Over the past month my wife and I have been watching repeats of Rebus on one of the cable channels, the original four starring John Hannah, and I’ve been thinking that things could have been so different. What if Rankin had never got into detective fiction? He’s a decent enough writer so maybe he’d be known on the literary scene but would he be the household name that he’s become? And what about the TV series Taggart? First broadcast in 1983, four years before Rankin published Knots and Crosses, it’s still on the go today despite the death of its titular hero in 1994. What if it had never been made?
McIlvanney, a west coast writer, won the 1975 Whitbread Prize for his third novel, Docherty, about working-class life in Kilmarnock before World War I. It wasn’t his first novel and he’d also published collections of poetry so it must have come as a surprise to many when in 1977 the Dostoyevskian crime novel Laidlaw appeared. On the whole the book was well received by the public and even some critics. Ken Worpole regarded the novel as “the most radical attempt to use the detective genre as a way of writing about class and city life from a socialist perspective” in British fiction.
There were those of course who because of the subject matter categorised it as a crime novel and considered that the author had gone downmarket; “degenerating to detective fiction” is how he put it himself. This was shallow thinking. Here’s what Ian Rankin has to say about crime writing:
“If you want to engage with the world, if you want to talk about the problems we have in society, you go to the crime novel and that’s always been the case, from Dostoevsky to Dickens to Raymond Chandler. Crime writing has its own rules and conventions, but they are there to be broken. The mystery element of my books is probably the thing that interests me least. What I like about crime fiction is what it tells you about the world you live in.”
When Rankin sat down to begin Knots and Crosses he had already published one serious novel, The Flood, and had no special interest in writing detective fiction, however he observed two things: firstly, that as a protagonist a police detective would have relatively free access to all strata of society and, secondly, William McIlvanney, a respected novelist, had pulled it off and kept his status in the Scottish literary and critical community, so why not?
I thought: Well, if it's OK for him to write crime fiction, then it's probably OK for me to write crime fiction. It made the crime novel respectable. It showed me that you could write and have published a crime novel set in contemporary urban Scotland. And it showed that the crime novel could be used to say something about the society we live in, about big themes.
When he’d completed Laidlaw, McIlvanney’s publisher told him in no uncertain terms if he was to write another few in a series for the next four years, he would become a very rich man. “[I]t wasn’t what I wanted at the time,” he’s said, “I’ve always had a dread of writing the same book twice, and crime writing is like comfort food, folk want you to do the same thing all the time. It was one of the key moments in my life, but I don’t regret it. I don’t see the point in nurturing regrets, they just corrode you.”
Indeed. But if he had gone down that route then Rankin might well have thought to himself: No point in having a go – McIlvanney’s got that corner of the market all sown up.
As for Taggart, well in an interview in 2006 McIlvanney didn’t pull any punches when he stated that he believed the writer owed him a debt of gratitude. He says a source at Scottish Television called him to tell him about the similarities before Killer [the ‘pilot’ for Taggart] was broadcast:
I was phoned by a guy in the light entertainment department. He said, ‘There’s this thing called Killer. In your book the body’s found in Kelvin Park, in this it’s found in Kelvin Walk. Somebody’s just moved the body, Willie. Have you got a lawyer?’ And I spoke to a lawyer. He said it was very difficult to prove theft of ideas. He said, ‘It could be two years before it comes to trial, and in that time you wouldn’t sleep too well. If you won, you’d get half a million or something. If you lost, your life would be over because you’d have to pay all the costs’. I thought it was too big a risk.
It’s all water under the bridge now and I don’t have any bitterness, but I’m convinced that it’s difficult to claim there’s no connection.
Rankin has come out and said that he believes there to be only limited similarities between Taggart and Laidlaw, but that McIlvanney was still unlucky not to have been given more credit. I tend to agree but I still feel cheated. Now here’s a ‘what if’ scenario:
Sean Connery called me up and asked if I would write something for the screen about Laidlaw. I had this great idea so I began writing it. But before you all get yourselves over excited, I never finished it. Connery’s still waiting.
What if the film had been made and been a success? Would Edinburgh-born author Glenn Chandler have been called upon to write a one-off drama based around a Glasgow detective called Taggart or one called Laidlaw? Might Connery have been tempted back to TV? We’ll never know.
