William McIlvanney: The father of tartan noir

As Canongate set about reprinting his classics, William McIlvanney tells Susan Mansfield that we may not have heard the last of DI Laidlaw

William McIlvanney. Picture: Robert Perry

Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2006: the main auditorium is sold out for the launch of William McIlvanney’s new novel, Weekend, his first for nine years. The lights go up for questions from the floor and a man speaks up: “This isnae a question. I just want to say: Welcome back.” Cue loud, spontaneous applause.

Such is the affection in which McIlvanney is held. Some authors are merely popular, others (usually the intellectually precocious) are greeted with something approaching awe. McIlvanney inspires an old-fashioned, unstinting loyalty. Even if he doesn’t publish a book for nine years, he is still a national treasure.

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If this has a downside, it is that he is identified too closely with the world of his books. One might arrive, as I do, on the doorstep of his house in a quiet Glasgow suburb, and wonder what he’s doing here. It’s just un-McIlvanney, too far away from the grimy, gritty, unreconstructed Glasgow of his novels. One has to shake oneself and remember two things: that that Glasgow is gone, and, that he and his partner Siobhan, a teacher, can live exactly where they like.

In the living room of the red sandstone house, two black leather sofas face each other confrontationally. There is little in the room that is personal. Though McIlvanney is far too courteous to say so, he is probably none too keen on journalists invading his sanctum. He is of a generation for whom writing was not synonymous with giving personality interviews. But whatever he thinks, he is unstintingly courteous, insisting I take the seat next to the fire, hurrying to fetch me a glass of water. At 76, he still has the looks of an ageing movie star, and the attendant old-fashioned charm.

His conversation is thoughtful, poignant. The McIlvanney fanbase will find plenty to celebrate in the fact that Canongate are publishing his back catalogue, beginning this month with Laidlaw, his first crime novel. But, reflecting on his achievements, he is not only modest but deeply uncertain. When I ask him if he is pleased with what he has done, he looks pained. “I really don’t know. I’m never fully happy with anything I’ve written. I’m still haunted by the roads not taken. I’m grateful for the chance to have written and I’m also haunted by what I didn’t write. There’s always a double column, credit and debit.”

The reactions of the public bring him more pleasure than the evaluations of critics. Like the wee woman at the bottom of Renfield Street, who grabbed him by the wrists and said: “I love your books, you’re a great wee writer, and I send them all over the world”. “I’ve had quite a lot of that, people giving me unsolicited reviews in the street. Shall we say, the people I thought I was writing for have given me quite a lot back.”

The new edition of Laidlaw comes garlanded with praise from crime writers such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina, celebrating McIlvanney as the founding father of tartan noir. He seems amazed by the attention. “I think it’s very generous of subsequent Scottish crime writers. Somebody like Ian Rankin, who has become a kind of maestro of the form, said if it hadn’t been for me he probably wouldn’t have written [his books]. Scottish crime writers have actually acknowledged more than I thought I had achieved.”

But it is an important achievement. It’s easy to forget that when Laidlaw was published in 1977, Glasgow had scarcely a single fictional detective, and that crime fiction itself was confined firmly to the pulp end of the market. McIlvanney, with a reputation as a promising young literary writer after the success of his 1975 novel Docherty, took flak for moving into it.

“There was definitely a sense, among some people, that yeah, you had let yourself down. I remember meeting a guy in a pub in Kilmarnock, a teacher, who said: ‘How could you write something as useless and trashy as a detective novel?’ To me, I wrote Laidlaw with as much intensity and seriousness as I’d written anything.”

He had realised, as writers have since, that crime fiction is an ideal form in which to write about the contemporary city. Re-reading Laidlaw , I’m struck by his evocative descriptions of Glasgow, its poverty, its violence, its sense of humour. Anonymous citizens wander across its pages bringing colour with them, like the unsteady drunk outside Glasgow Central “threading himself through the station entrance”.

“Sometimes converts are more intense in their faith than those who are born to it. I’m from Kilmarnock, and I’ve always loved Glasgow. I came to university here when I was 18. You could be reading Chaucer, the Wife of Bath, and you could come out and find the Wife of Bath Street on a tram. I loved that conjunction.”

There was another reason, too. McIlvanney had always written about working-class people. Writing crime fiction would give him a wider readership than the literary novel. “Gore Vidal said once that we should colonise the genres because the genres have the popularity. I had always thought that the detective novel fought as a flyweight when it could fight as a middleweight at least. That you could ask more of it. That’s what I wanted to do. You’ve got a captive audience, so take advantage of that, try to introduce them to aspects of experience and the city which aren’t always dealt with.”

It’s also easy to forget how innovative it was. It’s hardly a whodunnit – the murderer is revealed in the early chapters. In fact, the plot is much more morally complex, as several parties set out to wreak revenge on the guilty man. Will Laidlaw, with his own brand of justice, get there first? And Laidlaw himself is no classic detective. He is a deep thinker, keeping Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno in his desk drawer “like caches of alcohol”.

None of this stopped the book selling in bucketloads. Write one every year, McIlvanney was told, and you’ll be a millionaire (advice some of his followers in the genre have put to good use). “But it’s not what I do, so that never happened. I can’t write to order, not even to my own order. It was never something I was going to do because there were other things I wanted to try as well. I suppose it could be seen as a very foolish decision, right enough,” – he smiles wryly – “but I think I can live with that.” He would write two more books featuring the detective, The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991), both to be re-issued by Canongate later this year.

