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The Wall Street Journal: " the man who is widely regarded as the father of “Tartan Noir”: William McIlvanney."

Date: Jul 24 2015

Crime and Scotland go together, fictionally at least. Set aside J.K. Rowling, and the leading, certainly the most popular, Scottish novelists today are crime-writers, with Ian Rankin and Denise Mina only two of those who show us how nefarious activity permeates society. Most genre writers are prolific, a novel a year or every 18 months being normal. There is one notable exception over here, and it’s the man who is widely regarded as the father of “Tartan Noir”: William McIlvanney. He has written only three crime novels, “Laidlaw” (1977), “The Papers of Tony Veitch” (1983) and “Strange Loyalties” (1991), all featuring Glasgow policeman Jack Laidlaw. If three novels seem a narrow foundation for such a reputation, we might remember that Raymond Chandler wrote only half a dozen. Now, after some years out of print, leading a shadowy life in popular memory, the Laidlaw novels are available in handsome editions from Europa Press.

“Laidlaw” was a surprise when it was published. Mr. McIlvanney (born 1936) was established as one of Scotland’s most important novelists. “Docherty,” a social-political novel set in a declining mining community, had won the Whitbread Novel Award in 1975. Some still regard it as his finest work. Long before any but a handful had heard of Alasdair Gray, and before James Kelman had published anything, Mr. McIlvanney spoke authentically for the Scottish working class. So for some, the turn to genre fiction seemed almost a betrayal. A teacher he encountered in a Glasgow bar told him he had disgraced himself by stooping to write a mystery novel.

It’s true that most crime fiction is ordinary fare, to be read for amusement only. Detective novels or mysteries may trivialize what is not, and should not be, trivial. But Dickens’s “Bleak House” is a crime novel. So is Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.” And none of Mr. McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books is trivial. Their subject is the ruin of the body, the corruption of the soul and the shattering of society. In “Laidlaw” (Europa, 250 pages, $16), a frightened boy of uncertain sexuality kills a girl in a moment of panic and goes into hiding in Glasgow. There is no doubt about his guilt; this isn’t a whodunit. But the girl is the daughter of a minor gangland figure, who seeks revenge. The question is who will find the boy first: the gangsters or Laidlaw, who immerses himself in the dark places of the city. The novel shows how a murder infects everyone. It is a form of betrayal, a denial of the respect with which we should treat each other.

The sequel, “The Papers of Tony Veitch” (Europa, 274 pages, $16), starts with the mysterious death of a Glasgow derelict whom Laidlaw has known for years. His investigation leads him into the interface between organized crime and respectable society. In “Strange Loyalties” (Europa, 334 pages, $17), Laidlaw’s much-loved brother has just killed himself, and the inspector hunts for the source of his brother’s despair, a search that takes him back 20 years and to an old crime. It is a profoundly human story; Laidlaw himself struggles against the temptation of despair. Mr. McIlvanney won’t let us forget that the damage crime does is more than physical.

Laidlaw is an unlikely policeman. Mr. McIlvanney has said that he “is not just an inspector of crime; he’s an inspector of society.” A reader of Kierkegaard, he is at odds with his colleagues; he sympathizes with the broken and defeated, with society’s victims. He is damaged by what he experiences. Law, he recognizes, rarely delivers justice. An individualist by temperament, he nevertheless distrusts the ego with its innate drive for power. He sees “a labyrinth of commitments in which, it seemed to me, people kept to their exclusive space and pretended it did not connect with other corridors, where bad things happened in their name but not in their hearing.” Laidlaw believes in communities; meeting a loyal but saddened mother in “Strange Loyalties,” he reflects that there is nothing he wouldn’t do for the working-class women of that generation who held families together. But he is driven into isolation. His commitment to his work and to helping others disturbs and then destroys his own marriage. Mr. McIlvanney is an existentialist writer—like Camus, whom he admires and has learned from.

He has never been prolific. If he had taken the advice he was given—to write an annual Laidlaw novel—Mr. McIlvanney might be a rich man in his old age. But he has always gone his own way. The republication of these novels will revive interest, and may perhaps lead him to write another, as he sometimes talks of doing. But his reputation, not only as the Father of Tartan Noir, is assured. “Docherty,” almost 40 years on, is a modern Scottish classic. Though the world and society it describes have been destroyed by economic, political and social change, it retains its vitality. Mr. McIlvanney has noted that the novel’s hero, Tam Docherty, is “an expression of a whole stretch of working-class life. He’s a kind of figurehead for that time and that place.” But the time and the place are withering, passing away. Even in the 1970s, half a decade before Thatcherism, industrial society with its communal values was under threat. “Docherty” the novel is both a tribute and an obituary.

“The Kiln” (1996) is a two-generations-later sequel to “Docherty”—the narrator is Tam’s grandson—and another masterpiece. Ford Madox Ford once asserted that imaginative literature was the only art form that makes you feel and think at the same time. The judgment can be disputed—other art forms can surely do the same. Yet the ability to make you feel and think simultaneously is indeed one of the marks of a great novel. “The Kiln” does just that. It’s a novel with a double time-scale, one a picture of eager adolescence in 1955 Ayrshire, the other of disillusioned but undefeated middle age. Looking from a lonely apartment over a graveyard where lie the forgotten dead and so many, it seems, of his youthful hopes, the narrator puzzles over the question that is surely central to all experience: how to reconcile his sense of what he owes himself with his knowledge of what he owes others. He reflects that he “had seen the wilful control of anybody else’s life as immoral because it was an existential lie against your knowledge of your own weakness, your certain death.” But then: “like the other side of the moon, there loomed up before him the converse of that principle. What of the point at which concern for others becomes erosion of the truth of self, denial of self-need?” The beauty and virtue of “The Kiln” is that, sad and painful though it is, there is no nihilism in it. It remains an affirmative book, capable of repairing one’s faith in both humanity and the value of good writing.

Mr. McIlvanney’s most recent novel, “Weekend” (2006), the story of a university group’s weekend in an island castle, is a bittersweet comedy, partly a novel of character, partly a study of the emergence of feminism, partly a meditation of literature. Its mood of quiet, and even melancholy regret, disappointed some of his admirers. But it is a wise novel with an astringent charm; it recognizes that more lives end in failure than success.

The Laidlaw novels have been more popular than Mr. McIlvanney’s straight ones—not surprisingly. Crime fiction is always more accessible, and not to be despised for that reason. It offers entertainment, but also explores the dark undercurrents of society and the pathology of the individual. (The trilogy is a wonderful portrait of Glasgow, too, a city the author clearly loves.) Mr. McIlvanney recognizes the duality of our nature, showing, for instance, how a devoted family man may also be a callous exploiter of others. “In his private life he was a model citizen,” Laidlaw reflects of one character in “Strange Loyalties.” “At work it was different. His job was enabling evil.” Not many writers use the word “evil” with serious deliberation now. The philosophical Laidlaw may be an improbable policeman, but so in other respects is Simenon’s Maigret, as Chandler’s Marlowe is an unlikely private eye.

For Laidlaw, condemnation is reserved for cruelty, arrogance, greed and indifference to others. It can’t be otherwise. Exploring the mystery of his brother’s death in “Strange Loyalties,” he finds that “his last gift to me from the grave had been a more intense vision of the blackness in myself. It gave me a proper fear of who I was. In trying to penetrate the shadows in his life, I had become more aware of the shadows in my own.” It is in these shadows that we search for the reality of our nature.

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