From a personal perspective Laidlaw was the first novel I’d read where I felt I was reading a Scottish novel which you might find strange considering I was born and bred here. There is a tradition of thriller writing in Scotland that goes back to Robert Louis Stevenson and includes John Buchan and I’d read books by both of them but I can’t say I was terribly impressed by the settings. That’s not what I remember about the books. It is impossible to read Laidlaw and not find your nose shoved against the cold, hard wall that is Glasgow with you arm twisted half way up your back. It’s that kind of book. Indeed in one passage a drunk actually talks to the city
The book grips you right from its dramatic opening:
Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other. It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning. And it was useless to notice these things. It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him.
A voice with a cap on said, "Where’s the fire, son?"
Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal.
I was stunned when I read that first page and I read it over and over again. This was sheer poetry. Very quickly we learn this is the villain who has strangled and sexually assaulted a young girl whose body he has then dumped in Kelvingrove Park. Having revealed so much the author wisely keeps the motive to himself for a while. What is striking is how the second chapter begins with Laidlaw remembering suffering from bad dreams as a child:
He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled.
It’s only a couple of lines but one of the first things McIlvanny does when he introduces his hero is to provide common ground and continues to underline this throughout the rest of the book.
I was well aware of McIlvanney by this point but I’d only read his poetry which didn’t, if I’m being honest, impress me that much. But this book was different. He was talking about a city I knew. It was a city called ‘Glasgow’ but not four hundred years in the past. It was a city whose very streets I’d walked down. And the characters all talked like real people:
‘It’s the polis, Meg. They want tae talk tae Bud and Sadie,’ the man whispered.
‘My Goad. The wumman’s oot o’ her wits. Could ye no’ leave them alone the noo?’
‘Missus,’ [Milligan] said, ‘there’s been a murder. Investigations have to be made.’
Now where have we heard that line before? The people Laidlaw encounters on our behalf in this book are all plain-talking people. “Scots,” McIlvanney has observed, “is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.” Yes, even the minor characters in this book are drawn with respect even if they lack some dignity.
McIlvanney’s approach to the detective story is a little different from your usual whodunit. From the outset we know who is dead and who has killed her, so to be technical what we have is an inverted detective story, a format that predates Laidlaw by over sixty years but was made popular in the 1970s after the TV series Columbo popularised the format. But there’s more here than a look at police procedures. What we have is not simply a howcatchem rather more of a whydunit. Because Laidlaw is a thinker, in particular a humanist. In his desk drawer he keeps “Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol”. Like Maigret before him Laidlaw pursues the criminals but refuses to judge them viewing the crime rather as a human situation, something to be understood. He is also well aware of his own flaws and realises, as I’ve been told so many times myself, that if you point a finger at someone then you’ll find four pointing back at you. This is how Dr M. McQuillan put it in an article on the British Council website:
Laidlaw imagines that it is a mistake to think of murder as the culmination of an aberrant sequence of events. It is only that for the victim. For the living, those who live on in the half-light of unknowing, it is only the beginning of a sequence of events which can lead to the undoing of lives that still have to be lived. – British Council, Contemporary Writers
Laidlaw is far more than an identikit of detectives that have gone before him. Reading the book now for the first time you’ll be far more likely to see shades of other world-weary, work-obsessed detectives like Rebus or Wallander, detectives that come after him but, yes, there’s the insubordination of Kojak, the intellectual streak of Adam Dalgliesh and the working class background of Virgil Tibbs. But don’t read too much into this. I suppose if one looked long enough one could find a bit of Poirot in the man but he really has far more in common with Philip Marlow.
The book is 224 pages long and comprises 49 short chapters; you can do the maths. Suffice to say it’s a quick read. In that respect it’s easy to swallow the chapters whole without chewing them properly. Oh, you’ll get to end of the book, you’ll find out what happens to the murderer and why he did what he did but you will have missed out on so much. For example, Glaswegians are very friendly folk, they always have been, but the city long suffered from a reputation as a hard-drinking, gang-ridden, working-class town. This isn’t the case nowadays mainly due to the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign that was launched in 1983. But remember, Laidlaw, was written in 1977. Here’s his description of the city:
Drumchapel engulfed them like a quicksand.
‘Some place,’ Laidlaw said.
‘Aye, there must be some terrible people here.’
