Laidlaw [book review]

I read William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw [in planes last week] after I saw it recommended as a pre-Rankin novel. Which inspired the whole tartan noir literature. Including Rankin’s books, most obviously. The book is set in 1970’s Glasgow, which sounds rougher and grittier than when I was visiting the West End two decades later. The city is described as dominated by thugs, at least in the popular areas, with ultra-violent men running the criminal world, while still maintaining some Calvinist principles. Especially about the place of women and their abhorrence of homosexuality. Besides the very dark atmosphere of the novel, Laidlaw is one of the least conventional crime novels I have read, with more inner dialogues than conversations (an issue with some Rebus novels!) and a strong dose of metaphysics on the nature of crime and justice, guilt and punishment. The style is also much more elaborated, to the point I often had to re-read sentences (some of which eventually escaped my understanding) and not only for the phonetic rendering of the Glaswegian accents (which is much more readable than Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting). The intellectual detective, Laidlaw, is sometimes drawn in heavy traits (like, why should he keep books by Kierkegaard or Camus and Unamuno in his drawer of his desk), prone to bouts of depression and migraine, and, like Rebus, facing a disintegrating marriage and an addiction to alcohol. Not to mention smoking as most characters are chain-smoking. (This aspect as well as the need to resort to phone booths sets the novel back in time.) His relations with the force are even worse than Rebus’, as his provocations of more traditional colleagues leave him mostly isolated and poorly appreciated by his superiors.

The central character may actually be Glasgow itself, so much do the characters move around it and add permanent descriptions of the feeling of the place(s). Far from pretty, it oozes fear and poverty, desperation and bigotry, but also some form of social link, strongly separated between sexes. The appalling status of women (at least of the women appearing in the novel) is subtly denounced by the novel, even though in an ambiguous way. All in all, an impressive book (and not “just” a crime novel).

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