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Glasgow dancing among its own debris
on 5 February 2016
The second in a series of novels involving Detective Jack Laidlaw, this can be read as a freestanding novel.
From one angle, it has a hackneyed plot involving the familiar maverick detective with a dysfunctional family life, who cannot rest if he feels that the suspicious death of an alcoholic tramp is being discounted as unimportant, or until he has pursued his hunch that an ambitious colleague’s desire for a quick win is leading to the pinning of a couple of murders on the wrong man, who being conveniently dead cannot prove that he did not commit suicide. Laidlaw’s incongruous literary streak is at odds with the tough background which enables him to understand ordinary Glaswegians. Laidlaw is no saint: he falls off his lime-juice and soda bandwagon to go on binges; he indulges himself in an affair with a heart-of-gold barmaid, his much-heralded “honesty to a fault” at work not extending to his dealings with his wife; he is irresponsibly rash in achieving his ends.
What sets this novel apart is McIlvanney’s spiky style as a latter-day Glaswegian Chandler, bombarding us to saturation point with quirky, quick-fire observations. Linked to this is the powerful sense of place, bringing Glasgow alive even for those who have never visited it.
Examples of the striking prose:
“…the fiercest man is the one who has had his incomprehensibly private values encroached upon. Attack a mouse in its hole and it will try to nibble you to death”.
“Middle age was a foreign country here. This was a shrine to youth, where compromise was like a profanation”.
“He mainlined anecdotes about working-class life. I used to tell him daft things. Like eating porridge out of a drawer.”
“She was dressed to go out, if not to emigrate… She gave the immediate impression of wearing her boutique”.
“…Anderston .. an area of the city that memorialises a part of Glasgow’s confused quarrel with itself, a warm and vivid slum expensively transformed into a cold and featureless one.”
“That past moment was like a booster rocket, falling into irrelevance. IT only served to kick him further into the manic orbit he was following, fuelled on his compulsion to find what everyone else said wasn’t there.”
“There must be those who, if a dying man told them the secret of all life and swore at them at the same time, would only remember that he swore.”
“What are your drinking, love?... Gin and catatonic?”
“The ceremony (funeral) had its origins in something for which people were prepared to walk into the mouths of lions but which had since often been processed into spiritual Valium that reduced God to the role of a celestial chemist”.
I agree with reviewers who have suggested that the book would have benefitted from being longer. After painstakingly setting the scene and establishing the plot with many digressions to reveal the characters' opinions and personalities, the final chapters seem to me quite rushed, to such an extent that I did not fully understand the reasons for the final murder, but did not feel sufficiently interested to go back and trace them.
I often found the use of different viewpoints clunky, the dialogues artificial, an overuse of caricatures, the plot somewhat plodding. Yet I appreciate why McIlvanney’s style, the spate of unique and unexpected turns of phrase, is so admired, although it tends to be too contrived for one to care much about what befalls the characters.