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Ground-breaking, but sadly dated
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.