Classic Crime: William McIlvanney – Laidlaw

William McIlvanney

From its almost surreal opening McIlvanney’s Laidlaw grips the reader.  That first short chapter follows the frantic movements of a young murderer as he tries to find a place to hide. Told in second person, it offers an intimacy and yet an almost god-like insight into the tumbling thoughts of the killer. It’s breathtaking in its effectiveness, immersing the readers in vivid images but leaving them unable to understand how to connect them.

It comes as a bit of a relief to begin the next chapter in a more typical fashion, returning to the more neutral third person narrative and the now-familiar jaded cop — the beginnings of 70s cynicism. Laidlaw offers the prototype for so many iterations that followed. He’s not just the detective who’s ‘seen too much’; Laidlaw is permanently out of step with the human race.

Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him.

He’s not just consumed by his job; it’s a kind of existential ache that permeates every part of his being — and makes his pursuit of criminals unconventional yet very effective.

He was a potentially violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding. He was tempted to unlock the drawer in his desk where he kept Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol.

His departmental rival, Milligan, reflects everything he hates: certainty, arrogance, and violence. They’re like oil and water and we see a lot of the clashes through the eyes of Harkness, the ambitious young detective who alternates between confusion, admiration and impatience dealing with his new partner.

McIlvanney slips between a variety of characters with ease, showing the world from the point of view of the parents whose daughter is missing, gangsters, and petty criminals. But Laidlaw remains at the center tying together all the disparate threads because he allows himself to see them.

I’ll end with one long quote that really captures the spirit of this excellent book which feels entirely contemporary. It comes after Laidlaw gets yet another dressing down from his boss:

They had these confrontations several times and always Frederick was at least as understanding as you could expect him to be, and always Laidlaw finished up depressed. The pair of them had the art of conjuring hopelessness together. They had managed it again. But at least Laidlaw had the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that he understood why, a little more clearly. Listening to Frederick’s advice, he had thought again of how much he disliked that room, the deodorised furnishings, the uncluttered desk, the smiling photograph, the ashtray never used. It was like a shrine to a God he didn’t believe in. It was the God of categories.

Good stuff: highly recommended.