Glasgow writers William McIlvanney (left) and Craig Robertson sign books during CrimeFest in 2013. (Photo © Ali Karim.)
What’s now known among the Scottish fiction set as Tartan Noir lost a bit of its luster today with the passing of William McIlvanney, the creator of philosophical Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. He died this morning in Netherlee, Glasgow, after what’s being described as “a short illness.” The author was 79 years old.
Scotland’s Herald recalls in its obituary of McIlvanney:
Born in Kilmarnock in 1936 to William and Helen, he attended Kilmarnock Academy before graduating MA (Hons) at Glasgow University. He taught English from 1960 until 1975 in Irvine Royal Academy and then Greenwood Academy, Dreghorn, where he was also assistant head teacher. He held a series of creative writing posts at Grenoble, Vancouver, Strathclyde and Aberdeen universities.Britain’s Guardian notes it was McIlvanney’s fourth novel, Laidlaw (1977), that really “caught the fancy of the broader reading public.
In 1975 he left teaching to devote himself to writing full-time. He was garlanded with prizes, with Docherty (1975) winning the Whitbread Prize. Other awards for his work included the Crime Writers’ Silver Dagger, the Saltire Award and the Glasgow Herald People’s Prize. He influenced heavily a generation of writers both in his native country and further beyond with the debt of U.S. writers being acknowledged last year with the re-publication of his novels in the USA as a standard bearer of European noir.
Detectives with existential anxieties, marriage problems and a deep literary hinterland are not uncommon now, but Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw was a bright arrival on a dull Scottish literary scene in 1977. In policing the rougher territories of Glasgow and environs, Laidlaw found many things stacked against him; what he had going for him [was] a realistic outlook on life, abundantly laced with wit and philosophical reflection--a voice he inherited from his highly articulate creator.On the back of my 1977 Popular Library edition of Laidlaw (a tale I didn’t get around to reading until 1980), a Los Angeles Herald Examiner critic is quoted as gushing over McIlvanney’s book, calling it “the best detective novel in ages … a brutal, sophisticated, outstanding, unforgettable reading experience.” The author subsequently penned two sequels to that tough and unforgettable work, The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991).
No one had previously encountered a Glasgow cop who described his regular tipple as “low-proof hemlock” and who hid his Camus and Kierkegaard in the desk drawer, the way an alcoholic keeps a secret stash. McIlvanney could say of Laidlaw, “He knew nothing to do but inhabit the paradoxes,” and make it sound like Glaswegian common sense.
McIlvanney’s fellow author Tony Black, who was fortunate enough to interview him back in 2013, wrote on Facebook earlier today that “Willie was an artist of the finest quality and skill. To be talked about as the greatest writer of his generation was an enormous achievement for a man who grew up with the notion that having your name on a book was akin to walking on the moon.” Meanwhile, novelist John Harvey (Darkness, Darkness) had this to say in his blog:
William McIlvanney was a writer, not a crime writer, though his influence on crime writers and crime writing, in the UK especially, was immense. I first read Laidlaw, the first of his three novels featuring the Glasgow-based police detective Jack Laidlaw, in the late ’70s, soon after it was published. It made an impression that was close to indelible, the writing precise and in the proper sense, poetic, for he was an accomplished poet as well as a novelist, carrying with it the rhythms, sometimes harsh, of the place and people it conveyed and contained. So that when I came to write the first [Charlie] Resnick novel, some ten years later, much of Laidlaw--its force and its ambition--lay behind what I was attempting to do. It was to take me another ten years, no, more, before I even came close.A full catalogue of McIlvanney’s books can be found here.
I first met him some ten years ago, at a festival of crime writing at Frontignan, in the South of France, and I have to say the prospect all but terrified me. It was his reputation, of course, both as [a] writer I revered and as an apocryphal hard drinker who didn’t suffer fools gladly. The real Mac, I found--at least, the one I was privileged to spend time with over that long weekend--was something different. He was generous, surprisingly gentle--he was, in the most positive but old-fashioned sense, a gentleman.
Each evening we met before dinner and sat at a corner table outside one of the cafés by the canal, drank a glass of two of Scotch--it was Aberlour, as I remember--and talked. I enjoyed those times, brief as they were, and cherish them now.
READ MORE: “William McIlvanney Is Dead,” by Peter Rozovsky (Detectives Beyond Borders); “In Loving Memory,” by Tony Black (The Highland Times).