(Right) William McIlvanney, photo by
William McIlvanney is something of a legend in Scottish crime-writing circles. I choose my words carefully here, for the man himself has described the term Tartan noir as “ersatz.” And who am I to argue with the author of the novel that started the phenomenon?
A good friend of mine recently described McIlvanney as “like meeting a statue that’s come to life,” and that does kind of sum up the reverence with which he’s treated in his home country. But crime writers didn’t always attract such rapturous plaudits.
When McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw, back in the late 1970s, Scotland was not well-known for its crime fiction--something he was to change singlehandedly. McIlvanney’s curmudgeonly cop, Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, provided the imprimatur for the Scottish best-sellers lists, and our longest-running television drama, Taggart, is a very heavy homage to the work.
This Godfather of Tartan Noir has never been out of fashion, but when his books fell out of print it was definitely time for a revival. I spoke with the 76-year-old McIlvanney on the eve of Edinburgh-based Canongate’s re-publication of his ground-breaking Laidlaw series.
Tony Black: You were writing literary fiction and changed to genre fiction with Laidlaw. It’s an accepted career path now--everybody does it--but when you did it, nobody did. What were you thinking?
William Mcilvanney: I suppose I didn’t give a shit. I just thought that I had written Docherty (1975), which was about the first quarter of the 20th century, and I was desperate to reconnect with contemporary life again and I didn't know what I was going to do, but I had this character--who turned out to be Laidlaw--who was persistently hanging about in my head. And I’d always wanted to write about Glasgow--I’m a convert, I come from Ayrshire--so I had the intensity of a convert for Glasgow, I loved it and wanted to write about that. I had to make this character Glaswegian and he's got to go to bad places so he’s got to be a cop. But I didn’t think, I will now write a detective novel; I came upon the necessity to write a detective novel because I wanted to write about Glasgow and I wanted this abrasive character to be part of it, so I kind of stumbled into the fact that he’s got to be a detective.
TB: So Laidlaw could have been a completely different person--say, a journalist or a paramedic, just somebody who touches different echelons of society?
WM: Oh, absolutely. I was fortunate to know a guy from Kilmarnock, Robbie McInness, who was a detective from Glasgow. [He] told me things about the kind of ambiance the guy would work in, and putting all these things together it’s got to be a detective novel about Glasgow, but I didn’t think it was going to be a game-changer. I’ve always felt that detective novels can fight as middle-weight and quite often fight as fly-weight, so I wasn’t deterred by saying this is a detective novel; this was a character I cared about and the story I wanted to write.
TB: You’re on the record as saying “good writing occurs where it occurs”--you don’t put it in a ghetto if it’s genre fiction.
WM: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t read much detective fiction, but I knew that when I read about [Philip] Marlowe I thought this is serious writing, he can write. I never had that--well, coming from my background you wouldn’t--snobbishness that says you have to write “literature.” It’s all books, and if they work they work and that’s it.
TB: I believe you don’t buy into the Agatha Christie style of crime fiction. You’ve said it gives you “reality starvation.”
WM: That’s right. She’s also one of the most successful writers in the world and I respect that, she did what she did. But certainly it’s not for me, finding dead bodies in the library and all that, I just cannot believe it when I read it. Maybe it works as a puzzle, but it connects to no kind of sense of life that I understand, and what I try to [do when I] write is to connect with the real life that I know and the people I know.
TB: English crime fiction and Scottish crime fiction are completely different, aren’t they?
WM: I would hope so. I don’t think it’s a national thing, it’s about the way you look at books. I mean, why should I be cheeky to Agatha Christie, who’s far more successful than I could dream of being? But for me it was the book as a puzzle. I think Scottish writing’s always been a bit more serious than that, a bit more solemn. I didn’t want to pass two hours on the train, I wanted to relate to the kind of society I live in and encourage people to do that. [Poet John] Keats said a great thing, that when you’re writing you must “load the rifts with ore.” Don’t just go where you’re going, but give the reader observation, presence along the way. A detective story--if you get it right, you’ll have a plot that’s going to make people read on, but along the way give them serious observation and a sense of the society the novel is passing through, and that’s what I wanted to do with Laidlaw. I thought, what you’ve got here is a great form; if you get it right, folk are going to read it to the end. But you can also do the thing of saying here’s the reality of the story by giving them bonuses of observation and reality along the way, and I thought that’s what Laidlaw could do.
TB: But you subverted the traditional structure with Laidlaw by revealing the murderer on page one …
WM:That’s right. I think if you say it’s a whodunit, the puzzle takes over. It dominates the reader’s concentration throughout, and I thought I don’t want to do that. So if I say, this is the man who did it, then in the process of this story I’ve got to produce something else, because you know already who did it, so it’s a why-dunnit and it’s [about] what will result from his having done it. And you’ve still got a hook, but as well as the hook I wanted to say, OK, this is the crime and eventually we’ll get to the core of why it happened, but along the way what about this for a place? Look what’s around us.
