"Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat."
When Jennifer Lawson's body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they're not alone in the search. Jennifer's father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city's underworld - men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on...
McIlvanney's Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn't flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer - a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.
Set in the late 1970s, this is the Glasgow of my youth and I found it reeked of authenticity. The language, the attitudes, the hard-drinking culture centred around the city's pubs, the humour and bravado that defended against the ever-present threat of violence - all more extreme in the book (since I didn't mingle too much with the underworld!) but all very recognisable. And, sad to say, the sectarianism and homophobia were as present in the real world as in the book.*
"Across the street the door of the Corn Exchange opened suddenly and a small man popped out onto the pavement, as if the pub had rifted. He foundered in a way that suggested fresh air wasn't his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return."
The characterisation throughout the book is particularly strong, each character as believable as the next. Though there's an air of menace throughout, there are only a couple of graphically violent episodes and they are all the more shocking for their rarity. Fear runs through the book and, as with all the best crime fiction, moral certainties become blurred round the edges. McIlvanney's use of language is brilliant - the Glaswegian dialect is completely authentic, and I particularly enjoyed how Laidlaw slips between educated English and dialect depending on whom he's speaking to. I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre - I can see it's influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series - and I'm duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley.
*Before Visit Scotland sues me, I'd just like to point out that Glasgow has changed now and is a wonderful, sophisticated place full of welcoming, warm-hearted, friendly and non-violent people!! Honest!
on 31 December 2015
I had never heard of William McIlvanney until I read his obituary a few weeks ago. Since then, I have read all of the Laidlaw novels, and regret that the author is no longer with us to write any more.
These three novels are simply outstanding, on a number of different levels. Firstly (and I put this first because it is all too rare), the use of language borders on perfection. The books are a joy to read, they are clear, evocative, and avoid cliché.
They also have some very convincing characters, none of whom are black and white. Good meets evil and in turn that meets compromise and uncertainty in ways that reflect real life. Sure, there are good guys and bad guys, but everyone has rough edges, and the author's triumph is often to show us what makes the different people tick in the way that they do.
The whole depiction of Glasgow and of Laidlaw's particular form of policing is also compelling. The reader feels drawn into this world of darkness and light. One can clearly see how McIlvanney could have been a significant influence for other fine writers, such as Ian Rankin. If you have not yet read these, then now is the time to start
Every once in a while you come across a novel that sets you back. Such a novel has all the elements you are looking for. A superb story, characters with moral, ethical and philosophical viewpoints upon which you can relate. And intelligence, a character who can bring the story from A to B with such exquisite writing, you wonder where has this author been? The author I am talking about, William McIlvanney has been around for a long time, and a chance encounter on a book he wrote in 1977 is being renewed and given birth in the US.
Laidlaw is a Scot through and through, lives in Glasgow, and is a Detective Inspector in the Glasgow police. He is a big man in stature, handsome and in his forties. He is married with three children. He is common and uncommon. "He loves philosophy and keeps 'Kierkegarrd, Camus and Unamuno' in a locked drawer of his desk. He is a potentially violent man who hates violence, a believer in fidelity who is unfaithful, and an active man who longs for understanding." He left his college years because they were trying to make him a uniform man without the thinking process he so reveres. He is at once a man who does not tolerate fools, and is looked upon as a strange man, but he is admired and respected and solves the crimes.
In this story we know the murderer. We meet him in the first chapter. But it is up to Laidlaw and his colleague to give us the rest of the story. " A murder to his mind is often the consequence of a series of unrelated acts and uncertainties." He moves into a hotel during the investigation to immerse himself in the atmosphere of the murder. We meet the people of Glasgow, not the people the tourists meet, but the real characters. And, we meet Glasgow. Laidlaw loves Glasgow, and he knows most everything there is to know about Glasgow. Laidlaw knows who will give him some answers and who he needs to meet. He understands the biggest part of his job is to listen and learn. He tends to have empathy for the downtrodden and makes few judgements. Some of this story involves the Gay community and in that time there was little empathy for these kind of people. Except from Laidlaw, he knows them as people, his people to protect or to arrest depending upon the circumstances.
The hate and violence in 1977 in this novel is the same as today. This books remains as fresh as the day it was written. "Hatred of others is to his mind a way of not having to engage with them, a denial of the sympathy that seeking understanding might arouse." Exquisite writing, as good as any I have read. Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice.
Highly Recommended. prisrob 06-20-14
Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw is investigating the rape and murder of pretty young Jennifer Lawson who was recently reported missing by her father. Detective Constable Harkness is there to assist him, newly transferred he has been warned about Laidlaw’s unorthodox methods. But the police aren’t the only ones investigating this crime – Jennifer’s father is determined to find the killer first.
