The Bullet Trick is a story of darkness and night, where depravity lurks in the theatres of London and on the pavements of Glasgow and Berlin, the gloomy streets filled with danger and menace. In this world of drunks and harlots, striptease artists and small-time crooks, petty criminals and corrupt cops, author Louise Welsh takes us on a journey, bringing to life the sordid underbelly of cabaret culture where loyalty and betrayal go hand in hand.
Her chief protagonist is the cynical Scotsman William Wilson, a down on his luck conjurer, mentalist and illusionist. William is used to life's hard knocks and is currently mired in gambling debts, he has a fondess for heavy drinking, and as we meet him, he is just trying to scrape together enough money to survive in his home town of Glasgow where he's living in a dumpy, ramshakle studio flat near the center of the city.
William seems intent to drink himself to death, favoring pubs with no mission other than to "empty your pockets, fill you full of bile and kick you into the street at closing time." But it is in London toiling through the British comedy circuit - "the warm up for a whole trough of comedians and standups" - where William finds himself doing a magic act in a Soho Night Club owned and operated by petty criminal Bill Noon and his young boyfriend Sam.
Forced by Bill to buy an unfunny string of smutty schoolboy jokes, "that no one finds funny but everyone laughs at," William performs for a macho police crowd celebrating the retirement of Chief Inspector Montgomery, a cop with shady past. Bill would like nothing better than to know what Inspector Mongomery has on his dad. The Chief had also promised to tell Bill the truth about his mother Gloria, gone missing back in 1970, her fate never disovered, although the obvious conclusion is that she is probably dead.
Bill gets William to pick-pocket the Inspector, hoping that an envelope he has in his possession will perhaps hold the key to unlocking the mystery of what really happened to Bill's parents. Suddenly, however, William finds himself stuck with the goods. While Montgomery stands just beyond the door of Bill's office, Sam thrusts the envelope into his hand and William eventually discovers that this vital document - which on a whim he posts to his mother in Scotland - is in fact, going to vastly affect his life, becoming both his insurance and perhaps even the bait to his eventual downfall.
When William's chain-smoking manager Rich offers him a job working as an illusionist at the Schall und Rauch, a rundown theatre in Berlin, William jumps at the offer. And it his here that he meets Sylvie, an American exotic dancer who also becomes his muse and partner in crime, and her friend and father-figure Dix, who is also up to his eyeballs in debt. Both Dix and Sylive ensare William in an implacable web of events that reach far beyond his control.
Meanwhile, Montgomery is out there somewhere, eager to get his hands on the evidence that might damn him. Montgomery eventually follows William to Berlin where the contents of the envelope become responsible for everything horrible that happens to William. William thinks he has ended up committing an act murder, which Montgomoery somehow knows about - just as William knows of his crime. And as the time of reckoning comes, the policeman and the magician square off and find out just how far both are willing to go.
In flashes of the past and a reflective present, William reveals he's a man with a mission. He's the "Prince of Illusion" that has aged into a thirty-three-year-old trickster, "standing before dead-eyed hotel mirrors murmuring the patter beneath his breath." Yet William is still a man who is hungry for applause as he is a master to any deception.
As he schemes and worries, composing new ruses, William guides the audience, forcing them - and us - to glance away from the stage at exactly the right moment. In Sylvie, William recognizes another lonely soul, a kindred spirit thrust into a harsh environment and both are drawn together into a quagmire of moral uncertainty that is inextricably linked to the subculture of strip bars and nightclub acts where the bullet trick, the death-defying illusion destined for their grand finale, is made all too real.
Welsh excels in describing these amoral characters who exist on the fringes of society, often marginalized with no prospects and with very little to lose, and where cheap sex, lots of drugs and violence are part of their lives. Amongst the the hazy disco lights, the cigarette smoke that shelves the air, the rooms that smell of alcohol, testosterone and sweat, here are the policemen, conmen, bent businessmen, strippers and even the illusionists, all too ready to form uneasy alliences where one hand inevitably washes over the other. Mike Leonard October 06.