In The Spotlight: William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw

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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


Filed under Laidlaw, William McIlvanney

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw

  1. Keishon

    Since Jose read and reviewed his books last year I think, I’ve been interested in reading them. I own them all. Thanks for the spotlight, Margot.

    • I honestly think you’d like McIlvanney’s work, Keishon. I hope you’ll get the chance to read them at some point. I’ll be interested in your view of them if you do get to them.

      • Keishon

        I plan to get to them but I just don’t know when. I remember starting the first book and setting it aside due to time limits and also struggling with the dialect.

        • No doubt about it, Keishon, there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to read everything one wants to read. And the dialect does show up frequently.

  2. This has been on my TBR ever since I read a review by FictionFan and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t got around to reading it – soon!

    • Oh, no need for shame, Cleo. There is never, ever enough time to read everything one wants to read. When you do get the chance to read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. A brilliant book – undoubtedly one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. And unlike so many of the over-the-top gangster stories that come out of Glasgow, this one positively reeks with authenticity. And McIlvanney shows that quality writing is not just the preserve of ‘literary’ fiction, and the reverse – that ‘genre’ fiction should never settle for lower standards of writing. Glad you spotlighted this one, Margot! 🙂

    • I’m glad I did, too, FictionFan. 🙂 It took too much time for me to spotlight this one. It really is a powerful example of the high standards of writing quality that genre fiction can achieve. And I think you highlighted one of the most salient things about it – something that really sets it apart. McIlvanney doesn’t go ‘over the top.’ The story is told honestly, warts and all, but not for effect. In some places it’s even understated, and that makes it all the more compelling, at least in my opinion.

  4. Col

    I loved this one when I read it back in 2012. Interesting main character, very believable with his faults and all. Great setting, great dialogue….which begs the question – why haven’t I read the following two?

    • I’ve had that happen to me, too, Col, where I’ve read a book I really enjoyed, and then didn’t get to anything else by that author. I’m very glad you enjoyed Laidlaw as much as you did, though. I agree completely that Jack Laidlaw is quite believable.

  5. Thanks for this Margot – an author I have yet to try. I suspect I would need to be in the right mood and its been a couple of decades since I was last in Glasgow, which makes it closer to when the book was written than to today in my timeline – scary 🙂

    • I know the feeling, Sergio! And I know what you mean about needing to be in the right mood to read a certain book or series. I’m the same way. If you do get to this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. I too was blown away by this first one – and haven’t got around to reading the rest of the trilogy. It is noir and poetic, bitter yet humorous in a way. Certainly not over the top or thuggish action for the sake of action.

    • Exactly, Marina Sofia! You’ve captured beautifully why so many people were drawn in by this one. But even with the best books, we don’t always get to the next in a series. I know I don’t. If you do read more, I’ll be keen to know what you think of the others in the trilogy.

  7. Kathy D.

    I’ve thought about reading this book for a long time. This post just reminds me to do so, so it’s now starred on the TBR list. (sigh)

  8. Margot, I first heard about William McIlvanney and the Laidlaw trilogy on your blog but after reading your review and the positive comments about the first book in the series, I’m certainly interested in reading the author. Frankly, I don’t remember the last time I read Scottish crime fiction.

  9. Between your post and your comment section it certainly sounds like a great crime novel. I might have to try this one.

  10. I read this one soon after it first came out, which is a long time ago now! I absolutely loved it, it blew me away: it was very different from the kind of crime story I usually read then, but I was very impressed with the style and it seemed to bring a breath of fresh air to the genre. I must read it again some time, it sounds as though it will stand up well.

    • I think it does, Moira. The underlying themes and plot lines, etc., don’t depend as much on the times, if I can put it like that. I’m glad you mentioned the style, too. McIllvanney’s style has been called poetic, but at the same time quite appropriate for a ‘hardboiled’ noir sort of story. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll be keen to know what you think about it if you read it again.

  11. Just coming off reading Josephine Tey, whose character Insp. Grant has a low opinion of Glasgow and Glasgowians, I’m tempted to try this if only for the comparison. At the same time you make it sound like a good read regardless, Margot.

    • You’re right, Matt. Inspector Grant is not a fan of Glasgow/Glaswegians; I’d forgotten that about him, so I’m glad you mentioned it. Laidlaw is most definitely a completely GLasgow novel. I’m not from Glasgow, or even Scotland, but people who know have said it’s very authentic, and it certainly gives that realistic feel. The story itself is, in my opinion, a well-told one, too, with some compelling characters (again, my opinion). If you do get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. Late again here, Margot. My husband had issues with this book, so he passed on his copies of all three to me. I hope I like them. And I hope I get to read at least the first one soonish.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late’ with this blog, Tracy. The party never stops. I’m sorry to hear your husband wasn’t swept away by the Laidlaw trilogy. I’ll be really interested in your view of the books if you get the chance to read them.

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