Set in 1970s Glasgow hardly a page is turned that doesn’t have a snarl or a raised fists which alongside the nervousness of the women all reinforce the menace that stalks through this book. Times are hard in Glasgow with the national industries closing down and so these hard men need to make their mark on the world in the way they know best, through violence.
Unsurprisingly since this book was originally published in the 1977 the sense of time is shockingly well done including the bigotry that ran rife in Glasgow at that time. I’m not sure that poor Jennifer would have put up with the way her father ruled her and her mother quite as meekly in this day and age. His uncompromising manner had meant that there were hints of a secret boyfriend after she chose someone unsuitable in his eyes a while earlier, but was her murder committed by someone she knew, or was it perhaps a chance killing. That’s what the maverick that is Laidlaw intends to find out. But, he is considered unusual for a policeman in those macho times, because he cared about the causes of crime as a fellow officer commented:
“You’ll have to wear wellies when you work with him. To wade through the tears. He thinks criminals are underprivileged.”
Whilst the mystery itself is fairly run of the mill when you discount that this is the first of the genre now known as ‘Tartan Noir’ the beauty of this book is in its language. It is a joy to turn the page and find something pretty much quotable on practicably every page.
Sunday in the park – it was a nice day. A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with cataract. Some people were in the park pretending it was warm, exercising that necessary Scottish thrift with weather which hoards every good day in the hope of some year amassing a summer.
Partly because of the lyrical language this reads quite unlike most crime fiction; it isn’t a book to be devoured to find out whodunit because we know who the perpetrator is fairly on, the question is who will get to them first, the police or local justice? This is book to savour to think about the views of all involved even those who are apparently viciously elbowed out like Jennifer’s mother by the men determined to find their man and make him pay.
The one element which worried me ahead of reading this novel was the inclusion of the dialect; I’m not a big fan of dialect in a book but I honestly didn’t struggle with the inclusion in this one either in terms of meaning or with the inevitable slow-down it usually causes adapting to unfamiliar letter patterns which tend to pull me outside of the story. This was one book where those short and infrequent bursts of dialect did add rather than detract from the story particularly when I worked out Laidlaw’s use of it himself gave a pointer to the type of person he was conversing with!
An all-round enjoyable read which I’m delighted to have finally read!
on 30 April 2016
I first read this about twenty years ago, and was blown away by it. McIlvanney created the Tartan Noir genre with his hard-bitten philosophising maverick detective Laidlaw, and at the time there was nothing like him. Sadly, for me, this book hasn't stood the test of time. There's been too many new incarnations of Jack Laidlaw, and some of them have been better (though a lot haven't!).
What works really works. It is beautifully written. It has some brilliantly witty one-liners and more than anything, it encapsulates Glasgow just at a key point in time, before it became 'Miles Better', while it was still a city people feared, a city with a very, very dark side, before the old slums had been demolished and while the new slums were still in their infancy. It has the too-bright contrast of a city striving to be part of the new world in places like the Muscular Arms, but failing to triumph over the gangland world that bled into the city centre, when city centre clubs were a smokescreen for laundering money. In this sense, McIlvanney's Laidlaw is brilliant - and nearing 5 stars.
But as a book, it was for me, like the Glasgow it portrayed, dated. The one-liners were just a bit too prolific. It crossed the boundary too many time from beautiful prose to over-written prose. And more importantly, I lost my belief in Laidlaw as a character. No-one talks like Aristotle - not Jack Laidlaw, and certainly not his sidekick or his lover, surely. His endless need to philosophise the tiniest remark started to irritate me, and I felt that there were long stretched of his dialogue and internal monologue that were there for no other reason than to distinguish this book from other crime stories. Fair enough at the time, because this was undoubtedly ground-breaking. But no need now that the genre has developed. Which is what I mean by dated.
Don't get me wrong, I think everyone who loves the genre should read this because it created it, because it is a really ground breaking book, and McIlveanney deserves a great deal more acclaim than he ever got. But if you have read it, I'd suggest you leave it at that. On saying that mind, I suspect I will still read The Papers of Tony Veitch, the follow up, at some point soon, just to prove myself right, in the hope of proving myself wrong.
