Book Diary: Cathi Unsworth – Weirdo

I have fallen insanely far behind (by more than twenty books, in fact) and have no clue how I am ever going to catch up with my reading. But I still want to give it a try, so expect a couple of very short posts in the future.

Weirdo by Cathi UnsworthStarting with Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth, an author I have seen compared to James Ellroy. I can’t say that this comparison appears very likely to me, and I suspect it has become the kind of knee-jerk reflex literary critics like to indulge in, the crime fiction equivalent of comparing any literary fiction novel that is even slightly off the beaten realistic tracks to Thomas Pynchon. Another comparison makes a lot more sense to me, might even denote an actual influence, in so far as apparently Derek Raymond encouraged Cathi Unsworth to take up writing crime fiction when she was interviewing him for a British music magazine. While she is missing his Celinesque fervour, Unsworth shares with Raymond the unflinching gaze on British society that does not turn away from even its darkest and ugliest aspects but explores them relentlessly. But her scope is broader than Raymond’s – where he dissects, she surveys, where he puts a single under the miscrope she follows the movements of a whole colony. Neither of them is simply a detached observer, however – even if it is less obvious, Cathi Unworth’s writing is fuelled by the same rage as Raymond’s, rage at injustice and cruelty, at the corruption that pervades society on all levels.

This does not make for comfortable reading, and if Weirdo leans somewhat more towards being a mystery than a noir novel (although it combines elements of both), there is nothing at all cozy about it. The plot progresses along two threads, past and present, and this skillfully constructed double narrative leads to a double mystery – until the end, the reader is left in the dark not just about the identity of who committed the crime but also about who was its victim. Keeping the latter a secret could have become very awkward during the course of the novel, and it shows just how good a writer Cathi Unsworth is that this never happens, that the reader never gets the impression that she is willfully withholding information just for the sake of building a mystery.

Weirdo might not re-invent the crime fiction genre but it stands out for its unwavering, penetrating look on British society and the uncompromising bleakness that results from this. Cathi Unsworth is definitely an author to look out for, and I’m certain I will be reading more of her work.



  1. I’m always amazed by the sheer breadth of genres you devour (emphasised by the fact that, as I write this, your ‘currently reading’ sidebar shows Bring Up The Bodies, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. Sheesh. This one sounds like a remarkably clever book and I’m tempted to recommend it to my mother, who’s much more of a thriller reader than I am. One question, though: at the risk of sounding completely educated, what is ‘Celinesque fervour’? Please explain 🙂

  2. Thank you – “breadts of genres” is one way of seeing it, another would of course be to say that I’m totally indiscriminate in what I’m reading and lacking in taste. 😛

    The sidebar needs some updating. I might look into using a Goodreads widget instead, it’s getting a bit tiring to have to update my current reading in three places.

    Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a French writer who lived from 1894 to 1961 and is best known for his first novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) which is likely also the one that influenced Derek Raymond most. It’s characterized by a very oral and impassioned tone, the first person narrator spitting his hate and bile over everything he perceives to wrong with the world around him (which is, basically, everything), and it’s that what I was trying to refer to with “Celinesque fervour” – sorry for being more obscure than would have been strictly necessary. 😛
    Céline is also my favourite example that writers can be bad, even outright evil persons and still write great works – he went on to write what are apparently some of the most violent and disgusting anti-semitic pamphlets ever published, collobareted with the German occupation of France, after the war spend some time in prison for that and then published a trilogy of novels (D’un chateau l’autre, Nord, Rigodon) that in my opinion (I do belong to a minority there, though) are among the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

  3. Sorry, that should have been ‘completed uneducated’ in my original post. Obviously. It was late at night and I’d been listening to bagpipes for too long. My brain had ceased to function.

    Thank you for the information about Celine, though. I didn’t know any of that. Fascinating… So many avenues of literature still to explore… And no, obscurity is good. It means that other people can learn things from you 🙂

  4. Hehe, that is precisely the reason why I have stopped re-reading comments I’ve posted on any blogs or forums, because there’s always bound to be some embarrassing typo or (my speciality) forgotten words somewhere.

    Also: yeah – excessive exposure to bagpipe noise can turn even the best brain to mush. 😛

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