William McIlvanney is one of the prodigiously talented McIlvanney brothers who, along with his journalist sibling Hugh, have played a significant part in Scottish cultural life for more than 30 years.
William McIlvanney was Visiting Professor in the School of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde, where he taught the emerging generation of Scottish writers. His work might be characterised in three ways. Firstly, there is his novelistic output, in particular his detective stories based around the eponymous character, detective constable Jack Laidlaw. These stories are in keeping with a tradition of British thriller writing, and stand at the opening of the later proliferation of crime writing in Scotland which Elmore Leonard has described as ‘tartan noir’. Secondly, in his short stories and in other novels such as The Big Man (1985), there is a more considered literary and lyrical McIlvanney who has explored the Scottish male psyche and the way in which it forms and is formed by violence. Thirdly, his journalistic prose has offered a profound reflection upon the state of Scotland from the point of view of a certain socialist intellectual, documenting the drift of Scottish culture from an industrial base to late Capitalism.
It is remarkable that the limited geographic space of Scotland and in particular the even more limited geographic space of the motorway corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh has given rise to such an abundance of detective fiction. There is a tradition of Scottish thriller writing which predates McIlvanney, and includes John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, McIlvanney was the first Scottish writer to combine the emerging interest in crime writing with a depiction of Scottish working-class life and its violent conditions, as exemplified in novels such as Archie Hind’s Dear Green Place and Alexander McArthur’s No Mean City. McIlvanney’s first novel, Remedy is None (1966), won the 1967 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His second, A Gift from Nessus (1968), won a Scottish Arts Council Award in 1969. His third, Docherty (1975), won the prestigious Whitbread Novel Award, but it was his fourth novel, Laidlaw (1977), which secured his international reputation. In the character of Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw we can see all the anti-heroic characteristics which have shaped tartan noir and, more generally, British crime writing, since its publication. Laidlaw is a loner with an antipathetical relationship to authority and who is motivated by an idea of justice which occasionally exceeds the boundaries of the law. Here one can see the basis for characters such as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. However, Laidlaw is also a humanist manqué, he does not accept that there are ‘fairies or monsters’; only people caught up in circumstances beyond their control and shaped by socio-economic forces not of their own choosing. In this respect, we might consider McIlvanney’s writing (reminiscent of The Hard Man) as part of a tradition of Scottish Socialist Realism. However, politicised as it may be, this is no agit prop. Laidlaw has a considerable amount in common with Kafka’s K or Joyce’s Bloom as he wanders the mean streets of Glasgow in search of the truth.
With a writer such as McIlvanney, one can begin to see why Scotland should be such a ripe locale for detective fiction, and why its writers should speak to readers in Europe. Firstly, the land of Macbeth is propitious for murder. The dark nights and dark psyches depicted by McIlvanney are suggestive of the scene of considerable crime. McIlvanney (and those who write after him) construct a Glasgow as bleak as any modernist or postmodernist distopia. His interest is not in the macro level configurations of a city and its political and public spaces, but in the lives led in back streets by characters sketched in charcoal with nicotine stained fingers. His is the Glasgow of smoke-filled bars, newspaper stands, public buses, cheap hotel lobbies, dark street corners, empty parkland and dimly-lit night clubs. It is a warren as complex as any labyrinth imagined by Dedalus and as evasive as any Castle encountered by a confused Kafka. Laidlaw, like a Scottish bladerunner, occupies his own imagined space, all the more powerful for its recognisable referents and familiar auditory patterns. McIlvanney expands his writing beyond the formula of the detective novel to offer a profound engagement with process, temporality and human agency. Laidlaw imagines that it is a mistake to think of murder as the culmination of an aberrant sequence of events. It is only that for the victim. For the living, those who live on in the half-light of unknowing, it is only the beginning of a sequence of events which can lead to the undoing of lives that still have to be lived.
The opening of Laidlaw provides us with an opportunity to read several salient aspects of McIlvanney’s writing. It begins:
'Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other. It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning. And it was useless to notice these things. It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him.
A voice with a cap on said, "Where’s the fire, son?"
Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal.'
The first thing we might note is that the voice here is considered and literary. It does not invoke the wise-cracking conventions of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, nor does it turn to demotic Scots. The vernacular is always inside inverted commas. It plays on several stylistic features characteristic of the European novel, notably here the use of style indirect libre as a way of blurring the boundaries between the third person narration and the interior monologue of the character it describes, moving between the complex sentence and the flustered reporting of 'Stroll' and so on. However, this passage is one which exemplifies the work of the book in general and of McIlvanney’s characters in general. It is concerned with reading. It reads the body language of the runner for signs of the symptomatic, working from signifier to signified to reconstruct meaning and to work towards truth. All of McIlvanney’s characters are good readers, not only the detective who operates a hermeneutics of suspicion but all the anti-heroes who engage critically with the world around them, taking nothing at face value, decoding the world as they attempt to make sense of it for themselves and their reader.
Dr M. McQuillan, 2003
Novelist William McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock and studied at the Academy there, before going on to read an MA in English at the University of Glasgow. After graduating in 1960, he worked for 15 years as an English teacher. His first novel, Remedy is None, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1996. He is best known for his gritty portrayals of working class life in 1970s Glasgow and Kilmarnock (fictionalised as “Graithnock”). His 1975 novel Docherty won the Whitbread Novel Award, and its sequel, The Kiln, won a Saltire Society Award.
McIlvanney’s 1985 novel The Big Man was made into a film starring Liam Neeson and featuring Billy Connolly. His most recent novel is Weekend, published in 2006. McIlvanney is also a successful poet, with collections published in 1970 and 1991.
Unfortunately McIlvanney’s books went out of print but 2012 saw a real revival of interest in the author and his works. Canongate’s editorial director, Francis Bickmore, bought world rights and republished Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties in 2013, followed by Doherty and The Big Man in 2014.
William McIlvanney’s brother Hugh is a respected sports journalist and writer, and his son, Liam McIlvanney, is an academic and novelist working in New Zealand. William McIllvanney died in 2015.