Stephen McGinty: Brought to book by crime

William McIlvanney, author of Laidlaw. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
William McIlvanney, author of Laidlaw. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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LET’S be honest – romance in print is all very well, but you can’t beat a really good crime thriller when there are so many great authors out there, writes Stephen McGinty

FOR a detective novel, a copy required its own share of detection. The old Corgi paperback with a photograph of Glasgow once imprisoned on my bookshelf had clearly skipped bail. The handsome first edition hardback, previously spotted in Young’s Interesting Books in Shawlands, on the south side of Glasgow, and which had the added bonus of a carefully folded and yellowed newspaper interview with the author tucked inside the dust jacket, had, upon my return, already departed under the arm of a more decisive suitor.

The promise of a loan from a colleague dissolved upon the discovery that his own copy was missing, raising the worrying prospect of a serial borrower. Enquiries about its availability as an ebook turned negative and so, on Wednesday morning, the trail led me to the ground floor of Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street. However, an alphabetical scan of the shelves turned up the author but not the book in question. It required a computer search: “computer says: ‘yes’” and the vigilant eye of a member of staff to locate it, sitting sullenly like an aged grandfather surrounded by the rancorous din of his offspring in the section labelled: “Scottish Crime”.

It is now 35 years since Laidlaw, by William McIlvanney, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in April, 1977, and next month it will be the subject of a discussion at Aye Write!, the Glasgow book festival, about its enduring legacy. At the time of publication, McIlvanney, who had just turned 40, was viewed to have executed a sharp left turn. Two years previously, on his final day as assistant headmaster at Greenwood Academy in Irvine, he learned that he had won the Whitbread Prize for literature for Docherty, and now here he was, as he said: “degenerating to detective fiction”.

In that carefully folded and yellowed newspaper interview, which I tracked down in The Scotsman’s library, he explained that it was a conscious decision to appeal to the widest possible market while retaining his own literary ambitions that verged on Olympic. “I wanted to write something that people could read quickly and find exciting or read slowly, picking out the underlying social commentary.” The novel’s 280 pages are divided into 49 short chapters with Laidlaw, the eponymous detective who keeps Kierkegaard and Camus in his bottom drawer “like caches of alcohol”, a character second only to the city in which he displays his skills. In his previous three novels, McIlvanney had used the fictitious name of Graithnock for Kilmarnock, but here he wrestled with the city and frequently won:

“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.”

“Bud Lawson was still following the relentless parade of his own thoughts, like an Orange March nobody dare cut across...”

“Drumchapel engulfed them like a quicksand.”

“Some place.” said Laidlaw.

“Aye, there must be some terrible people here.”

“No.” Laidlaw said: “That’s not what I mean. I find the people very impressive. It’s the place that’s terrible... Just architectural dumps where they unloaded the people like slurry. Penal architecture. Glasgow folk have to be nice people. Otherwise they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.”

Like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the weight of the murder, in this case, that of a teenage girl is fully examined and not just a bloody maguffin to drive along the plot, and responsibility is handed out not just to he who dealt the blows. Laidlaw is a novel of its time, and while the sectarianism in Glasgow still remains, the homophobia displayed by characters in its pages has certainly been diluted over the decades. What is interesting about the novel and its lead character is that Laidlaw manages to see crime in the context of society and how the injustice and poverty in society can, at times, force the hand of the criminal class. It is his understanding of the criminal and his ability to detest the crime but not the criminal that leads his colleague to dismiss him as not a policeman, but a “shop steward for neds”.

The legacy of Laidlaw has been extensive. McIlvanney believes that the appearance of Taggart, two years after the publication of Laidlaw, was more than a coincidence, despite Glenn Chandler’s persistent insistence that he hadn’t even heard of the novel when he started writing Killer, which became the pilot episode of STV’s long-running crime drama. The author, tipped off by someone at STV about the similarities between the novel and drama, went as far as to consult a lawyer before deciding legal action was too much of a financial risk. However, Ian Rankin has acknowledged McIlvanney for inspiring him. As he said: “Well, it’s OK for him to write crime fiction, then it’s probably OK for me to write crime fiction. It made crime fiction respectable.”

This week a survey of Britain’s libraries revealed that the smoking gun had dispatched the red rose as crime trumped romance in the most popular novels borrowed. If we were to don the deerstalker of a certain detective from the past and clasp a magnifying glass to one eye, what clues would we find to explain our current passion for crime? One argument is that as times have become tougher, so our reading habits harden. We immerse ourselves in the voyeuristic misery of people pinned down on the printed page, their paper lives violated and destroyed by violence as we look down on our paperbacks and Kindles. From the reading experience we can take away imaginary lessons on how we would cope if placed in the same circumstances as the characters.

Alternatively, we can survey the troubles in our own life and, let’s face it, no-one is without their own cross to humph and take comfort that it doesn’t involve the discovery of a body.

I’m not convinced that this is an adequate explanation. Surely, in times of social strife, people turn to films, books and plays that offer a degree of escapism. Grand romances, historical periods or fantastic realms that act as a door through which a reader can walk and take refuge for a few hours. You would almost expect romance to enjoy a resurgence during an economic downturn, not a decline. I think the broader answer is that crime novels have, over the last 35 years, emerged from a cultural ghetto and become not a specialist topic favoured by a few, but the mainstream. Three decades ago, if you wanted to watch pop music on television you had to wait until Thursday night for a 30-minute slice of Top of the Pops, while if you wanted to get hold of quality crime novels you ordered them from Murder One in London’s Charing Cross Road. Now both institutions are gone, swept away by the universal availability of what they once exclusively purveyed. (Murder One does, however, still exist in spectral form, like a victim’s ghost, as an internet site.)

The crime novel has become so popular because of its successful fusion of plot with geography and social commentary. Aficionados of ‘Tartan Noir’ can now partake of a literary tour of Scotland through the works of McIlvanney’s successors. Ian Rankin and Quintin Jardine cover Edinburgh, Denise Mina and Alex Gray in Glasgow, Stuart MacBride has drenched the streets of Aberdeen in arterial spray and even the Shetlands have had their reputation for peaceful living besmirched by the corpses of murder victims as uncovered in the novels of Anne Cleeves. At their best, the crime novel can give the reader not just a sense of place but a sharp portrait of society and its ills.

McIlvanney once said: “Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice? It’s what we have because we can’t have justice.” For if justice did exist, the author would be a wealthy man from the myriad works that Laidlaw has inspired, but it does not. Life and the law offers, like the spin of a roulette wheel, only a chance at justice. Who knows where McIlvanney might have been if the roulette wheel had turned up red and his long walk in Edinburgh Zoo with Sean Connery had resulted in a Laidlaw movie, or if STV had optioned the book, instead of accepting Glen Chandler’s script or, even, if he had decided to grind out one Laidlaw novel a year for a decade? Instead, the ball bounced onto black and, still, it is not too shabby a place to be: the respected godfather of an entire Scots genre and with his trilogy, Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties still in print. So readers, if you are looking for a book this weekend, why not pay tribute to Mr McIlvanney and, for £9.99 return to the Seventies? For crime is eternal and fine writing does not date.