Laidlaw was first published in 1977, 36 years back from now, 38 on from The Big Sleep. Like Chandler’s classic it has survived the passage of time. William McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles, giving the city its fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.
Two years before Laidlaw McIlvanney had won the Whitbread Prize for fiction with Docherty, a novel set in a mining community. This established him as the best Scottish novelist of his generation, and some of his admirers were dismayed when he followed it with a crime novel. Their response was understandable, for crime fiction was widely regarded at the time as mere entertainment, but it was also foolish. The crime novel deals with the darkest sides of human nature; it deals in sudden, unexplained and sometimes inexplicable violence, and its atmosphere is foul with the stench of fear.
In one sense Laidlaw is unconventional. There is a chase — the whole novel is a chase, with a variety of people in search of their quarry — but there is no mystery. We know who the killer is from the first chapter in which a frightened bloodstained boy is running in terror and guilt from his own act. He is a boy of uncertain sexuality, shattered by what he has done. The questions are: who can identify him, and will the police reach him before other vengeful pursuers?
Jack Laidlaw himself is a romanticised figure, like most of the best fictional policemen. Of a philosophic turn of mind — he keeps ‘Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno’ in a locked drawer of his desk, ‘like caches of alcohol’ — he believes in doubt. A murder to his mind is often the consequence of a series of unrelated acts and the uncertainties and tensions they provoke. His habit is to immerse himself, Maigret-like, in the atmosphere of a case. He becomes what he calls ‘a traveller in the city’, moving out of his family home and into a hotel that has seen better days for the duration of the case. He can play the hard man, and joust with criminal godfathers on equal terms, but he despises the macho attitudes and narrow sympathies of fellow policemen who are rivals as much as colleagues.
The other main character in the novel is Glasgow itself. McIlvanney loves the city which he describes as a place that is always talking to itself, one where even the derelicts and social failures realise, and reveal themselves, in conversation that is often a monologue. As with Chandler, McIlvanney delights in characters who may have only walk-on parts that have little or nothing to do with the plot, but whose appearance, movement and talk contribute to the vitality of the novel.
There is violence here, and it is horrible, but not gratuitous. Some is a conscious exercise of power on the part of men with a position and reputation to defend; some, equally disturbingly, the only way in which inarticulate men of narrow sympathies can express themselves. Laidlaw, in this respect the author’s mouthpiece, is on the side of the weak and damaged, especially wives whose freedom to be themselves has been denied them by a domineering man. He does his job because it is the best he can do while still asking, ‘Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice?’ and supplying the answer, ‘It’s what we have because we can’t have justice.’ 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.
The novel remains fresh, every bit as necessary as it seemed when first published. In some respects it is dated, being written before the age of political correctness, before police forces were required to give at least lip service to ‘diversity’. So all the policemen except Laidlaw, even the decent and quite likeable DC assigned to him, will, like some of the hard men, express hatred of ‘poofs’ and contempt for them. Laidlaw now seems ahead of his time.
It is great entertainment, but McIlvanney’s achievement is to transcend the conventions of the crime novel even while he observes them. His two subsequent Laidlaw novels, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties, will be published by Canongate in the autumn. The trilogy is one of the finest things in modern fiction, in the Chandler and Simenon class.