Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. William McIlvanney has been well known and highly regarded for a long time as an author of Scottish crime fiction. He’s even been called ‘the father of Tartan noir.’ It’s high time this feature included one of his novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Laidlaw, the first of his Laidlaw trilogy.
The action in the novel begins when Bud Lawson goes to the police station to report his eighteen-year-old daughter Jennifer missing. According to him, she went with a friend to a local disco called Poppies. Since she hasn’t returned, he’s concerned enough to go to the police. He’s referred to Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw, who at first doesn’t share his concern. It’s only a few hours after she’s supposed to be home, and there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations for why she’s not home yet.
Then, the news comes that the body of a young woman who’s been raped and murdered has been found in Kelvingrove Park. Within a short time, the victim is identified as Jennifer Lawson. Now there’s a great deal of pressure to find the killer as soon as possible.
There isn’t much evidence to go on at first. Jennifer wasn’t mixed up with drugs or crime, so that’s not a useful angle. And no-one can really say who was with her at the disco. According to the friend she went out with, the two separated, and nobody saw her leave with anyone.
Laidlaw knows that in just about every case, there’s always someone who’s seen something. He also knows that most witnesses aren’t very likely to be willing to talk to ‘the polis.’ So he and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, take a more unconventional route to finding out the truth. They visit John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge in the part of Glasgow where the crime occurred. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to stay in charge. Rhodes is, as Laidlaw puts it, ‘an honourable thug,’ who isn’t going to be happy about a crime like this. So Rhodes agrees to put the word out and try to get some information.
In the meantime, there are others who also want to find out what happened to Jennifer Lawson for their own reasons. Now, Laidlaw has two challenges. One of course is to catch the killer. The other is to do so before the other various forces, including Rhodes, do so. In the end, we learn who killed the victim and why. It turns out that this murder has more to do with society and with belief systems than with anything else.
This novel is quintessentially Glasgow, so all kinds of aspects of life there, at least at the time the book was published (1977) are woven into the story. McIlvanney makes several observations about Glasgow’s nature:
‘Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was…the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.’
In geography, culture, speech patterns and a lot more, McIlvanney depicts Glasgow and places the reader there. There’s even Glasgow wit woven into the story. At one point, for instance, Laidlaw has tracked down a witness, who’s attending a party. Here’s a bit of a conversation he has with one of the party guests:
‘‘I’m against everything you stand for. I’m a dropout. A hippie. A mystic. An anarchist.’
‘I’m a Partick Thistle supporter,’ Laidlaw said. ‘We’ve all got problems.’’
It’s a distinctly Glasgow story.
The story is told from multiple points of view, in third person. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. That said, though, it’s clear throughout the story whose point of view is being shared.
Since one of those points of view is Laidlaw’s, we learn about his character. He is reserved about himself, so is somewhat of a mystery to Harkness. He’s philosophical, but at the same time quite pragmatic. And he doesn’t see law enforcement as a matter of ‘black and white’ or ‘right and wrong.’ That perspective doesn’t endear him to his more orthodox colleagues, and it makes his own thinking about the Jennifer Lawson case more complex. Yet, he doesn’t spend an overly long amount of time ruminating about it all.
Laidlaw’s personal life is hardly perfect. But readers who are tired of drunken, depressed detectives will be pleased to know that he isn’t completely dysfunctional. He is a caring father to his children, and he doesn’t drown his sorrows. He’s a smart detective, too, who does his job well. He’s learned to balance thinking for himself with the pragmatic importance of working with his colleagues.
This is a noir novel, so the story itself is not at all a happy one. And, like many noir stories, it’s not always easy to tell who the ‘bad guys’ and the ‘good guys’ really are. There’s plenty of double-dealing and backstabbing. There are many, many tissues of lies and dissembling to be peeled away; and at the end, the reader is invited to ask who is really responsible for the murder. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s certainly not a clear-cut case of ‘evil person who wants to rape and murder young women.’
Laidlaw is the noir story of a murder that represents a lot more than just one young woman who’s dead. It takes place in a distinctively Glasgow context, and features a detective who fits that context. But what’s your view? Have you read Laidlaw? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 9 November/Tuesday 10 November – Real World – Natsuo Kirino
Monday 16 November/Tuesday 17 November – The Calling – Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe
Monday 23 November/ Tuesday 24 November – Blanche on the Lam – Barbara Neely