Monday, October 28, 2013

Strange Loyalties: William McIlvanney in words and a picture

Your humble blog keeper (right) explains things
to William McIlvanney at Crimefest 2013
, Bristol.
Photo courtesy of Ali Karim
. Once again I'm rereading a novel by William McIlvanney, and once again I am struck immediately by how different he is from the legion of crime writers who acknowledge his influence.

This time the novel is Strange Loyalties (1991), third of McIlvanney's three Laidlaw novels and, like its predecessors, Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch, rereleased in trade paperback by Canongate.

A hard-drinking detective or police officer comes slowly to himself after a binge and boy, does his head hurt. You're read that scene a few hundred times, but probably not the way McIlvanney writes it. Here's the opening of Strange Loyalties:
"I woke up with a head like a rodeo. Isn't it painful having fun? Mind you, last night hadn't been about enjoyment, just whisky as anaesthetic. Now it was wearing off, the pain was worse. It always is."
First, McIlvanney comes with a funny, inventive, eye-catching way of saying, "I was drunk, and my head hurt." That's a good way to grab a reader's attention, a good thing to do in a novel's first sentence. Second, the humor is a welcome change from the pain and self-pity with which many another crime writer endows such first-person hangovers.

Third, McIllvanney immediately leavens the fun with somber self-realization that to me, at least, tugs at the heartstrings without getting maudlin.  If you've never read the Laidlaw novels, read that opening again. Don't you want to know the character who thinks those lines? Doesn't that mix make Laidlaw seem more real, more human?

So, who is like unto William McIlvanney? Allan Guthrie probably comes closest in his mix of humor and compassion, but even that top-flight crime writer doesn't do it with the concentration of his fellow Scotsman McIlvanney. Ken Bruen does something like it in Priest, though its characters lean more toward martyrdom and away from humor.

Ian Rankin calls it doubtful that he'd be a crime writer without McIlvanney's influence but, other than that McIlvanney's Laidlaw and Rankin's Rebus both work the streets of a tough Scottish city, I don't see striking similarities between the two. So I'll dump the question in your laps, dear readers: Which crime writers best combine humor and compassion? Which authors, if you want to put the question this way, will make you laugh and cry in the same book?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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10 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Do you know Liam McIlvanney?

Very good writer. Not too sure if there's a familial link there.

He's a Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago.

http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/author/liam-mcilvanney

October 29, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I think that one of the reasons I have difficulty with crime fiction as a genre is the persistent and excessive drinking.

I would be interested in your opinion on the role of Stoli vodka in Alan Glynn's "Graveland".
I'm thinking about a post on the subject of food and drink in literature and how much more enjoyable a book is when the food is good.

October 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Liam is William's son. I haven't read him, though I have read a favorable mention from time to time. I shall investigate. Thanks.

October 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maria: As far as I'm concerned, Alan Glynn can do little or no wrong. His characters have good reason to dull their senses (or sharpen them) with alcohol and drugs. And here's a post I made some time back about crime fiction and good food.

October 29, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'd rec All The Colours of the Town. I'd also like to read his stuff on Burns.

October 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just bought All the Colours of the Town for my electronic reading device. Based solely on Pops McIlvanney's writing, the son is worth looking into. And you might like William McIlvanney's Laidlaw books.

October 29, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Thinking further about the question posed in your post, I realise I never feel like crying when I read and cannot remember ever doing so.

Also, I am interested in the way Alan Glynn mentions a vodka brand name, one I did not know and had to look up.

It occurs in "The Dark Fields" ("Limitless") too...

http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2011/03/10/an-excerpt-from-limitless-part-ii/

October 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can well imagine rereading all of Alan Glynn an putting up some posts about vodka. I don't remember his having mentioned a given brand of vodka, but brand names are a big part of his paranoid, corporate- and government-controlled world. Corporate power and branding, one might say, have intruded on even that private, traditional realm of self-pitying drunkenness--a nice touch.

October 30, 2013  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Re: Which crime writers combine humor and compassion?

I most enjoy detective protagonists who are civilized without being utopian, cynical without being nihilistic.

Stephen Greenleaf, a lawyer who retired from writing because his books did not sell well despite changing publishers several times, had the right blend of humor and compassion for this reader. I speak of his Tanner series.

Greenleaf says he modeled his detective on Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, and of course I like his voice too.

On film, the ideal was James Rockford, very well-intentioned but vulnerable. A blue-collar small businessman, always just one step ahead of the bill collectors leaving messages on his answering machine. Yet hopeful.

And with the right amount of humor and compassion.

November 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you mentioned Stephen Greenleaf here before? If not you, I think someone else did. In any case, I plan some crime-fiction shopping soon, and I'll put Greenleaf on the list.

You may know my conflicted feelings about Ross Macdonald (and the Ross Macdonald who wrote the novel that is the source of those feelings would have loved a word like conflicted.) The novel is The Galton Case, and the feelings are, briefly: I loved the brilliant plotting, and the Freudian jargon made my flesh creep.

November 17, 2013  

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