by William McIlvanney
"In that careful balance between pessimism, the assumed defeat of contrived expectations, and hope, the discovery of unexpected possibilities, Harkness recognised Laidlaw."
Several years ago I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and became an ardent fan of his writing. Laidlaw by William McIlvanney was first published almost forty years ago, almost four decades after The Big Sleep. It deserves to be considered alongside Chandler's great work. McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles, giving the city a fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; it is similarly thought by some that modern Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.
In one sense Laidlaw is unconventional. There is a chase — the whole novel is a chase, or at least a search for an elusive, even in some sense a shadowy quarry — but there is no mystery. The theme of the chase is introduced in the prologue of the novel with these almost poetic words:
"Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars battered your eyeballs. Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other. It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning. And it was useless to notice these things. It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him."
We know who the killer is from the first chapter in which a frightened bloodstained boy is running in terror and guilt from his own act. He is a boy of uncertain sexuality, shattered by what he has done. The questions are: who can identify him, and will the police reach him before other vengeful pursuers?
Jack Laidlaw himself is a romanticized figure, like most of the best fictional policemen. He appeals to those with a philosophic turn of mind, for he keeps ‘Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno’ in a locked drawer of his desk, ‘like caches of alcohol’, and he believes in doubt. A murder to his mind is often the consequence of a series of unrelated acts and the uncertainties and tensions they provoke. His habit is to immerse himself, not unlike Simenon's famous detective Maigret, in the atmosphere of a case. He becomes what he calls ‘a traveler in the city’, moving out of his family home and into a hotel that has seen better days for the duration of the case. He can play the hard man, and even meet criminal godfathers on equal terms, but he despises the macho attitudes and narrow sympathies of fellow policemen who are rivals as much as colleagues.
The other main character in the novel is Glasgow itself. McIlvanney demonstrates his love for the city with passages like this: "Sunday in the park--it was a nice day. A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with a cataract." He describes it as a place that is always talking to itself, one where even the derelicts and social failures realize, and reveal themselves, in conversation that is often a monologue. There are also bit players, characters who may have only walk-on parts that have little or nothing to do with the plot, but whose appearance, movement and talk contribute to the vitality of the novel. One of the supporting characters who is developed in somewhat more depth is a young detective named Harkness who is assigned to assist Detective Inspector Laidlaw. He gradually becomes more comfortable with Laidlaw over the course of the investigation and the author uses him to give the reader a more complete picture of Laidlaw himself, as he does in the quotation above and elsewhere: "Harkness felt the evening go off again. Gratified at having brought in Alan MacInnes, he was dismayed at Laidlaw's aloofness about it. Looking after him, he reflected that he was the kind of policeman his father might like."
The search is told in mosaic fashion with the pieces of the story and the characters involved slowly coming into better view as the pieces are laid. The emotions and motivations of characters are demonstrated through actions that build inexorably toward an inevitable denouement. In many ways it is a satisfying tale. Even though the novel was written almost four decades ago it retains the freshness of all good crime novels.
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