"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Filth by Irvine Welsh

Filth is told through the deluded eyes of sadistic, coke-addicted, and bipolar Detective Sergeant (though hopefully soon to be Detective Inspector) Bruce Robertson. A black man has been brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death with a hammer, and Bruce, keen to enjoy a Christmastime holiday of debauchery in Amsterdam but with no suspects yet to speak of, seeks to frame some thugs for the crime before the investigation threatens to eat into his vacation. His colleagues aren’t convinced by his unscrupulous approach however, and as difficulties in incriminating the chosen scum mount, the promotion Bruce so desperately craves begins to look more and more out of reach as his mental state begins to rapidly deteriorate.

Filth is a fascinating book about the harrowing mental decline of one man - Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson - but it’s not all as depressing as it sounds. The novel has fun with Bruce’s ‘filthy’ behaviour, and the first half of the book is very funny: it is full of sharp, infectious humour as we observe Bruce try to manipulate his way to the top by pitting his co-workers against one another, as well as banging hookers, snorting lines of cocaine, and working through his friends’ wives.

In this way, the novel has an almost cartoonish quality; it is a grotesque black comedy on the surface, but the deeper into the book we venture, the closer we get to the dark corners of Bruce’s mind as we come to realise how broken and lost he is. Filth is so much more than it initially appears to be: underneath the repulsive hilarity and dark humour, Filth is bleak, brutal and powerful.

The book is much more of a character study than a novel with a strong story; nonetheless Bruce’s intriguing and complex character effortlessly holds the novel afloat. The first person perspective means that the majority of the novel is written in Welsh’s trademark Edinburgh dialect, which I think adds a distinct immersive quality to the book, an’ althoogh this is tricky tae kin at first, it doesnae matter as ye will suin gie use tae it. Bruce is an unreliable narrator, but not through intent; he is deluded and confused, and the truths of his past and present are revealed to us and to him through an unusual narrative voice which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses: a tapeworm which resides within Bruce’s bowels. The tapeworm begins as a parasite with little conversational capacity, merely saying ‘eat’ over and over again for its first few appearances, but as the book gets deeper and darker, it gains a more fluent voice and helps Bruce to confront his trauma. The tapeworm distorts the text, feeding through Bruce’s perspective, like so:

Bruce himself epitomises the title of this book; his behaviour is filthy, but as the novel progresses the filthier he seems to become physically too - he develops tapeworm, he has an eczema rash ‘down there’, he never washes his trousers and he always comments on the horrid stink they exude, and his home falls into a messy disarray too. He is fun and I couldn’t help but like him, but at the same time he despicable and more than anything by the end he is a pitiful creature; I found him quite relatable in certain ways, although I’m sure many will just despise him. 

Filth has plenty of diverse and interesting characters. There's Bruce's boss Bob Toal who fantasises about writing a movie script, Peter Inglis, a colleague who Bruce suspects might be gay, and inexperienced co-worker Ray Lennox who loves cocaine and over whom Bruce holds a certain power since he knows he harbours an unusually small penis in his trousers. Then there’s Clifford Blades or ‘Bladesey’, an insecure and kindly Englishman and Bruce’s alleged best mate who accompanies him to Amsterdam. Bladesey suffers greatly from Bruce’s behaviour when Bruce decides to begin prank calling his wife - the voluptuous Bunty - pretending to be a pervert from Manchester, amongst another heinous acts committed against his friend.

Filth affected me deeply and is a new favourite of mine: it is very funny - especially Bruce and Bladesey’s trip to Amsterdam - it has an innovative narrative style, it addresses serious issues such as mental health, homosexuality and drug abuse, and it has a shocking, sad and harrowing finale which won’t fail to disturb. It manages to seamlessly mingle dark humour, poignancy and a bleak and gritty overtone to create a profoundly powerful novel that completely floored me. 

Rating: 10/10

My other Irvine Welsh reviews:


  1. I haven't read this, but I'm impressed with your taste.
    Try this for a list of *unmissable films*

    A Bittersweet Life
    The *Sympathy for Vengeance* trilogy
    Life of David Gale
    From Hell

    1. Thanks Brian. I've already seen Downfall, Irreversible and From Hell - all of which are brilliant. I'll be sure to check the others out.

  2. an amazing novel, currently doing my master in arts dissertation about bruce's fascinating character. Also i really like him my favourite fictional character. Thanks for this review.