Glasgow and Laidlaw: As Tough as It Gets

LaidlawJust in case you thought I was turning away from a life of crime, here is a review of the first book in the Laidlaw trilogy. It took me a while to discover McIlvaney (for a while I mixed him up with his son, also a thriller writer), but I will be reading a lot more by him. Not suprisingly, he writes poetry too!

It’s impossible to read crime fiction in the UK without stumbling across William McIlvaney sooner or later. Crime writers rave about him (readers too, but it’s interesting that he is most appreciated by other writers, a specialist read if you like). He is considered the father of ‘Tartan Noir’ and his Laidlaw trilogy has been described as almost Camus-like in its focus not only on the ills of society but also our inner torments. But there is quite a poignant personal story there too. In spite of his obvious qualities, the author’s novels were out of print just 2-3 years ago. Luckily, publisher Canongate had the vision to see that his novels describe not just the 1970s but also our troubled times perfectly. McIlvaney’s star has risen and risen since they started reissuing his work.

The story is fairly simple: a young girl goes out dancing in the evening and is found raped and murdered in a park. The girl’s father is out for vengeance, Laidlaw and his new partner are out to find the killer, and a bevy of Glasgow tough guys and gangsters are involved either in covering up or in avenging the crime. But I wouldn’t read this book for the plot – it’s all about atmosphere.

It took just one or two paragraphs to establish that I was reading crime fiction quite unlike any other I’ve encountered. McIlvaney has a style all his own: not just noir, but also philosophical and very dense. Laidlaw is the knight errant of the Crime Squad: a hero who can be downright annoying at times, as his newly assigned and fresh-faced young partner Harkness discovers. What he brings to his life and career is constant doubt as to what he is doing, and still trying to do it well. ‘Throw him a question as casual as a snowball and he answered with an avalanche.’  Laidlaw has profound compassion and love for the people in the less salubrious areas of Glasgow. A devoted father, he chides his wife for caring just for her own children, not for all children.

Aside from the striking main character, what I really loved about the book is how it brings to life the contradictions of the city of Glasgow in the 1970s: ”home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park’, discrimination against Catholics and homosexuals, while hardened criminals preach a culture of violence, lots of drinking and being suspicious of the police. Compassion vs. division is at the heart of this book, us vs. them, dark side vs. light inside us all. We are shown the contrast between Laidlaw’s murky reality and the world of moral certainties and clear black/white divisions of Laidlaw’s colleague Milligan. Laidlaw may hate him, but he is more complex and better than he is given credit for. At some point, he says: ‘I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms?’ Laidlaw doesn’t have these certainties to protect him, so he is more compassionate but also more vulnerable.

I did find the Glaswegian dialect rather hard going after a while, but the bits in the author’s own voice (or in Laidlaw’s voice) are superbly written and very quotable.

I’m linking this to the 2014 Global Reading Challenge, for Scotland and Europe, as it’s Tartan Noir at its finest.

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else. 

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not.  And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill       Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love      Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.