise Welsh is the author of The Cutting Room, a dark mystery, which I read several years ago and thought was good, if rather scary. Naming the Bones looks promising:

Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? (Blurb on the back cover)

Dipping into the book I see that the story moves from Edinborough and Glaslow to the Isle of Lismore a small island off the west coast of Scotland. I’m tempted to start reading at once and as I’m nearing the end of Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye I think this will be my next book.

I seem to be drawn these last few months to the Tudor period. Having read fiction – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell) and currently reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Thomas More’s family) I also bought a book of non-fiction, namely The Sisters who would be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle. This is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen”,  and her sisters. I nearly didn’t buy this book as I don’t like pictures of headless women on book covers! But the blurb by Julian Fellowes attracted my attention:

An enthralling story of tyranny and betrayal … meticulous history that reads like a bestselling novel.

I bought these books in a real bookshop – Main Street Books in St Boswell’s. I first found out about this shop from Cornflower’s blog (where she has lovely photos of the shop) and it is a real find – not only books, but a cafe and gift shop and they also sell antiques. We’d been to Melrose and stopped in Main Street Books on the way home (just a short detour), where we browsed and had lunch.

Friday Finds is  hosted by Should Be Reading.