Category Archives: McIlvanney William

The Dark Remains: William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin

Glasgow’s crime world of the 70s has three main crime boss figures: John Rhodes, Cam Colvin and the up-and-coming Matt Mason. When lawyer Bobby Carter, money man for Cam Colvin, is found stabbed to death behind a pub in Rhodes territory, naturally suspicion falls onto Rhodes and his men. Carter was a “career criminal. Or rather, a venally clever lawyer who didn’t so much rub shoulders with criminals as steep in the same polluted bathwater.” Carter’s death could be a message, a signal of war, yet to D.C Jack Laidlaw it’s just too obvious and he suspects that there’s more to the murder. Given the power-grab ramifications of the murder, it’s a sensitive case that must be handled carefully. Laidlaw already has a reputation for ‘rubbing people the wrong way,’ and he isn’t easy to work with. His skill as a detective though is respected and it’s acknowledged that he “seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets.”

As Laidlaw investigates, he learns that Carter, with a gorgeous wife Cam Colvin is all-too happy to console, was a womaniser. And one name in the harem sticks out: Jennifer Love, a go-go dancer at Whiskies. The crime world is tightly-knit and it’s hard to penetrate when it comes to solving this murder, but Laidlaw, obsessive when it comes to his cases, keeps digging, and the same names keep floating up.

All cities are riddled with crime. It comes with the territory. Gather enough people together in one place and malignancy is guaranteed to manifest in some form or other. It’s the nature of the beast. In the awareness of the citizens the condition usually lies dormant. The preoccupations of our daily lives obscure any dramatic sense of threat.

The Dark Remains is a prequel to the other Laidlaw books. This was unfinished at the time of author William McIlvanney’s death and the book was subsequently finished by Ian Rankin. The gloomy world of 1972 Glasgow, divided into separate worlds by crime territory, is full of seedy pubs, low-rent hotels, lonely, neglected wives, and violent crims hoping to do their boss a favour before the boss even knows he wants one. Laidlaw is a troubled character who does everything possible to avoid his home life and family responsibilities. But the division of the two worlds, home and crime, are created in such a way that’s it’s understandable (but not forgivable) that Laidlaw finds it uncomfortable to straddle both worlds in one day. Going domestic takes the edge off of Laidlaw’s predatory drive plus it’s much easier to check out of his troubled domestic life, avoid those difficulties, and submerge himself into the dark side of Glasgow. I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals but the case kept my interest here. Laidlaw is a strange one–he likes to cowboy his cases solo, and then he tends to philosophize about human nature. This is tedious to Laidlaw’s workmates, but Laidlaw’s approach, when applied to human nature, works.

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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

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