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’.