Start talking about tartan noir and chances are you won’t get past the first sentence without the mention of William McIlvanney. Tartan noir began with his novel, Laidlaw and his trilogy is spoken of with reverence by those in the know. Ian Rankin credits McIlvanney as the inspiration behind his own decision to become a crime writer. Yet, two years ago, when I first heard him talk at EIBF, his novels were all out of print. I trawled Edinburgh’s second hand bookshops for a copy of Laidlaw but still had to resort to buying online. Good old abebooks, I say. However, the editorial director of Canongate books was sitting in that same audience, obviously as horrified as the rest at this state of affairs. Two years later and Canongate have republished the whole trilogy in splendid new livery.

Do these crime novels stand the test of time? Without a doubt, despite the lack of technology in the detecting methods employed. I suppose if McIlvanney had written them more recently, they would be replete with profanity. Personally I am very happy that they are not.

I first read Laidlaw (1977) last year and then Canongate announced republication. At which point I decided to save my review until the whole trilogy became available. I gave Laidlaw 5-stars last year and enjoyed it so much that I decided to reread it again for this post. And you know the 5-star rating remains intact.

The body of a young woman is discovered in a Glaswegian park.  She is a gangster’s daughter and her murderer also has contacts with the criminal underworld – some of whom wish to get him safely out of the city, others to render rough justice.  The third hunt is by the police, by the eponymous Laidlaw. The question is who will get there first?

What makes this such an outstanding read?  Simply put McIlvanney’s pacing and use of language.  Character studies nailing their subjects in just a few sentences, the streets of Glasgow appearing full of menace and threat (and definitely no advertisement for next year’s Commonwealth games) and surprising, unforgettable metaphor.  If ever anyone tells me that crime novels cannot be literary, this is the example I will thrust into their hands to convert them.

The opening sentence of The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) is a prime example of a metaphor that punches above its weight.

It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.

You don’t pay homage to Glasgow, says McIlvanney.  You meet it on even terms.

An alcoholic vagrant dies a slow and painful death but before dying he asks to speak to Laidlaw. In that conversation he suggests that someone had spiked his drink.  Then a gangster is murdered and Laidlaw uncovers an unexpected link between the two corpses – Tony Veitch.  Tony, a rich dropout student with a propensity for writing deep introspective letters to his friends and family, has disappeared.  Once again Laidlaw must find his man before the Glaswegian heavies. At last year’s Bloody Scotland McIlvanney read out the scene when Laidlaw finally catches up with Tony.  It sent shivers down my spine.  Then he explained that this was something taken from real life.  I have yet to defrost.

What of Laidlaw himself?  In his private life he is a loving father but a difficult and unfaithful husband.  The same contradictions are present in his professional life.  A fine detective, though not a team player, gruff and abrasive yet with a streak of compassion for those less fortunate members of society.  If it wasn’t for Laidlaw insisting on foul play in the death of the vagrant, where others saw none, there would have been no novel!  But let his less experienced partner decribe the man.

Laidlaw came on hard, could be a bastard, sometimes gave the impression that if God turned up he’d want him to take a lie-detector test.  But he obviously cared about people, was so unmistakably hurt by what happened to them, sometimes through his own doing, that he would have put a stone under pressure to feel things.

McIlvanney puts this teeming mass of contradictions centre stage in Strange Loyalties (1991) which is narrated in 1st person by Laidlaw himself as he tries to come to terms with his brother’s sudden death.  It may have been suicide and Laidlaw wants to retrace his brother’s last days to establish the facts. We are taken out of Glasgow into the countryside of Ayrshire and The Borders.  While the scenery may be uplifting, being inside Laidlaw’s head is anything but. There are no monsters, said McIllvanney.  Laidlaw is just screwed up.

Suspicions are aroused as Laidlaw meets a conspiracy of silence from his brother’s wife and friends. Unhinged by his grief,  Laidlaw appears to lose whatever mechanism enables detectives to differentiate between personal and professional with the result that his unofficial investigation comes with a heavy personal price tag. When he unearths the dark secret at the centre of his brother’s death, he wishes that he’d never looked.

Can he recover?  Someone must persuade McIlvanney to write the 4th novel to answer that.

Laidlaw  / The Papers of Tony Veitch  / Strange Loyalties