TB: It’s a literary writer’s approach to crime fiction. You obviously want your characters and setting to drive the novel, it’s not about ladling in lots of plot turns.
WM: Absolutely. It’s about Laidlaw, it’s about the boy who [committed the crime] and the strange nature of him and why he did it. It just seemed to me that it was a great form.
Gore Vidal said a great thing once in an essay, he said that we should colonize the genre, we should take genre [works] and try to people them with serious reality--so if it’s a detective story, make something happen to make it real, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to take a form that people would like reading, hopefully, and follow it to the end, but almost below their consciousness you would be giving them the presence of observation and a sense of reality. If you can put that all together, to me, you’ve got an utterly valid book.
TB: Inspector Laidlaw is a bit of a curmudgeon--do protagonists in fiction need to be sympathetic?
MW: It’s advice I’ve never followed. I like him, he’s a pain in the arse in many ways, but I think we all are. I’d absolutely go for several pints with him.
TB: You stated early on that you weren’t interested in a man who was a cop, and Laidlaw had to be a cop who was also a man.
WM: Yeah, you’re not defined by your job, you redefine your job by your humanity in the way you handle it. Laidlaw happens to be a cop, but he’s much more than that and he brings the much-more-than-that to the job. If you’re defined by your job, you’re pathetic, you might as well give up. But you can approach the job in such a way that you redefine the job by the humanity you bring to it, and that’s what I think Laidlaw does; he’s aggressive, he’s a pain in the arse, but he’s serious and he means it.
TB: A lot of characters in crime fiction do tend to be quite one-dimensional, but he’s got a hinterland ...
WM: I could sit here and pontificate about how I created him, but I’m not sure how I did it. It was putting a man who was interesting in situations that would test his nature and that’s about that. He’s a guy I like and I think that all the folk I like can be a bit of a pain in the arse at times. I don’t want to meet folk that are so bland that all you do is exchange the same kinds of platitudes. Laidlaw’s not a platitudes person, he keeps his reactions real and I think that’s important, because when that happens the situation becomes real. I mean, if you think about it, you can go to a party and think, Christ, I might not as well have gone at all, it was all so platitudinously pleasant. And a wee bit of frisson of angst or argument; I love that, Laidlaw brings that to every situation. He doesn’t go in and play a role, he becomes himself.
TB: I heard a rumor that the voice of Jack Laidlaw had come back to you recently. Does that mean there is another novel on the cards, or is that just wishful thinking on my part?
WM: I don’t know. I don’t want to get too melodramatic, but I am still slightly haunted by him. I have got some ideas, but I don’t know if they’ll come to fruition. I’ve got an idea for a Laidlaw prequel, with Laidlaw as a younger man, perhaps before he became quite so aggressive. I’ve also got an idea for a twilight Laidlaw--where he’s out of the police--that I’ve had for a while. [Sean] Connery once phoned me and said, “I have a window,” and I thought, I’ve got several windows, but what he meant was that in his career there was a gap and could I write a treatment and let him see it. I wrote about 18 pages of a story in which Laidlaw becomes involved after he’s packed up the police. I won’t elaborate on the idea--I know you wouldn’t steal it, Tony, but somebody might--[but] I sent it to him and he said his secretary really likes it, but he thought it was a book not a film. And I think he was probably right. It strikes me that it’s an idea that could be resurrected.
(Right) Hard Truths, the source of this interview excerpt.
TB: Laidlaw, of course, operates in Glasgow--that city does get a bad reputation. It’s a cliché, but it is No Mean City ...
WM: Do you know a city that isn’t hard? I mean, I lived in Paris for a little while and it’s possibly my favorite city, but I remember walking into certain places and thinking, I’d better get out of here. It’s a hard place, I mean, Parisian crime is hard stuff and I think Glasgow has a reputation which is not unearned, but which is exaggerated. Besides being a hard town, it’s a terrifically warm town, I think. It’s a place, as I once said, where Greta Garbo wouldn’t have been alone--she’d have been in a pub somewhere and somebody would shout out, “Hey, you in the funny hat, come over and have a Blue Lagoon!”
Glasgow has a terrific quality of engaging you. I’ve had a lot of people who know about the books, approaching me. I went into the Horseshoe Bar once and ordered a drink, and as I lifted it to my lips a guy said, “It was Friday night in the city of the stare ...” And I thought, Christ, I wrote that, and we went on to have a terrific conversation. I didn’t ask if he’d went beyond the first sentence, though, I didn’t want to spoil a sweet moment.
READ MORE: “William McIlvanney: The Father of Tartan Noir,” by Susan Mansfield (The Scotsman); “William McIlvanney: Laying Down the Law,” by Bram E. Gieben (The Skinny); “Laidlaw,” by Jim Murdoch (The Truth About Lies).