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.