Louise Welsh
(Canongate, £16.99)

How far should people go for their loved ones? At what point do parents stand back and let their offspring get what’s coming to them without trying to help?

That’s the dilemma facing Jim and Maggie Brennan. Their wayward son, Eliot, has been busted for drugs, and it looks like this time there will be no avoiding prison.

Jim and Maggie have always helped him out in the past, subbing him when he needed money, but the time has come, Jim decides, to institute a tough love regime. Eliot must learn to take responsibility for his own poor decisions.

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Jim’s resolve wobbles, however, when he learns that Eliot owes drugs and cash to some ruthless people who have the means to inflict harm on him, even while he’s behind bars.

He figures he can help out by finding the money and the drugs and returning them to their owners.

But doing so will require him to get his hands dirty and reclaim a part of himself he thought he’d ditched long ago.

To the Dogs is a crime novel with a noticeable lack of police, sleuthing and action.

Instead, Welsh retreats from the front line of the fight against crime to focus on the loved ones who have to deal with the fallout; specifically, for a psychological and ethical examination of Jim Brennan, a professor of criminology who is in line to become principal of his university.

Jim’s father was a hard-drinking, abusive small-time gangster, and Jim did his best to leave that background behind, embracing books and learning as a means of escape and never looking back.

The Herald: To The DogsTo The Dogs (Image: Canongate)

But now the ghosts of his past are lining up. He meets Cranston, a former pupil at his old school who has become a lawyer, and realises that Cranston might have the street-smarts and contacts for him to open up a dialogue with the gang that’s threatening his son.

But Eliot’s imprisonment isn’t the only dilemma in Jim’s life. While he’s trying to make deals with a criminal gang, his liberal conscience is pricked by the disappearance in Beijing of a former student, presumably snatched by the authorities – but where does he stand, politically, on the controversial bequest made to the university by a Saudi benefactor?

Should he allow his concerns for his son’s safety to influence which builder gets to construct a new uni building?

And how responsible should he feel for a student’s failure to get into Harvard because Jim apparently failed to send in a reference on time?

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The way Jim negotiates these moral mazes serves to illuminate his character. Raised with the values of a gangster, recognised by his wife-to-be as someone with “a willingness to go further than most men” and rescued by her from a life of drinking and brawling, Jim is starting to realise that the man he is now owes a lot more to his early upbringing than the persona he adopted to escape it.

If he has the nerve and resourcefulness to prevail, then his despised ne’er-do-well of a father must deserve some of the credit.

Although Jim’s interactions with his wife and younger child feel sketchier and more perfunctory than his walks on the wild side or his departmental strife, and the low-key ending feels a little anticlimactic, To the Dogs makes the effort to explore its protagonist in depth, with Welsh’s customary skill, and she subtly subverts the crime genre to use the plot not to expose who done it but to reveal who a man truly is.