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William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw Novels

Beth Dickson

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William McIlvanney’s
Laidlaw
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Article: "Natural Loyalties: the Work of William McIlvanney"
William McIlvanney has written three detective stories featuring the same main character: Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw. The novels are Laidlaw (1977); The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991). These detective stories have been influenced by the American detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. This influence can be seen in their air of gritty reality, their doubting and often unhappy hero and their use of fast, witty dialogue. They are quite unlike the English tradition of detective fiction where an intelligent, eccentric and sometimes aristocratic hero solves a murder as someone would solve a puzzle: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is an example of this sort of detective. Lady Antonia Fraser, the writer of the Jemima Shore mysteries, is a Scottish writer influenced by the English tradition. Other Scottish writers have also written detective fiction: Ian Rankin has written a series of Inspector Rebus stories of which The Black Book is one. There are also a number of thrillers which have elements of the detective story in them such as Hugh C. Rae’s Skinner based on a number of real-life murders; Frederick Lindsay’s Brond and Iain Banks’s Complicity.

Laidlaw (1977)

In this novel McIlvanney introduced the central character we are to follow through several books. In some ways, Laidlaw seems an unlikely hero. Whose side is he on? Sometimes he seems more on the side of the criminals than the police. He tries to sympathise with Bud Lawson when Bud reports his daughter’s failure to return home. He ends the book by almost assaulting his colleague, Detective Inspector Ernie Milligan because Laidlaw feels he is not treating the murderer with due respect. It is important to recognise that Laidlaw’s antiauthoritarian stance is a feature of much American detective fiction where detectives are in conflict with their superiors, continually defying the orders of a boss who seems blind to the realities of a case. This emphasis on the individual who is so talented he must ‘go it alone’ is a motif which recurs widely in American fiction and is one which McIlvanney easily transfers into a Scottish context. However Laidlaw’s ambivalent feelings towards criminals and the police highlight one of the most important questions the novel raises which is not ‘Whose side is Laidlaw on?’ but ‘Who are the criminals?’ The plot follows the investigation of the murder of a teenage girl, whose murderer is successfully arrested. Laidlaw, however, feels that most of the characters in the story are somehow implicated in the murder. When his junior detective, Brian Harkness, asks him if he really believes that, he answers, ‘I don’t know. But what I do know is that more folk than two were present at that murder.’ (ch.47 p.219) Laidlaw even includes himself and Harkness as being somehow guilty:

Then there’s you with your deodorised attitudes. And me. Hiding in suburbia. What’s so clever about any of us that we can afford to be flip about other people? (ch.47 p.220)

Laidlaw is an unusual policeman. Colleagues find his habit of walking the streets of Glasgow in order to sensitise himself to the city atmosphere instead of using police cars somewhat extreme. Yet the author vindicates his choice as being the most effective response as the chase to get the murderer before the vigilantes do could only be conducted on foot through a network of streets and closes too narrow for cars. These unusual qualities in Laidlaw’s character are further developed by the themes of the novel with its questioning of who is truly guilty and who is truly innocent. Such an emphasis is common to much detective fiction, American, English or Scottish, enabling readers to think about serious issues while enjoying other aspects of the fiction.

The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983)

Much of the enjoyment of McIlvanney’s fiction comes from his creation of a diverse array of criminal characters. The Papers of Tony Veitch is the story of a university student murdered in mysterious circumstances. This novel has a number of exotic characters. There are the ‘big bosses’ such as Cam Colvin; the ‘fixers’ like Micky Ballater and others who are often comically named, like ‘Panda Paterson’. These nicknames suggest the underworld culture where a rough camaraderie exists alongside brutal violence and lucrative crime. Among the crooks McIlvanney distinguishes between those such as John Rhodes who retain a somewhat warped sense of honour and those like Cam Colvin who want to make money out of crime and live the high life. This distinction is similar to the one he draws between characters like Laidlaw who though they have got on in life try to do what they think is right and treat all people with similar respect and other members of the middle-classes such as Milton Veitch, Tony Veitch’s father, whose money seems to make him feel free of any obligations of ordinary humanity to those to whom they feel superior.

There is also much enjoyment to be derived from the dialogue of the novel. Sometimes a quick-witted response can avert violence. When the two ‘bosses’, Colvin and Rhodes meet, Rhodes punches Panda Paterson who stumbles backward and falls over. ‘You’ll need to work on your fishtail, Panda,’ [Colvin] said. ‘It’s rubbish.’ (ch.11 p.64) Not only do the characters speak in this way, the narration is often racy and funny. When Panda begins to tell his story, both bosses want him to give them the facts as quickly as possible, not use the time as an opportunity for self-advertisement.

Panda was like a banana republic threatened by two contending major powers who don’t want direct conflict. (ch.11 p.66)

Laidlaw takes as much pleasure in the ordinary street life of Glasgow and of the dignity of people such as Eck Adamson’s sister who lives a decent life against the economic odds. This indomitable spirit is captured in the last action of the book where Laidlaw after an evening’s drinking, dances outside Central Station with an old woman who had been standing in a queue. ‘Son,’ she said, ‘This is the best queue I’ve ever been in in my life.’ (p.254)

Strange Loyalties (1991)

In this novel the logic of McIlvanney’s characterisation of Laidlaw and his overarching theme about the identity of the guilty come together in a satisfying way. Laidlaw doesn’t investigate a crime as such, but the accidental death of his own brother, Scott. In a change from the previous books, the narrative is written in the first person giving a direct insight into Laidlaw’s attitudes. During his search for the truth he finds out that his brother and some friend had been involved in a hit-and-run accident just as they were about to graduate. As they had careers in front of them, they did not give themselves up. However, the guilt haunts all of them, except Dave Lyons who will not admit any blame. The others come to terms with it in their own ways but acknowledge that tying Scott into that central act of dishonesty destroyed him just as it destroyed the man whom they had knocked down. Laidlaw is left knowing these things and trying to live decently among the ruins of his ideals for society and for himself.

The Laidlaw novels present a number of avenues of literary study: Laidlaw’s complex character, the significance of other characters; the importance of the Glasgow setting; the use of narrative technique; the treatment of the themes of guilt and innocence. Any of these areas would repay study and would be a sound basis for an RPR or SYS dissertation.

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Copyright © Beth Dickson 1996

 

Last updated 19 August 2010.