Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday 8 January 2009


51ACKZPHBYL._SS500_ "Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice? It's what we have because we can't have justice." – William McIlvanney





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?

If we weren’t watching Taggart and reading Ian Rankin what would we have been doing? I would respectfully suggest that we would be watching Laidlaw and reading William McIlvanney. Let me explain.

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?


wee-mcilvanney 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.


Anonymous said...

Wow this is inspiring stuff. I am definitely going to read that book. The bit about his mother having to have the sheets re-soled is very thoughtful.

Dave King said...

I have just finished a post on so-called literary and non-literary literature. He would have made a good case study - but don't wory, it's finished; I'll not try to steal your thunder. An excellent post, full of interest.

Anonymous said...

Tremendous review Jim, and of a work that deserves the attention you give it.

I was hugely impressed with Laidlaw, the compassion of it, the anger to with the blighted opportunities of the girl and killer both. That and the sheer skill of the language.

It also has one of the most convincing scenes of intimidation I have ever read, when the local villain is threatened by a couple of boys in his own pub.

I think in part this, and even more The Papers of Tony Veitch, is in part a work of existentialist morality. We must care for each other, because nobody else is out there to do it for us.

Absolutely agree on your final para too, we are all guilty, the killer is in this view merely another victim. That, almost more than anything else, remains a daring and challenging line to take given the nature of his crime.

The Brokendown Barman said...

love crime fiction. never read this novel. cant wait to get it. cheers

Jim Murdoch said...

Hi, Michelle, always happy to see an Australian making a comment. For some reason I have a soft spot for Aussies (and Geordies – go figure). The nice thing about this book is that since its been around a while you'll be able to pick up a cheap copy no probs. If you like it you should know there are three books featuring Jack Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties being the other two.

Not got round to your post yet, Dave, but I will. I've actually still got the one before it to read slow coach that I am. But you're perfectly right. When I first read it – I'd be nineteen at the time – although much of it impressed me even more passed me by. I really didn't appreciate it on many levels. I'm sure a lot of people read it, enjoyed it as a reasonable detective novel and never thought any more about it too. Hell, Dave, after writing this review I made me want to read the book again.

Max, another new name, glad to see someone else who appreciates the book. I met McIlvanney at the time when he was doing a reading in one of the local libraries. You've probably seen him on TV and he's just like that in real life, a very down-to-earth bloke. I was a wee bit full of a sense of my own importance at the age I was then and gave him a hard time for turning his back on poetry. He took it on the chin and confided in me he had a new book in the works. Not seen much from him since mind.

And, Andrew, I'd be very interested to hear what you think of the book. You see I'm not a reader of crime fiction. I've only read three that I can remember and they're all McIlvanney's. My guess is that as a purely crime novel he's been well outdone by now. He uses the format of the crime novel for other purposes and it works.

Anonymous said...

The effort you have been putting in this review is amazing (and not only in this one). By reading this post I got reminded about how it all started after all - with Poe and his crime stories that have evaluated to what we have now as the world literature. Which all leads to the conclusion that any of the literature genres in not to be underestimated in any case. For sure some novels look just like "crime stories" (for example Auster's New York Trilogy), but there is much more going on than from what is visible at first sight.

Rachel Fox said...

I read 'Weekend' last year after hearing about it on radio and was really disappointed. Why? I can't even remember...that's how much of an impression it left!
'Laidlaw' sounds more exciting - I will look out for it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Jasko, I do my best. Nothing I hate mote than 200 word book reviews I have to say. I really hate I have to say, even though we're all guilty of it, of prejudging things based on very little evidence, i.e. I read a crime novel once and I hated it therefore I will hate all crime novels. I don't know if I hate crime novels. I've only read three and they were all by McIlvanney and I never really thought of them as crime novels. I suspect I'd enjoy Ian Rankin's work. I should read a few pages and see. I think Carrie's got at least a half a dozen by him.

And, Rachel, yes, Weekend - I have a copy which I pretty much gave up on too and then felt very guilty for doing so. I started it when my head was in a very bad place and I found concentrating on anything hard. I think the basic problem is that there are too many characters and McIlvanney doesn't pamper to the reader by saying, "Oh, it's such-and-such talking now and this is who they are in relation to everyone else again just in case you forgot." I refuse to believe it's a bad book and I will have a go at it again but maybe not for a while. It's not as if I'm short of books to read. I think I got about a dozen for Xmas.

Leon1234 said...

Lovely post and a lovely blog.

Art Durkee said...

If you liked these, you'd probably like Raymond Chandler. "The Long Goodbye" is an existential novel in just the way you describe "Laidlaw," technically a murder mystery, but in fact the crime novel is just a frame on which something much deeper is hung. I've read every one of Chandler's novels at least 4 times. I regularly go back to Chandler and re-read, every couple of years or so. It's perennial. Chandler's plots are not even that compelling, they're not as rigorous as some crime fiction—but then, the poetry of the language, and the characterizations, the observation of culture, that's what Chandler's about. You're right in your insight that crime fiction can be used as a novel-framework social commentary. That's what Chandler did, and did well. Don't trust your impression of Chandler on the movies that have been made from his novels; almost none of them are any good. With Chandler, it's also about the poetry of the prose.

