Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Your opinion of me worries me exactly as much as dandruff would a chopped-off head.”

Laidlaw from Scottish author  William McIlvanney’s is the first book in a series featuring Glasgow based police detective, Laidlaw–a man with a very definite philosophy about crime and criminals as well as an attitude that doesn’t make him popular with many other officers. With Laidlaw hot on the track of the murderer of a young woman, D.C.  Harkness is assigned as Laidlaw’s new partner. Harkness is fresh from under the wings of Laidlaw’s enemy D.I. Milligan who gives Harkness the warning that Laidlaw is a loose cannon, “less conventional,” an “amateur” who bridges the divide between the law and the criminal far too often.  According to Milligan, Laidlaw engages in “free-lancing,” and “becoming a traveler,” this rogue D.I.  goes deep into the city. Milligan doesn’t want Harkness, his protégé, to pick up Laidlaw’s bad habits. Milligan sees a huge gap between himself and the criminal world while he thinks that Laidlaw doesn’t see the same divide:

I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms? We wouldn’t know who was fighting who. That’s Laidlaw. He’s running about no-man’s land with a German helmet and a Black watch jacket.

Harkness is initially loyal to Milligan and that makes him suspicious of Laidlaw and his tactics. Gradually, however, as Laidlaw and Harkness negotiate some of the shadier corners of the Glasgow underworld, Harkness learns why Laidlaw and Milligan despise each other. Laidlaw sees Milligan as a “walking absolute,” a man full of destructive “false certainties.” As the murder investigation continues, Harkness develops a grudging respect for his new partner and begins to question his own world view:

But there are two basic kinds of professional. Harkness saw that in a moment of self-congratulatory illumination. There’s the professionalism that does something well enough to earn a living from it. And there’s the professionalism that creates a commitment so intense that the earning of the a living happens by the way. Its dynamic isn’t wages but the determination to do something as well as it can be done.

Laidlaw was the second kind of professional. Harkness realized it was a very uncomfortable thing to be because, in their work, ‘well’ involved not just results but the morality by which you arrived at them. He thought of Laidlaw’s capacity to bring constant doubt to what he was doing and still try to do it. The pressure must be severe.

Laidlaw is an excellent, strong first entry for the rest of the series (The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties ), so thanks to Max for mentioning this book to me some time ago. The crime under investigation is the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl who went out for an evening to a disco with a friend and never returned home. Her body is found, and her father, Bud Lawson, a bitter man  whose “face looked like an argument you couldn’t win,” wants revenge. Laidlaw deals with her hostile father, her grieving mother, the Glasgow underworld, and the murdered girl’s secrets. Laidlaw is an interesting character–a mass of acknowledged contradictions, and as a detective this sometimes makes him unpredictable. With a difficult home life, and wife Ena who “liked to bounce her ammunition off the children to get to him,” Laidlaw has secrets of his own.

laidlawWhile the novel is titled Laidlaw and Laidlaw appears to be the main character, Harkness, as a character slightly off the centre of this crime tale, is, for this reader, every bit as interesting as Laidlaw. Laidlaw is a man who’s approaching his fortieth birthday, almost mid-career, plagued with personal problems but bolstered by deeply ingrained philosophy. He’s already well on his life’s path. In contrast, Harkness is a brand new DC, and when the novel opens he’s spending Sunday afternoon with his long-time girlfriend, Mary and her family. While Harkness’s life may appear to be mapped out, in reality, it really isn’t; there’s plenty of time to change, and the partnership with Laidlaw introduces niggling doubts into Harkness’s mind about his perceptions of self and just what he wants from life. He’s already experiencing mild dissatisfaction with the future he knows he’ll have with Mary:

It was a nice place but it bothered him the way houses that have been made self-consciously attractive always did. The whole experience, the talk that had lost all awareness of its one arbitrariness, the carefully arrived at prettiness of the rooms, was like being trapped inside somebody else’s hallucination.

Laidlaw makes some fascinating observations on the subject of crime solution and asks how far should one be willing to go to solve a crime while also exploring the failure of the authoritarian approach.   

Finally, an observation to all you crime writers out there. This book begins with chapter about an anonymous man, who turns out to be the killer, as he runs for cover. At this point in the novel, the reader has no idea what is going on, and to be honest the beginning doesn’t exactly pull you in. If anything it’s annoying, and as a reader, my advice to any crime writers would be to avoid this sort of vague opening from a panicked psycho.

NB: There are a few conversations in Scottish dialect that may present a bit of a challenge for foreign readers

Review copy/own a copy.



