Classic Crime

William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney, was born in 1936 in the town of Kilmarnock, the son of a former miner. He studied at Kilmarnock Academy and later at the University of Glasgow, after which he worked as an English teacher.

Acclaimed for the mixture of poeticism and grit in their portrayals of working-class Glasgow, Willie’s (as his friends called him) novels remain some of contemporary Scottish literature’s best-loved books. His first novel, ‘Remedy is None’, was published in 1966 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; his second, ‘A Gift from Nessus’, took a Scottish Arts Council publication award. The semi-autobiographical ‘Docherty’ was awarded the Whitbread Novel Award in 1975 and its sequel, ‘The Kiln’ (1996) won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year. ‘The Big Man’, brought out in 1985, was turned into the 1990 film of the same name starring Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly. Willie was also an acclaimed poet and the author of ‘The Longships in Harbour: Poems’ (1970) and ‘Surviving the Shipwreck’ (1991), a book which also contained pieces of journalism, including an essay about T. S. Eliot. His short story ‘Dreaming’ (1989) was filmed by BBC Scotland in 1990 and won a BAFTA. Much of his work has been recently re-published by Canongate.

Yet Willie was possibly best known for the creation of Inspector Jack Laidlaw, the unconventional Glasgow detective who describes his favourite tipple as ‘low-grade hemlock’ and keeps his Camus and Kierkegaard locked in his desk drawer. His Laidlaw trilogy has inspired the next generation of crime writers in Scotland. He died in 2015, leaving extensive notes for a final novel, a prequel to ‘Laidlaw’, which has now been completed by Ian Rankin, and published in September 2021 as ‘The Dark Remains’.

Review: Laidlaw

When a young woman is found brutally murdered in Kelvingrove Park, only one man stands a chance of finding her killer. Jack Laidlaw. He is a man of contrasts, ravaged by inner demons but driven by a deep compassion for the violent criminals in Glasgow’s underworld. But will Laidlaw’s unorthodox methods get him to the killer in time, when the victim’s father is baying for blood?

‘Laidlaw’ is one of those books I have been meaning to read for years, so sat myself down, turned off the phone and read McIlvanney’s first of his trilogy. Well, it was not what I expected. Firstly, McIlvanney’s writing is sublime. Looking at his impressive résumé, McIlvanney won many awards for his novels, including the Silver Dagger for this trilogy, his only crime fiction output. This is not your everyday quick read. McIlvanney’s prose demands you take notice and give it your full attention.

McIlvanney brings his cast of characters to life, not just Laidlaw who, back in 1977 when this was published, could be the original broken cop out of Scotland. If I had to put money on it, I would say Laidlaw had sired Rebus during one of his dalliances!

This felt to me more of a Glasgow kitchen sink drama involving the residents of this dark city, some who are affected by Jennifer Lawson’s death, (the destruction of her mother and the rage of her controlling father), to others who did not know the girl, but feel that with her murder they have all been tainted by this young death and feel the outrage that settles on this community. This is not a ‘whodunit’, but a dissection of how a hideous crime like murder can affect and send ripples through a whole community.

This is a novel that affected me by McIlvanney not shying away from delivering blow after blow during the aftermath. He steps up the ante as Laidlaw desperately tries to find the killer of this young woman before others do. Homosexuality had been legal since 1967 only in England and Wales. It wasn’t until 1980 when it was legal in Scotland, so anybody gay in Scotland during McIlvanney’s novel would have been operating illegally.

I don’t know how ‘Laidlaw’ was received back in 1977, but reading it in 2021 I can say this is a powerful novel showing a writer at the height of his craft. His writing is darkly poetic and has a rhythm that drew me in, empathising with these people caught up in this heart-wrenching drama. Those people in ‘Laidlaw’ are so etched in my mind, they will be there with me for a long time.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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