Laying down the law

Laying down the law

Jefferson Chase looks at another Scottish born crime writer.

Whisky & Culture | 18 Jan 2008 | Issue 69 | By Jefferson Chase

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One thing cops and writers often have in common is the amount of their free time they spend in bars. Perhaps that’s why many authors of “serious” literature feel themselves drawn, at the risk of their reputation, to writing about crime.Such was the case with William McIlvanney.Born in Kilamarnock, he had already made a name for himself as one of Scotland’s leading literary talents before turning his attention to a Detective Inspector named Jack Laidlaw in 1977.Critics accused him of selling out, but three novels eventually made up the Laidlaw series.Strange Loyalties, which was written in 1991, opens with the detective mourning his younger brother Scott, who has been killed by a drunk driver.An open-and-shut case, it would seem, but Laidlaw believes there’s more to it.That conviction leads him to delve into his deceased brother’s recent past, including an affair with a married woman.She sat against the bonnet of the Peugeot. She had legs from which fantasies are made. I tried not to make any. It wasn’t easy. The urge to live is a kind of holy idiot. It finally understands nothing but itself. It has no sense of context.Attending the funeral in all good faith, it may finish up wanting to screw the widow.An essential ingredient of both good crime writing and good fiction is tone of voice, and McIlvanney gets it spot on.As a first-person narrator, Jack Laidlaw ranks up there with Philip Marlowe, equal parts disgusted and bemused.Although Laidlaw’s friends dismiss his investigation as compensation for his inability to grieve, the search for the truth leads him to delve into ever more distant memories.Much of this delving, and the unravelling of the question of Scott’s death, takes place in pubs.I sat and watched the clouds pass in the mixture. Clear weather followed. I lifted my drink. Proust had his madeleine. I had my whisky. As I sipped, I saw this pub on countless other occasions and tuned into long, rambling conversations and wandered again through labyrinthine nights. Memory was held in a glass.Why do I drink? To remember.Eventually, Laidlaw’s review of the past comes to focus on a change in personality that occurred as his brother was about to graduate university – and a picture featuring a mysterious green man Scott Laidlaw painted at the time.The running theme in this novel, as the title suggests, is internal conflicts and the destructive consequences they engender. And it is by forcing such conflicts into the open that Laidlaw will ultimately arrive at the truth about his brother.Each of the people I was dealing with had more than one loyalty…Let’s make them confront each other, the nice man and the criminal, and see who won the fight…It wouldn’t be easy.From here on, I might have to be somewhat more abrasive. I drank reluctantly to that. When the world decides to take away from you, without explanation a part of what matters to you most, you’d better challenge its indifference, some way or the other.Most writers would be proud to produce prose of this standard. Ironically, McIlvanney has called Strange Loyalties his most disappointing work.“I felt I’d arrived at a destination I’d been trying to get to for years with my writing,” he once told an interviewer, “but nobody appeared to notice my arrival.” That’s probably too pessimistic an assessment.McIlvanney arguably set the tone for a whole next generation of “tartan noir,” and Strange Loyalties shows that crime fiction is no transgression for a serious writer.
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