Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh – a last hurrah for Renton and company

The heroes of Trainspotting keep on giving – albeit in increasingly cartoonish form

Irvine Welsh’s style is so pulpy nowadays that it’s hard to imagine Booker prize judges losing time arguing over his sexual politics, as they are said to have done before ruling out his 1993 debut, Trainspotting, for the misogyny of its heroin-addicted protagonist, Renton, and his fellow Edinburgh low-lifes, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud.

Welsh has since tended to play safer, softening the cynicism of that novel for preachier, more farcical capers that take care to turn the tables on their unreconstructed male leads (while still relying on them for tang). Somewhere along the way, though, the prose has grown uneven: much of Dead Men’s Trousers – a fifth and apparently last hurrah for Renton and company, now in middle age – unfolds in the kind of airport-thriller gush (champagne is a “bubbling elixir”; people don’t wear clothes but “sport” them) that’s now nearly as much a Welsh hallmark as his X-rated Scots (“Ah fuckin hate the way some American cunts call lassies cunts. Fuckin offensive, that shite”).

Set in the run-in to the Brexit vote, the plot turns on the guilt of Renton, now reformed as a jet-setting DJ promoter, over cash he once stole from Begbie – who for his part has put thug life behind him to become a celebrated sculptor, albeit one prone to deadly rage if his doting wife and daughters aren’t around to witness it (as shown in 2016’s The Blade Artist). Sick Boy, meanwhile, has a new app-accessible escort agency to front his exploitation of underage girls; and Spud, dirt-poor, is ready to accept a job offer that involves smuggling a kidney to Germany via Istanbul.

The scene where he winds up in a disused warehouse being operated on by Sick Boy, with only a YouTube tutorial for instruction – running on a laptop that’s low on power, with no charger – is one of several impressively hairy set pieces (others variously involve a samurai sword, an assault rifle and a sex tape unveiled over Christmas lunch).

Yet, overall, jeopardy fizzles out as Welsh – a little in love with his own voice – swamps the action with rants about “neoliberal planet-rapists” and “monarchy-worshipping paedophile bastards”; more entertaining, at least, than gripes about long-haul flight – Welsh now lives in Miami – and online banking (“It disnae work so smoothly when you’re between countries”). Still, the grumpy-old-raver vibe does produce probably the book’s most blackly funny exchange, when Sick Boy – a pimp, remember – is aghast that Renton, whose star client wants to be the next David Guetta, should be “coining it in fae they fucking shit EDM DJs”.

Like a superhero franchise, the Trainspotting universe gets a new origin story with every reboot. Skagboys showed how Renton’s initation into heroin came after police beat him up at Orgreave; The Blade Artist put Begbie’s bloodlust down to a teacher’s mismanagement of his boyhood dyslexia. The tweak in Dead Men’s Trousers is more meta: Trainspotting, it’s implied, was only published after Renton stole the manuscript from Spud and passed it off as his own. This nicely muddies Renton’s claim to be a reformed character – but only at the time-warping expense of having us believe that the original book was published in 2017 (and not 1993). It’s ultimately a mark of Welsh’s magic in having created such memorable characters in the first place that they survive this cartoonish revision. And to judge from hints that Begbie’s ever so slightly scary eldest daughter has one or two anger management issues of her own (Trainspotting: The Next Generation, anyone?), I wouldn’t bet on him leaving them for good any time soon.

• Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Irvine Welsh: ‘I thought, what if Begbie was the most self-controlled guy in the room?’
The Trainspotting author on returning to one of his most famous characters, overcoming dyslexia and shooting the film of Porno

Claire Kohda Hazelton

03, Apr, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Skagboys by Irvine Welsh – review

Irvine Welsh's prequel to his blockbuster Trainspotting misses the mark, writes Bella Bathurst

Bella Bathurst

14, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh review – the Trainspotting gang party on
Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud are back in this wildly farcical story of revenge, sentimentality and psychedelic drugs

Sam Leith

23, Mar, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Irvine Welsh: ‘I thought Trainspotting would be a cult book, but not generation-defining’
Irvine Welsh: ‘It sometimes feels like we’re sliding into fascism by stealth’

Sean O'Hagan

19, Aug, 2018 @7:59 AM

Article image
A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review – Edinburgh lowlife writ large… again
Irvine Welsh’s latest novel, which features a talking penis, showcases once more his mastery of the Edinburgh vernacular

Ben East

03, May, 2015 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins review – Irvine Welsh blends Miami vice and gender equality

Irvine Welsh's first all-American novel is a queasy sex comedy that pokes fun at media culture, says Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

27, Apr, 2014 @9:30 AM

Eight years on from Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh pens the sequel: Porno
Irvine Welsh is writing a follow-up to his novel Trainspotting, the book that spawned the film that started a run on Edinburgh-English dictionaries after the world was left wondering what exactly a blue-nosed Weegie gadgie was (that's an underprivileged member of the Glasgow Protestant community to those south of the border.)

Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent

22, Aug, 2001 @4:12 PM

Article image
Silverview by John le Carré review – the last complete masterwork?
The great spy novelist’s final full-length book is a precision-tooled cat and mouse chase from a bookshop in East Anglia to the old eastern bloc

Anthony Cummins

12, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh review – a troublesome follow-up to Trainspotting
Edinburgh’s hardman Begbie is given an unconvincing makeover as a sculptor, family man and torturer with moral intent

Sarah Ditum

07, Apr, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter review – last rites for a great artist
A fragmentary, poetic reimagining of Bacon’s last days in Madrid reads like a private communion with the painter

Tim Adams

29, Dec, 2020 @7:00 AM