I had a copy of "Laidlaw" once, as it looked interesting. But I couldn't get into it, or finish it, at the time. The circumstances had something to do with it. I was moving, I didn't have a lot of spare attention, I didn't have a lot of free time for reading and I wasn't focused on reading new books. I was purging a lot of my books before the move, and I needed to get rid of everything I needed absolutely need. On your recommendation, I'll give it another try. Your review indicates to me that I might well like it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that comment, Leon. I had a wee look at your own blog. Very thought-provoking.

And, Art, yes, it might be interesting to have a look at Chandler. He's been so caricatured that it might we worth seeing what he's like in his own words. As for Laidlaw, my wife read it and didn't like it. I think the problem there is that she has read so much by dyed-in-the-wool crime novelists and I'm not sure that Laidlaw stands up that well judged purely as a crime novel. It's always easy to stand on the shoulders of giants and that's what these writers have done. Laidlaw was innovative at the time. The reason I chose to review it for the Canongate website was that they were underlining the geography aspect and Laidlaw is a very Scottish (particularly Glaswegian) novel. The city is a major player in the book in the same way as I suspect Los Angeles would be in a Chandler novel.

Ken Armstrong said...

I read 'Strange Loyalties' years ago and intended to read more because it was good. You encourage me to seek out Laidlaw and read it - I enjoy crime fiction in all shapes and forms. Rankin doesn't float my boat however although I respect him, my wife reads them all.

OT - We enjoyed the two-out-of-three Wallander adaptations on the BBC recently. it's the first thing I made a point of sitting down and watching, in a long time.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Ken, it's been years since I read Strange Loyalties too and I think it is the best of the three. It's also the only one written in the first person which gives you a very different perspective on the character.

The reason I chose to review that book was because of the focus on Glasgow. As I recall most of the action in Strange Loyalties takes place in Graithnock.

I saw all three of the Wallander shows and was very impressed by Kenneth Branagh's performance. I missed the Swedish episodes on BBC4 thinking they were just repeats but it would have been nice to make a comparison.

Jena Isle said...

I'm going to buy the book for sure and come back when I've read it. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

For some reason that I've never really analysed, I have never taken to the detective story. This exhaustive presentation motivates me to look again. Good points, well made, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, I'm glad I've piqued your interest, Jena. The sections of Scottish dialect aren't quite as heavy as 'Aggie and Shuggie' so I don't think you'll struggle quite so much.

And, Dick, I've been the same. I've never even read an Agatha Christie but I've probably seen every dramatisaion that's been on the tele in my lifetime and a lot of them more than once. The same goes for all the Sherlock Holmes shows, Rebus, Wallander, Taggart, Midsomer Mysteries, Murdoch Mysteries ad infinitum as nauseam and maybe that's part of the reason I've never looked to the genre especially since there are so many other books that will never be filmed that I have yet to get round to.

Anonymous said...

Chandler is an exceptional prose stylist, a tremendous writer really.

The best crime fiction tends to be existentialist fiction. There's a concept in French noir that crime fiction should be moral fiction, a form of fiction through which one examines the individual and their place in society. That's very common too in much English language noir, as well as in some of the more hardboiled stuff like McIlvanney or Chandler.

Detective fiction can be fun, but it's rarely fiction with a moral purpose. Serious crime fiction very often does have a moral purpose, and often deals in very complex themes about the nature of mortality and our relationship with each other and our society.

Laidlaw to me isn't typical crime fiction of the sort that crams most bookstores (and which can be a lot of fun), but it is fairly typical of serious crime fiction in its concerns and approaches and I've no concern putting it in a genre with writers like David Peace, Derek Raymond, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy and so on.

Jim Murdoch said...

My real problem, Max, is that I'm unfamiliar with the genre and have had to rely on what other people say. I've seen all the adaptations of the Rebus books for example but I know that they only pay lip service to the novels because my wife has read a lot of them. I also knew when I was reading Laidlaw that this was probably an atypical crime novel. I find it interesting that you differentiate between 'detective fiction' and 'serious crime fiction' and also, reading in between the lines, it looks as if entry into the 'serious crime fiction' is something that needs to be earned.

Anonymous said...

I think any genre can usefully be subdivided, if you've any interest in it. If you don't, it's not worth the bother.

If you hate science fiction, then the term SF works well enough as a general category of stuff to avoid. If you like an SF novel though, then it may be useful to subdivide a bit as there are tons of subgenres and liking one is no guarantee of liking another.

Serious crime fiction's a bit of a snotty term really, it implise other authors aren't taking their craft seriously which I'm sure they are. But I do think Laidlaw is part of a certain hardboiled/noir tradition which is a separate subgenre to that occupied by say detective fiction or historical crime. By serious I meant a novel with serious intent rather than one intended more as entertainment, but it's not a great term to use as it carries tons of other connotations.

Any implication that the hardboiled/noir stuff is better, or more advanced, than the cosy stuff (that's honestly the name of a sub-genre) is a reflection of my tastes, nothing more fundamental in the world.

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