Monday, July 08, 2013

How William McIlvanney beats the stereotypes

The first thing that strikes me on my second reading of William McIlvanney's 1977 novel Laidlaw is how much better the book is than the many crime novels that have followed it in form but fallen short in spirit and execution.

Here's how an outline of Laidlaw might begin:
First chapter: Narrated from killer’s point of view as he flees murder scene.

Second chapter: Crusty police officer sits at his desk, feeling bleak.

Third chapter: Father of missing girl feels frustrated and powerless.
Forget, for a moment, that those tropes may not have been so tired back in 1977. The question on the floor is why McIlvanney's versions seem so fresh now that Canongate books has rereleased Laidlaw in 2013 (along with its follow-ups, The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties), other than that McIlvanney avoids the deadly trap of setting the inside-the-killer's-head chapter in italic type.

Start with compassion and humor. End with such telling detail that one feels one is reading novel observation rather that obligatory place-holders. Here's how the novel opens:
"Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. ..."
Find me a better description of alienation than that, of feeling inside one's body and removed from it at the same time. If you do, I bet it won't end on McIlvanney's humorous note:
"A voice with a cap on said. `Where's the fire, son?'"
Yes, quibblers, a voice with a cap on, a convincing subjective description of how the world might appear to a panicked young man fleeing through a crowded city's streets. Subjectivity here translates into empathy, which, in turn makes itself felt in McIlvanney's compassion for his characters, even the most unpleasant. That compassion, perhaps even more than his depictions of hard city (Glasgow), marks out his affinity with Goodis, Guthrie, and other great names in noir.

Then there's McIlvanney understated humor, of which the following bit about a clownish drunk is just one of my favorites (and it gives a nice picture of McIlvanney's Glasgow at the same time):
"He was circulating haphazardly. trying different tables. In Hollywood films it's gypsy fiddlers. In Glasgow pubs it isn't. With that instinct for catastrophe some drunk men have, he settled for a table where three men were sitting. Two of them, Bud Lawson and Airchie Stanley, looked like trouble. The third one looked like much worse trouble."
Here's an example of McIlvanney's compassion for his characters. Here's another that also exemplifies how McIlvanney gets beyond a crime-fiction trope by digging deeper into it. In this case, the trope is that of the introspective detective.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger R.T. said...

I have not read Laidlaw, so my responses are generalizations rather than specifics. Anyone who first uses literary tropes has by definition avoided stereotypes and cliches; the stereotypes and cliches occur with later repetitions of patterns without including any originality. With respect (generally) to crime fiction, there are very few originals. Poe, Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and a small assortment of others earn the label of "originals." Later authors who follow (and imitate) the originals (as we have discussed previously) must conform to certain tropes in order to satisfy readers' expectations of genre patterns. The trick (or illusion) of originality comes when authors after the originals offer slightly new twists to the patterns; their failure to do so leads to what you have correctly identified as unsatisfying stereotypes. To my mind, there is very little successful and readable originality happening in the world of fiction--of any genre--in the last twenty or thirty years. Perhaps that observation makes me something of a Luddite. After all, I prefer the golden oldies--the originals--rather than the imitative descendents. Even when I have read Colin Dexter and Arnaldur Indridason, for example, I am repeatedly reminded of their ancestors in the genre. Who now writes with convincing and readable originality? McIlvanney, having written a few decades ago, is not eligible for as an answer.

July 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know who in crime fiction writes now with convincing and readble originality, though I would not discount the possibility that someone might be doing so without my recognizing it. I am not certain that originality is recognized or appreciated as such when it first appears.

Megan Abbott and Sara Gran come to mind as current crime writers whose work does not remind of other authors', in part because of their interesting use of unexpected antecendents, such as Nancy Drew. Of course, I could simply be ignorant of other models they may be using.

July 09, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

The question of originality is a really good one, and I'm racking my brain to think of someone. Everything I come up with is old. I guess that's why I so frequently seek my reading matter in the past.

July 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

McIlvanney beat the stereotype by writing well, and that's all that matters, I'd say. Whether he was original or not, who can tell?

He is, of course, a kind of original to the Scottish crime writers who have followed him and acknowledged his importance to their own work.

July 27, 2013  

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