Book review: The Seal Club, by Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King

Friends since the 1990s, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King team up to present a triptych of page-turning novellas

Irvine Welsh PIC: Alistair Linford
Irvine Welsh PIC: Alistair Linford

Friends since the mid-1990s, when they were each propelled to fame by high-profile film adaptations of their best-selling debut novels, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King unite for the first time in a three-novella collection – a page-turning triptych of fast-flowing tales soaked in booze, dark humour, violence and the paradoxes of masculinity that will grab readers not least because two of the stories further augment the adventures of their authors’ most famous characters.

Warner’s Those Darker Sayings draws inspiration from his pre-celebrity days driving trains. An unlikely alliance of geeks, waifs and strays employed by British Rail in Glasgow hatch an elaborate scheme to relieve poorly programmed pub quiz machines up and down the country of tens of thousands of pounds. We soon learn that the gang’s mysteriously erudite ringleader, John Robert Slorach, owes a debt to history which no bounty in 50p coins can ever help him repay. Think a much less glamorous but higher-stakes version of Major Charles Ingram’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? scam, mired in distinctly Scottish transcendental pessimism and tragedy.

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From trains to Trainspotting, Scotland’s most famous fictional psychopath Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie returns in The Providers, an episode slotting in somewhere around the events of Welsh’s latest most recent novels, The Blade Artist and Dead Man’s Trousers. Fit, sober, and pursuing a successful career as an artist under the supernaturally stabilising influence of his pretty young American girlfriend Melanie, Begbie is on the cusp of leaving Edinburgh for a new life in California. But first he must pay a visit to his embittered sister Elspeth at her petty bourgeoisie Murrayfield home, to reluctantly mark their oxygen-huffing dying mother Val’s final Christmas. Once their heavily inebriated semi-derelict brother Joe shows up, a scabrously funny if ill-defined stramash of alcohol, accusations, revelations and body fluids begins to spill all over the living room, and we’re left to wonder where Franco’s legendary temper is hiding. True to type, he can’t resist his primal instinct to leave behind one last terrible burden for the women in his old life to bear.

Saving the best for last, King’s The Beasts of Brussels is an tidy morality tale that weighs the brutal street code of football hooligans against the hypocritical excesses of an exploitative media and sleazy Euro bureaucrats. As English casuals descend on the Belgian capital looking for trouble ahead of an international match, several narratives intertwine, including one that follows The Football Factory’s Tommy Johnson and crew on a chaotic mission across Europe that includes them getting attacked by a gang of heavy metal-loving German midgets, and another strand which sees a troubled gentle giant find a curious kind of redemption in the fold of his violent firm.

In a collection unselfconsciously steeped in echoes of the authors’ overbearingly best-loved works, there’s a strong sense that owning one’s past is always better than denying it.

The Seal Club, by Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King, London Books, £9.99

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