Death is a Welcome Guest

death is a welcome guest

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second volume of Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy (I reviewed the first part, A Lovely Way to Burn here). Its simple but terrifying premise is that an incurable disease known as the sweats has spread throughout the world leaving only a handful of survivors in its wake. Welsh takes a leaf from the equally apocalyptic television series The Walking Dead by beginning this sequel, not where the first part ended, but with a new character and story. While A Lovely Way to Burn followed journalist Stevie Flint, intent on investigating her boyfriend’s murder as the disease spread around her, Death is a Welcome Guest focuses instead on stand-up comedian Magnus McFall, again telling his story from the first appearance of the sweats. Welsh borrows a trick form an earlier end-of-the-world novel, The Day of the Triffids, by having Magnus spend the most devastating period of the outbreak in prison (in Wyndham’s novel it was hospital) awaiting trial after attempting to rescue a woman who was being attacked, only to be accused of being the attacker. (Justice, and the prompts of conscience, will continue to be themes throughout the novel).

We first meet Magnus on the London tube heading to the O2 where he will be the support act for Johnny Dongo, a thankfully fictional funny man. Signs of the disease’s threat and spread are already apparent:

“Magnus glanced over the man’s shoulder at the headline: ‘Mystery Virus Wipes Out Cruise Ship’. A photograph of an impressive-looking liner illustrated the article about the latest outbreak of the sweats…There had been cases of the virus in London but nothing on that scale.”

After the gig, Magnus sees a man in an alley with girl who is either drunk, or perhaps ill: “he saw the floppiness of the girl’s limbs, the way the man was bearing all her weight…” He intervenes, but, by the time the police get there, finds himself cast as the rapist. Once in prison things quickly deteriorate on the outside (as Magnus puts it to his cell-mate, Jeb, “things are getting a bit biblical”) – soon they are no longer being fed and all they can hear are the sounds of a riot elsewhere in the building. As they attempt to escape, soldiers are on the streets of London with a ‘shoot first’ policy.

Magnus’ first thought is to get to his family on Orkney where he hopes the relative isolation will have allowed them to survive (hence his name, that of the Orcadian saint, and Welsh’s use of Edwin Muir’s apocalyptic ‘The Horses’ to epigraph the novel). Travelling north with Jeb they are rescued from attack by an army chaplain, Jacob Powe, who takes them to the new community he is attempting to establish at Tanqueray House. As with A Lovely Way to Burn, Welsh employs her skills as a crime novelist here as we discover two of the house’s residents have recently died, apparently by their own hand. Jacob, however, is not convinced:

“No one cuts their wrists in one clean slice. It takes a few goes before the natural instinct for self-preservation is completely overcome. Henry didn’t commit suicide, he was murdered.”

Once again, Welsh’s murder mystery unfolds with great craft and guile, all the while enhanced by the wider setting of the novel. For here, in this new territory, morality has yet to be defined, and Welsh is able to explore moral questions on a blank canvas. Can Jeb, given his prison background, ever be trusted or forgiven? When is killing justified? If the murderer is caught, how should he or she be punished?

All narratives which envision the world’s destruction seek to test humanity under extreme conditions, both as individuals (Magnus) and as groups (Jacob’s new community). They exemplify the novel as laboratory and the best of them teach us new things about what it means to be human. Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy is shaping up to be among the best: not only is it a gripping read but, just as the characters’ certainties fall away, so do the readers’.

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11 Responses to “Death is a Welcome Guest”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I recall your review of the first novel in this series, Grant. Good to know the second one lived up to your expectations. I don’t think it’s for me, but a friend might be interested. I’ll pass your recommendation along to her.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s great. I wonder why you don’t feel it’s for you – is the science-fiction element that puts you off?

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Yes, to some extent. Also, it’s part of a trilogy, which automatically signals a bigger commitment than a standalone novel. Having recently finished Banffy’s epic, I’m not sure I want to sign up to another series in the forseeable future! (The Banffy was wonderful, very rewarding, but variety is the spice of life and all that.)

      • 1streading Says:

        I agree – the problem I find is that I don’t really want to read a series of books by the same author close together but you also lose something if you read them as published, years apart. (At least I can look at my reviews as reminders!)

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds like my kind of read. I had heard good things about the first one.

  3. naomifrisby Says:

    I keep looking at these and wondering whether I should read them. You’ve just made my decision for me, sounds great!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was a massive fan of Survivors, the 1970s version. I saw it as an adult four or five years ago. It was surprisingly dark – I recall likable characters dying pointlessly of secondary infections picked up while foraging for supplies.

    I’d missed your review of the first volume. This sounds really good, particularly for someone like me who also has a fondness for horror and SF at times (noting there’s no SFnal elements as such, but post-apocalypse is a long standing SF genre in its own right).

    Odd though that both books also feature a murder. Who would have thought so many murders were being committed as the world ends. Do you think she’s going with a wider conspiracy plot?

    Back to film/tv, there’s a US film called Carriers which hits similar territory. It fared poorly due to being marketed as a zombie movie, which was odd as it features no zombies. Instead it’s about four twenty-something survivors of a virulent and 100% lethal epidemic making their way cross-country in the US to a place they figure they’ll be safe, and the awful moral choices they have to make along the way (avoiding spoilers, right at the start they encounter a desperate father and his already-infected young daughter). If you liked Survivors you’d probably like this too.

    The name Louise Welsh rings a bell. Should I know it?

    Oh, and to end an already long comment, any idea when the third’s due out?

    • 1streading Says:

      Welsh is writing the third volume at present.
      I still remember Survivors with an element of fear (I must have been quite young when I saw it) – there was a remake in 2008.
      The murder in the first volume isn’t directly related to the disease, but in the second volume it is. Both are interested in the way ideas of morality and justice change with the new circumstances.
      I’ll look out for Carriers.

  5. How I Spent My Summer Holidays | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. […]

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