‘No,’ Laidlaw said. ‘That’s not what I mean. I find the people very impressive. It’s the place that’s terrible. You think of Glasgow. At each of its four corners, this kind of housing scheme. There’s the Drum and Easterhouse and Pollock and Castlemilk. You’ve got the biggest housing scheme in Europe here. And what’s there? Hardly anything but houses. Just architectural dumps where they unloaded the people like slurry. Penal architecture. Glasgow folk have to be nice people. Otherwise, they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.
Laidlaw calls it as he sees it. I should point out here that Laidlaw is not a Glaswegian. He was born in the town of Graithnock, a place that appears in most of McIlvanney’s books; it is a thinly-disguised Kilmarnock, the town where McIlvanney was brought up. So, like most people reading this book, Laidlaw is an outsider, doubly so as a policeman, a man trying to law down the law to a people with their own code.
‘How about that?’ Laidlaw said.
Harkness was puzzled.
‘The inscription,’ Laidlaw explained.
Harkness read the words carved on the stone: ‘Nemo me impune lacessit.’ He knew it was Latin but he didn’t know what it meant.
‘No one assails me with impunity,’ Laidlaw said, ‘Wha daur meddle wi me? Did you know that was there?’
Harkness shook his head.
‘I like the civic honesty of that.’ Laidlaw was smiling. ‘That’s the wee message carved on the heart of Glasgow. Visitors are advised not to be cheeky.’
In his 1994 novel Mortal Causes Ian Rankin translates this, the motto of the kings of Scotland, a little differently: Don’t mess wi us.
This is where the second strand of the story comes into play and here there are some similarities between Mortal Causes and Laidlaw. In both cases the police are not the only ones looking to meet out justice. In Mortal Causes it’s the crime boss Cafferty. In Laidlaw it’s John Rhodes:
‘The rule of fear, is it?’ Harkness asked.
‘Not entirely. Although that’s a very intelligent response to have to John. But he’s more complicated than that. He does have certain rules. He’s not fair but he has a kind of justice. He could’ve been a much bigger crook. Only he won’t do certain things. So he’s settled for a level of crookery that still allows him the luxury of a morality.’
Laidlaw and Rhodes are not the only two after this guy. The murderer, the man we see running on page one, has a friend who hides him. The friend in turn contacts a corrupt bookie he’s had dealings with, a man called Matt Mason, for help in getting his friend out of Glasgow. Mason we discover isn’t interested in justice; he simply intends to clear up a mess that might implicate him and attract unwanted attention from the police.
One of the criticisms of the book is that is that it has no single narrative viewpoint to give unity to the action. In this respect it is like Docherty, McIlvanney’s highly praised previous novel, where the community and Tam Docherty, its protagonist, and the great and small events of the time are observed by a variety of characters, both major and minor. The effect in Docherty is not to fragment the action, but to round out the picture, presenting a multi-faceted view of Graithnock, the miners’ lives and the Great War. In the same way that Woody Allen’s film was called Manhattan, Laidlaw could easily have been called Glasgow.
“Geography is people”, argued William McIlvanney in his essay in the book Memoirs of a Modern Scotland and Glasgow is more than a set of map coordinates. Right at the end of the book Laidlaw says to his DC, Harkness: ‘I don’t know. But what I do know is that more folk than two were present at that murder.’ He isn’t talking literally of course but it’s probably the most important statement in the book. There were a lot of things that contributed to the murder of the young girl; a lot of people over a long period of time contributed directly or indirectly to the set of circumstances that resulted in her death. If anyone was guilty then it was Glasgow but you can’t prosecute a city, can you?
William McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, the youngest of four children of an ex-miner who had taken part in the General Strike of 1926. The first member of his family to go to university, he entered teaching but resigned to become a freelance writer in 1975.
McIlvanney’s appreciation of his working-class heritage is a mainspring of his writing. At university he found that none of the texts in his literature course dealt with the working-class life which he knew from his own experience to be rich in character, intelligence and incident. In his own work he has aimed to correct this imbalance.
As well as publishing novels, essays, short stories and poetry, McIlvanney has had a parallel career in journalism and as a TV presenter. He has held writing fellowships in Scotland and Canada. After a ten year break his novel Weekend was published in 2006.
This is an expanded version of the review that appeared on the Canongate website.