I’m not sure how I came across William McIlvanney – probably one of those unsolicited on-line recommendations that arrive because I’ve read other books in the genre – crime and police procedurals. I do like book series, to see characters develop and the writers sometimes seeming to grow into the world they have created. Sometimes of course, a writer runs out of steam or the characters don’t develop or whatever it was that appealed to the reader in the first place evaporates, or maybe the reader just becomes fed up.
I somehow came across William McIlvanney and his first book in the trilogy set in Glasgow,
Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991) are crime novels featuring Inspector Jack Laidlaw. Laidlaw is considered to be the first book of Tartan Noir…
Laidlaw was written in a very different way from most crime novels, quite dense but with mainly short, well-crafted sentences and evocative descriptions of place and character, cleverly evoked. It was so different that for the first few chapters I felt I was having to work to read it – which is actually a positive. I don’t like to be spoon fed by an author, I don’t want the book I’m reading to lack substance in its style, to be simplistic and thin. On the other hand I don’t mean the style should be overcomplicated or full of arcane and obscure language, or weird sentence constructions, pompous or pretentious. I mean that I want to be fully engaged because I need to make some effort – and with writing like McIlvanney’s, to be rewarded. The detectives in the novels don’t find all the clues all at once, they don’t know what is relevant and what is a red herring, they don’t know which characters are innocent, guilty, involved in something else unrelated, are lying, are mistaken, are mischievous – and nor do we.
Laidlaw was published in 1977, and in a way reads like historical fiction – the way the police work and the society they work in has changed extraordinarily in the nearly half a century since it was written. However, it doesn’t seem dated, and that’s because of McIlvanney’s skill as a writer. I became completely engrossed in it, but it took me longer to read because it is so dense – and that is a positive not negative comment. Luckily, as soon as I had finished I was able to start the second Laidlaw novel, The Papers of Tony Veitch. Would I be disappointed? No, absolutely not, if anything it is even better, and certainly it is funnier. There were elements of humour in the previous novel, but this second book has caused me to smile a great deal, and read out sentences to husband reading in bed beside me. It’s not the sort of humour which causes burst of laughter, but is the sort which you have to read a couple of times because it is just so clever and so amusing. The descriptions are also wonderful, the gangland characters, the small time crooks, the pathetic petty criminals are vividly brought to life, the poverty of many, the ordinary and mundane lives of most, and the sudden explosive brutality are completely believable.
William McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock in 1937 and eventually became an English teacher. He taught until he was able to become a full-time writer in the 1970’s. He was strongly socialist, and I think that comes through in the way he writes about those who were neglected and even forgotten by society. He died in 2015 and a newspaper obituary commented “Many authors are admired. Many are respected. Few are loved as he was, for what they are as well as for what they have written.”