An assured debut thriller paints a sobering picture of life after the Troubles – in Glasgow . . .
All the Colours of the Town
by LIAM McILVANNEY
Faber, 327pp, 12.99
FOR HIS DEBUT NOVEL, ACADEMIC and Robert Burns specialist, Liam McIlvanney, has chosen to explore the relationship between two cities: Belfast and Glasgow, under the guise of a crime thriller. It's an ambitious debut in some ways, safe ground in others, but throughout there's writing that is as jagged and real as the crime novel form demands, yet allied with a consciousness of the beauty of words. The former will no doubt find comparisons with his father, William's, writing style, but the latter is the son's own.
Gerry Conway is the political editor of a Glasgow broadsheet, although it does sometimes have a tabloid feel to it (and is the kind of newspaper office that seems only ever to exist in fiction), under pressure to produce a decent story. He is also the divorced father of two small boys, whom he has promised to take on a camping holiday, and whom he will inevitably let down as soon as the much-needed scoop about a prominent Scottish politician lands in his lap.
Peter Lyons is the ambitious, smooth-talking politician in question, the "housewives' choice", but a source shows Conway a grainy black-and-white photograph of Lyons standing with a bunch of Loyalist paramilitaries several years before. It's not quite enough to scupper the politician's attempts to become First Minister, as he has been exposed for his youthful Loyalist connections already, and been forgiven for them, but it is enough for Conway to realise that there is potentially something bigger, and deadlier, buried in the man's past.
He heads for Belfast to find out more, approaching ex-Loyalist paramilitaries for information. A Catholic on the worst kind of Protestant territory, it is ironic that one of Conway's most terrifying experiences does not take place in Northern Ireland, where he is beaten up by thugs in Lyons's pay, but in Scotland, when he goes to view the Orange Walk taking place in Lyons's home town in Lanarkshire. He talks to some Orangemen in a pub, asking discreet questions about Lyons, before his cover is blown. Outside in his car, unsure of the right direction home, he finds himself surrounded by an angry mob. There is real menace in this scene, and it's a reminder, if we need one, of what sectarian bigotry really means.
McIlvanney is good on the assumptions Glaswegians have made about the city across the water, and about the perverse appeal of such extreme violence so near, and yet so far, for some young men. He is also good on details, noting Conway's observance of the unspoken Orange Walk rule that you never cross the road during a march if you don't want to get beaten back. I had a different experience a few years ago in Glasgow city centre: the traditional Orange walk was so raggedy in places that it was easy to cross, as I and several others, caught on one side of the road and needing to get to the other, did. I still remember feeling pleased that I'd defied unspoken rules inflicted on me by a religious body I didn't recognise, and in my own home city.
The sense of belonging, willingly or not, to a city, to its territories and its allegiances, is what lingers underneath this tale of political exposure and is what gives it its real weight. That, and the sense of belonging, willingly or not, to a family. I'd have liked McIlvanney to make more of Conway's experiences at Oxford, which he only mentions in passing, but which must surely have contributed to this strange feeling of half-belonging, half-not belonging, that his central character endures. Fathers and sons are the continuity here for Conway, but it's a continuity persistently under threat when marriages break up, new boyfriends appear in ex-wives' lives, and divorced dads are forced to break promises to their children.
There is much, besides the location, in McIlvanney that reminds me of the Belfast writer Glenn Patterson. It's possible that his publisher, or McIlvanney himself, might want to pursue the crime trajectory with succeeding books (this one comes with a recommendation by Val McDermid), especially if this one is commercially successful, but I'd like to see him take a similar route that Patterson has. He has a great deal to offer and I look forward to seeing more from him.
• Liam McIlvanney is at the Edinburgh book festival on 29 August.