David Robinson Reviews: To the Dogs


‘Whether it appears on the bookshop shelves as a campus novel or a crime one, Welsh’s latest novel is more thought-provoking than most in either genre.’

David Robinson is, as ever, thoroughly impressed by Louise Welsh as she confounds genre expectations in her latest novel, To The Dogs.


To The Dogs
By Louise Welsh
Published by Canongate


‘It’s only January, but the bar for this year’s McIlvanney Prize is intimidatingly high already.’ That’s how I signed off my review of Louise Welsh’s The Second Cut two years ago, and as long as she keeps writing classy novels that can be vaguely categorised as crime and as long as Canongate keep bringing them out in January, there’s always going to be a danger of me repeating myself. 

That’s something Welsh herself seldom does. Not for her the well-trodden ways of so much crime fiction: body found, coroner called, clues discovered, and case solved by a troubled detective who is ultimately proven wise. Indeed, her new novel, To the Dogs, doesn’t have a single one of those ingredients, even though it does manage to include a very suspicious death and a no shortage of crimes.   

Just to prove how Welsh can’t see a crime novel cliché without wanting to dismember it, look at who she chooses for her main protagonist. Professor James Brennan FRSE FRSS is a university vice-principal who has stood in twice for his boss on trips to the Far East in the past month alone, and is hot favourite for the top job.  If you know anything about what that would entail, you’ll realise that running an organisation with 8,000 staff and 30,000 students from 140 countries doesn’t leave much time for spare-time crime-solving. (Those figures are from Glasgow University, where Professor Louise Welsh teaches creative writing, and even though Glasgow is never mentioned in To the Dogs, the Gilmorehill campus’s iconic Gilbert Scott Building is on its cover).  

Of course, there’s absolutely no reason why a top-flight academic can’t find himself enmeshed in a web of criminality, particularly when he is drawn into it not through his own misdeeds but those of his family. Brennan’s son Eliot is to blame. He is 23, and has been up to no good since he was a teenager: first bullying, then drug possession, then dealing. But now he has finally run out of road: in jail after breaking bail, he is a marked man. Unless his father can help him by a criminal act, he’ll most likely soon be dead.   

That, at least, is the exoskeleton of the plot, though it is also overlaid with a story about possible corruption in a major rebuilding project on the campus. Yet even as I type these words I am conscious of how scantily they do justice, not only to the quality of Welsh’s characterisation, but to the complexity of her novel’s themes.  

Jim Brennan is, we are told, not only the son of a violent criminal but has a professorship in criminology. If having a vice-principal as your main protagonist in a crime novel is already stretching credibility, those two things stretch it even further. My own guess is that Welsh knows this, which is why she fleshes out Jim’s own back story so well, not only showing his break with and resentment of his violent father, but how hard he had to struggle to leave his past behind, and correspondingly, how much the stability of his middle-class married life with his architect wife Maggie means as a result.  

Welsh doesn’t tell us this;  she shows it. When Eliot is arrested, in all the ‘Where did we all go wrong?’ conversations Jim has with his Maggie, he is just that fraction more ambivalent about what to do about his son.  Yes, he worries about Eliot and yes, he loves him, but he can’t help thinking that prison might actually be good for him. He would, you suspect, trot out the ‘You’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ lecture quite easily; Maggie never could. But to Jim – at least at the start – the law has to take its course. He doesn’t want to break it to help his son, not least because to do so would prove all those naysayers from the schemes right when they said he’d never make anything of himself.  On top of which, now he has so much further to fall, all the way from near the top of society to total disgrace at the bottom. All the same, if his son really is going to be murdered, won’t his principles go out of the window?  

Welsh has a knack for breathing life into unlikely protagonists, and if gay Glaswegian auctioneer Rilke was one (in The Cutting Room and The Second Cut), Brennan is most definitely another. Both read people well, in Brennan’s case whether in his dad’s old pub in the scheme on which he was brought up, or chairing a meeting of the university’s building procurement committee.  ‘Sometimes,’ he muses, ‘the truth lay in what people did not say, the tilt of a head, the squint of an eye.’ Picking up on such things gives him the ability to push his agenda through a meeting –  even a committee bristling with articulate independent-minded academics – so well that no one can even detect he had an agenda in the first place. For a would-be university principal, there’s no more useful skill. 

In truth, this is at least as much of a campus novel as a crime one, and although a few satirical darts are fired, here we have moved on a long way from the comedy of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and David Lodge’s The Campus Trilogy. In To the Dogs, the university is firmly and sometimes worryingly locked into the wider world. One Chinese alumnus, just presented with his degree by Brennan on his China trip, has been arrested as a dissident. Bearing in mind the university’s massive financial reliance on its Chinese students, what is to be done? If these students have been taught to think for themselves, does the university have any responsibility when they are thrown into jail for doing just that? Another former student, this time a Saudi prince, is wondering whether a donation to the university could have his name attached to it: given that the students are already talking about this as an example of ‘blood money’, should his offer be taken up? Meanwhile, Brennan’s inbox is filling up with all kinds of other demands on his time. Funding applications have to be read and decided on, references have to be written: getting one of them wrong might not be a crime but, as we are shown here, could easily be a tragedy.  

Both about the contents of Jim Brennan’s email inbox and in his personal life, in other words, Welsh implicitly asks one question above all others: What Would You Do? And because her characters are complex and not cardboard; because Brennan, for example, realises that Eliot’s delinquency might owe at least something to the way in which his all-consuming job meant they spent too little time together, we take that question seriously. Suppose we could only save our son’s life by committing an act which could ruin our own, would we do it? Suppose we discovered the name of the Chinese dissident and our comms team claimed not to know anything about it, would we leave it like that for the sake of a quiet life? What would you do? 

Whether it appears on the bookshop shelves as a campus novel or a crime one, Welsh’s latest novel is more thought-provoking than most in either genre. From its dynamic opening to its unpredictable ending, it also holds the reader’s attention throughout. Find yourself a comfy chair in front of the fire and give it a go. 


To the Dogs by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate, priced £16.99. 

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