When William McIlvanney wrote his Laidlaw trilogy, Scottish crime fiction was in short supply. Yet within a few years, following his lead, writers like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina all spoke of being inspired by him to write what has become known as Tartan Noir.
Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw is one of the most tortured policemen in the genre. His love for this tough industrial city and its working-class people is balanced by a hatred of some of the crimes its poverty inspires.
At the same time, his own self-doubts and awareness of his failings – infidelity, a collapsing marriage, a dedication which relapses into obsession – constantly nag at him.
There can’t be many policemen – fictional or otherwise – who keep books by Camus and Kierkegaard in their desk drawer. Laidlaw’s life and work is haunted by a fear that everything is meaningless, pointless, not even a cosmic joke of the part of the Almighty.
The plots of the books are perhaps the least interesting aspect of the Laidlaw trilogy. What stands out most is the character of the city; the grim pubs, the housing estates and slum tenements. And of course, the character of the Glaswegians, harsh and violent at times, surprisingly gentle at others, a sense of humour that relishes the put-down and the mock, all delivered in that accent that is more a language than a dialect.
Laidlaw is there to deliver a justice that goes beyond courts and jails, and he does so with a unique mix of Calvinist righteousness and something you might even call love.
‘Deliberation wasn’t his forte. Anger was. Sitting there, he was coaxing it out of its kennel, presenting it with fragments of what had happened like giving it the scent of a quarry.
‘Open-plan pub?’ he said. ‘Oh, ah doubt that won’t do. We’ll have to see which way he wants it. If that’s how he’s goin’ to be, we might have tae make his rib-cage open-plan. Ah’ll punch holes in ‘im big enough for birds tae nest in.’
The Papers of Tony Veitch