Filed under Fiction, McIlvanney William

15 responses to “Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

  1. Dorothy Johnston

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of another interesting crime writer. I have Pascal Garnier on my TBR list too. I googled him after reading your review of ‘How’s the Pain?’ and discovered that some critics refer to him as ‘poetic’. This is a plus in my view, not a negative, but it makes you think about national distinctions. Another French crime writer whom I enjoy, Fred Vargas, is also called poetic. I’m wondering about the Scots – there are a lot of them, I know, but I’m wondering if there’s anything that binds them to one another?

  2. I had the same challenges with the dialect and the slow start as you describe above, Guy, but it was worth it (and worth bearing in mind that Laidlaw was written over 30 years ago!). McIlvanney is a poet and a philosopher and it shows – stylistically not that similar to Pascal Garnier perhaps, but I can see some similar intent or approach. (And I love them both!)

  3. I didn’t have a problem w/the dialect passages, but there are readers who have to decide whether to try and read this in English or in their native language.

    I’m hoping that Harkness is in the rest of the series. Have you read the other books?

  4. I’m glad you liked it Guy. I think Harkness does continue, I’ve read the second but not the third yet.

    I loved this. Is it this one where a pub landlord/villain is threatened by some teenagers, he goes to the door and they think he’s going to leave or something, and then he locks it with them still inside? I remember thinking it was one of the most menacing scenes I’d read in ages, that sense the teenagers have when he locks the door that they have profoundly miscalculated how tough they are and how tough he is.

    It’s fiction with a tremendously strong moral centre, which I also enjoyed. I think it’s as much an existential exploration of how we treat each other as anything else, though it’s also a critique of Scots/Glaswegian culture particularly the scenes with the family of the girl (which you bring back to me).

    McIlvanney never saw himself as a crime writer apparently. He saw himself as a poet and literary writer, and didn’t see why the fact three of his novels had a detective at their core changed what he was doing. As far as he was concerned, I understand, he was exploring the themes that interested him just as he did in any other work he wrote.

    • Yes Max, the scene is in the book. One of the characters is in a pub when the landlord tells some young lads it’s closing time. They don’t take the hint, and then the scene you remember takes place. IMO , it was the best scene in the book.

  5. Dorothy Johnston

    I find this fascinating – the crossover between literary and crime fiction. I’d more or less given up believing it was possible. Makes me more determined than ever to seek out the McIlvanney novels.

    • Dorothy: I enjoyed this and I intend to read the others but I don’t consider it ‘literary’ crime. ‘Literary’ is a term that is over used anyway, and like anything overused, it’s lost its meaning. While I think that there is such a thing as a literary crime novel, this isn’t it (IMO). I read Sian Busby’s unfinished novel, a Commonplace Killing last year (she died before she could complete it), and it would be more along those lines.

  6. leroyhunter

    This has stuck in my mind since reading Max’s review. Sounds good – it’s on the list. Is it quite like Derek Raymond? – I’ve formed that impression somehow.

  7. I’ve only read the one Raymond novel, He Died with His Eyes Open. While it’s one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read, it’s also profoundly disturbing–unlike Laidlaw. Laidlaw (IMO) is a good crime novel, but Raymond is something else entirely. His novel left me disturbed and feeling almost contaminated.

  8. I’ve read all five of Raymond’s factory novels, and I agree with Guy. Raymond’s stuff is disturbing, a feeling of contamination makes complete sense to me. I Was Dora Suarez famously made his publisher vomit while reading it, and in all honesty I understand why as at one point while reading that one I genuinely felt nauseous.

    McIlvanney’s nothing like that. Both are exploring issues of morality in an existentialist universe, but Laidlaw is in the more classic hardboiled tradition where we can find a sort of morality in the world through our own acts, even in the absence of God. Raymond is a howl of despair made in the full knowledge that there’s nobody there to hear it.

  9. Dorothy Johnston

    Thanks for your response, Guy. I was thinking of Max Cairnduff’s comment that McIlvanney didn’t see himself as a crime writer, but as a ‘poet and literary writer’, with a detective at the core of three of his books. This suggested some kind of coalescence to me. Subsequent comments – yours and Max’s – have helped to clarify. And guess what? My local library – I live in a small seaside town on the southern coast of Victoria – has a copy of ‘Laidlaw’.

  10. I hope you enjoy it. Sometimes I wonder if the ever-elusive literary crime novel (and again I worry about the term literary) is one that isn’t a police procedural but more about those impacted by the crime–in other words, a book that doesn’t focus exclusively on the solution.

  11. I see this done very often, a prologue or first chapter from the piint of view of the perpetrator. Don’t always mind it.
    I saw your comments on raymond’s novel which i own. Not sure I would do so well with it, if it’s that disturbing.

  12. Thanks for mentioning the dialect part and Marina Sofia comment clearly say I’d better read this in French if it’s translated.
    If both you and Max enjoyed it, that’s enough for me. I’d probably have a good time too.

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