If Laidlaw himself has a defining characteristic, it’s doubt. “If everybody could wake up tomorrow and have the courage of their doubts, not their convictions,” he says to sidekick Harkness in the first book, “the millennium would be here. I think false certainties are what destroy us.” While not assuming that Laidlaw and McIlvanney are the same, they have this much in common.

“Yeah, I’ve often felt that the only human certainty is doubt. I think self-doubt is a force for good. If you don’t doubt yourself, your head must be made of cement, it’s how we live, with self-doubt, and for me it’s what generates our discoveries about what we really believe.”

Yet, if a writer needs anything, it is surely self-belief. What impact does this doubt have on the ability to keep putting pen to paper? McIlvanney gives me a half-smile. “Makes it bloody hard, my dear. It’s certainly why I write. I think all writing is a kind of attempt to assuage the doubt we all live with, it gives our doubt a temporary stopping place. But the doubt renews itself. If you meet someone who’s certain about everything, you’ve probably met an idiot.”

McIlvanney describes writing as “a compulsion” which has been with him since his teens. The son of a former miner, he grew up in a house full of books and lively argument, thanks to his mother. “I remember coming in from the dancing when I was 17 and my mother was sitting reading The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I remember thinking maybe that doesn’t happen in every house in the housing scheme.” At 14, he sat down at a fold-down table in the living room and wrote “what I thought was a poem”.

By 17, he had fallen for the short stories of American-Armenian writer William Saroyan (“I was writing stories more like Saroyan than Saroyan was!”) then progressed to Hemingway. We work together to remember the name of his first novel, Remedy Is None, which was published in the late 1960s when he was working as a teacher. Docherty followed in 1975. “Cognate with the compulsion to write was a sense of wanting to celebrate the place I came from. I never asked if it was important enough to write about. I came from a place full of interesting people and interesting happenings. It was like a Bayeux tapestry of stories, I loved listening to what somebody did in the pub, or what happened to some couple. I knew I wanted to write seriously about stuff like that, that there was a whole history there that was liable to be lost.”

He was part of that first generation of post-war school-leavers who embraced the opportunities of free higher education. Docherty, still a must-read Scottish novel, was set in the first half of the 20th century, celebrating the generation who brought those changes about. It is about survival through tough times with dignity, upholding values of decency, community, socialist politics. Tam Docherty became an everyman figure for so many Scottish fathers and grandfathers. That is, doubtless, one of the reasons McIlvanney is so well loved. In his politics, his bearing, his old-fashioned courtesy, he seems to embody something of that generation still.

Docherty helped pave the way for the explosion of Scottish writing which came along in the 1980s, much of it from writers from working-class backgrounds, but it also gave them something to react against.

While that world was systematically dismantled by the policies of successive Conservative governments, the next wave of urban Scottish fiction in the early 1990s was a foul-mouthed, drug-fuelled postmodern rollercoaster ride. The values of hard work and decency were swept aside by the hedonism and nihilism of books like Trainspotting. While McIlvanney’s work continued to be respected, it suddenly started to look old-fashioned. The Kiln (1995), the highly acclaimed winner of the Saltire Award, attempted to deal with how much things had changed since Docherty, but could not compete with the loudness and vigour of these younger voices.

Politically, too, McIvanney found himself in the wilderness. While he continued to write prolifically as an essayist and columnist, he wrote less and less longer fiction (though it must be said, he is no slouch, with a respectable nine novels and two volumes of shorter work to date). I wonder whether the sense of political alienation made it harder to write. Certainly, a deep, thoughtful anger isn’t far below the surface, particularly when we meet, with Margaret Thatcher’s funeral looming large in the memory.

“My mother always said to me, ‘If all you can speak of somebody is ill, don’t say anything, son’. So I’ll not say anything,” he chuckles, softly. “Except that, to be asked to celebrate [her legacy] to such an extent, I can understand the objections people have made. To be asked to canonise a woman who kept her horizons in her purse, I find an impossible request. She possibly irreparably damaged countless lives.”

He backed devolution with a passion, and would like to back independence, but finds himself – once again – uncertain. “I honestly don’t know enough. It’s completely confused, this gobbledygook of contrasting statements about what it would be like. If I could be convinced that we have the machinery in place to survive, I would still want to say yes, but I’m still waiting.”

Meanwhile, the compulsion to write continues. He mentions several projects, including “the thought of the possibility of resurrecting Laidlaw”, and of a Laidlaw prequel. “And I’ve got an idea which I’ll probably never realise for a very strange novel.” This is the kind of book his friend the late Alan Sharp (the writer of A Green Tree in Gedde, who went on to become a screenwriter for Hollywood) called “the fabulous beast in the basement”. “Alan was right, you feed it scraps hoping it will grow and you can let it out, and it will be a wonderful monster.”

Then, he pauses, as if he regrets saying anything. He doesn’t like to talk about any project before it is realised. “I don’t trust me to deliver what even what I want to deliver. It’s a bit mysterious for me, the whole business. But anyway, I believe I’m not quite finished yet. I’m certainly not carving the headstone just at the moment.”

• Laidlaw is published by Canongate, £7.99. The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties will come out later this year. William McIlvanney is at the Borders Book Festival, 15 June at 9:15pm, www.bordersbookfestival.org