It took me a long time to get to this book and now I know I should have read it years ago. The plot is relatively simple - the hunt for the murderer of a teenager - and the action sparse but violent so what's to like? It's the journey to the solution which is absolutely gripping. I've never seen Glasgow better portrayed - the landscape, the patter and the people are all spot on and Laidlaw is the product of this background where self confidence was not a virtue and blowing your own trumpet was discouraged at every turn. If you can cope with the vernacular this is a tremendous read.
on 19 March 2016
If a crime novel could be described as a thing of beauty, perhaps William McIvanney would take the crown with his seminal Laidlaw trilogy. The first Laidlaw novel was originally published in 1977 and still serves as the forerunner to every piece of crime fiction with a social conscience. Jack Laidlaw is a man of contrasts, every bit as ravaged by his inner demons as any existentialist philosopher. This novel still stands as a watershed in crime fiction and saw critics coin the term 'Tartan Noir' and with it define a genre. McIlvanney is better known for his poetry and his skill is apparent on many occasions as he introduces readers to the original maverick:
"Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn't unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy."
The case at hand is rather more straightforward than Jack Laidlaw himself, as the recently reported missing daughter of local thug Bud Lawson is found brutally murdered. Laidlaw loses himself in the city as he investigates and this novel is more about the man himself and the Glasgow of the time than the crime per se. This is not so much a police procedural of the 1970s, more an exploration of prevailing society at the time. New man on the force DC Brian Harkness is assigned to work alongside Laidlaw meaning readers are ideally placed to witness Laidlaw explaining his unique methods to a rookie.
McIlvanney is keen to point out the difference between Laidlaw and the more conventional detectives who inhabit the force and Laidlaw mocks colleague DI Milligan with his distinct sense of right and wrong and disdain for the people who cross the line. For Laidlaw things are never that clear cut and his compassion is what sets him apart. DI Milligan is equally scathing of Laidlaw and warns Harkness about the perils of working alongside him:
"You'll have to wear wellies when you work with him. To wade through the tears. He thinks criminals are underprivileged."
McIlvanney brings the city of Glasgow alive and the harsh 1970s era shines through. Against a backdrop of a Glasgow with tenements and a society which dealt many a harsh hand, this is a vibrant tour of the hard men for whom violence is instinctive. Laidlaw contains some of the most exquisite prose that I can remember reading and as soon as I turned the last page I wanted to read this again. Admittedly the criminal investigation at the centre of the novel is relatively straightforward, but the focal point is seeing Laidlaw travel the city of Glasgow and bring an element of human understanding to the job he faces.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel).
on 1 August 2014
If you are looking for a novel set in Glasgow with a difference, then William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novel may be the one for you. It’s grim, bleak but oh so intriguing. Authentic in language and setting and evocative and suggestive of so much more.
Glasgow of course is a major character in the Laidlaw novel and the descriptions are evocative of a dark side of the city that you won’t necessarily want to visit.
However this is the joy of fiction is it not? to see and wonder about a city that you may or may know. A side to the city that is a fictional creation but a thrilling one at that. McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice.
The novel is a journey around this city of dank despair – and when it opens with a girl’s body found in one of the city’s parks, it is up to Laidlaw and his team to find out what happened. the race is on. However the real race seems to be between them finding the killer and the girl’s father finding who killed his daughter. The father has contacts in the city’s underworld which changes things.
This is the Glasgow of the 1970s – not just the streets and the city atmosphere but the attitudes, lifestyle, drinking culture and of course the language. All focusing on building a highly evocative image of the underbelly of the city, its people and the time period.
on 26 March 2013
I'm not sure how this happened, but somehow I not only missed this book when it was first published, but also missed the other two books in the Laidlaw trilogy. Thank goodness, I've now filled that gap. At least, I have read Laidlaw and the other two are on order. Perhaps most important in these days of the instant fix followed by immediately forgetfulness, McIlvanney's writing is good that nowhere is there any hint that this was first published in 1977. Although few writers of that period have withstood the changes that have taken place in literary styling, McIlvanney is so accomplished that Laidlaw could have been written this year. Except that not many writers today are capable of producing work of this quality. Laidlaw is not only an outstanding crime novel, it is also an exceptional exploration of people struggling to keep their philosophical heads above the rising muddy tide of contemporary life. Unforgettable characters, crisp settings, sharp dialogue; not a wasted word.
on 8 September 2013
I thought I was well read in crime fiction but until now had not read any McIlvanney...my loss. It's easy to see why Ian Rankin,Val McDermid and others rate him as so influential on them. An older Glasgow comes alive( even if violence and death are always near at hand!) where in vol.1 Laidlaw pursues a tortured and self torturing route to a kind of resolution. Some brilliant acerbic writing with an often raw sense of social awareness tinged with irreverent humour. I really warmed to this as the novel unfolded and am now reading the sequel. Highly recommended.