loulamac’s #CBR5 review #23: Laidlaw by William McIlvanney


God 1970s Glasgow is depressing. Or at least the side of it frequented by Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw in the course of his investigations is. This early (the earliest?) example of ‘tartan noir’ is the first of three novels featuring the enigmatic detective, and superficially at least deals with the aftermath of, and investigation into, the murder of a pretty teenager, Jennifer Lawson. When her gruff father reports her missing he gets short shrift from the police, but within six chapters her body is discovered in a local park. Laidlaw’s enquiries, and the parallel response of the local community, introduce us to a range of characters from Jennifer’s heartbroken aunt Maggie, to young policeman Harkness who seemingly has been seconded to be the straight man to Laidlaw, and ‘honourable thug’ John Rhodes.

Unlike many detective yarns, the plot isn’t really the point, instead McIlvanney uses the murder to present his observations on the nature of things, whether that’s fatherhood, the plight of working class Glaswegian women or the responsibility organised criminals have to the community they operate in. As such, the novel is a bit of a muddle, with passages exploring existential angst sitting alongside more typical hard-boiled noir prose.

Some passages are a joy to read, and wouldn’t look out of place in Chandler or Hammett:

‘The woman who came out of the cubby-hole at the side was unexpected. A woman like her was always unexpected. She was mid-twenties, attractive, and she had that look of competence in being female that makes men count their hormones. She smiled once at Harkness and he wanted her to smile twice.’

Other passages are clumsier, unnecessarily and self-consciously ‘literary’. The following description of the sound of a doorbell just one example:

‘It was an appropriately sentimental password to that land which defies geography, where domesticity has enchanted all things into stasis.’

It’s a doorbell.

All in all though, I enjoyed it, and will be venturing into Laidlaw’s Glasgow again.

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