My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel by a Scottish writer, William McIlvanney (whose brother, I learned recently, still writes about football for ‘The Sunday Times’). It’s called Laidlaw, and it dates from 1977. Ian Rankin admires it, and so do I. So too did Ross Macdonald, of all people, which must count for something. (I’ve never written about Macdonald in this blog, but he’s one of the American crime writers I really enjoy, even though admittedly I’ve only read a handful of his books.)
Right from the start, you know that McIlvanney really can write. The first paragraph begins’Running was a strange thing’, and at once we are with the viewpoint character, as his feet are ‘slapping the pavement’. Running, we are told, ‘was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic; a neon sign spelling guilt.’ I think the style is arresting, and although it was a very modern-seeming book in its day, it hasn’t dated too badly. The obvious adjective is ‘gritty’, but however you describe it, it’s a powerful read.
The eponymous Laidlaw is an unconventional Glaswegian cop, who does not know which side he is really on. A girl’s body is found, and the question is whether Laidlaw’s methods will help him to the truth, or whether a more orthodox will prevail. Can you guess the answer?
This was McIlvanney’s crime debut, after three earlier novels. The dust jacket announces it as ‘the first of a series of police thrillers’, but as far as I know, McIlvanney only wrote one more crime novel, The Papers of Tony Veitch, which I also liked, but perhaps not as much as Laidlaw. Maybe he didn’t have the energy or the interest to sustain a crime-writing career over a period of time – something which requires stickability as well as talent. But this book is a good one.