Saturday, December 05, 2015

William McIlvanney is dead

William McIlvanney and me at Crimefest Bristol
in 2013. Photo courtesy of Ali Karim.
I am shocked and saddened that the great Scottish author William McIlvanney has died.

McIlvanney's three novels about Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw — Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991) — are the answer to anyone who needs proof that literary fiction can be tough, gritty, and unpretentious, or that crime writing can be beautiful, affecting, and a portrait of its time and place that deserves to last.

McIlvanney's sympathy with his low and not so lowlife characters was heart-rending and funny at the same time, and he made Glasgow his own in a way no other crime writer has done with a city, not Chandler with Los Angeles or Lawrence Block with New York or Jean-Claude Izzo with Marseille.

And oh, how he could make the oldest of hard-boiled crime fiction clichés seem new. The protagonist waking up drunk. The murder scene narrated from the killer's point of view. The police officer who sits around feeling bleak. The angry, nervous, fretting parent of a missing child. McIlvanney could make all seem like something you'd never read before.

He was a fluent and commanding speaker on stage at conventions, and a modest and jovial presence at the hotel bar, and I know of no other author regarded with such respect and affection by his fellow writers. Here's the Telegraph's obituary and appreciation. Here's a link to all Detectives Beyond Borders posts about McIlvanney. And here are a few of my favorite bits from the Laidlaw books:
"(H)e recognized the inimitable decor of Milligan's poky flat, a kind of waiting room baroque. 
"The walls were dun and featureless, the furniture was arranged with all the homeyness of a second-hand sale room and clothes were littered everywhere. It wasn't a room so much as a suitcase with doors."
 -- The Papers of Tony Veitch

 *
 "It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of stares. ... There were a few knots of people looking up at the series of windows where train departures were posted. They looked as if they were trying to threaten their own destinations into appearing."
-- The Papers of Tony Veitch

*
" ... his anger was displaced. It was in transit, like a lorry-load of iron, and he was looking for someone to dump it on. His jacket had been thrown on over an open-necked shirt. A Rangers football-scarf was spilling out from the lapels.

 "Looking at him, Laidlaw saw one of life's vigilantes, a retribution-monger. For everything that happened there was somebody else to blame, and he was the very man to deal with them. Laidlaw was sure his anger didn't stop at people. He could imagine him shredding ties that wouldn't knot properly, stamping burst tubes of toothpaste into the floor. His face looked like an argument you couldn't win."
 -- Laidlaw 

*
 "I've seen it go about its business all too often — all those trials in which you can watch the bemusement of the accused grow while the legal charade goes on around him. You can watch his eyes cloud, panic and finally silt up with surrender. He doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. He can no longer recognize what he's supposed to have done. Only they know what they're talking about. It's their game. He's just the ball."
 -- Strange Loyalties
*
"`Ma lassie's missin.' 
"`We don't know that, Mr. Lawson. ... She could've missed a bus. She wouldn't be able to inform you. She could be staying with a friend.'
"`Whit freen'? Ah'd like tae see her try it?' 
"`She is an adult person, Mr. Lawson.' 
"`Is she hell! She's eighteen. Ah'll tell her when she's an adult. That's the trouble nooadays. Auld men before their faythers. Ah stand for nothin' like that in ma hoose. Noo whit the hell are yese goin' to do aboot this?'" 
-- Laidlaw
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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12 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

A very nice tribute. I'm sorry I didn't manage to read Laidlaw before he passed.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You can read it now. In the meantime, I'm going to solicit suggestions for what to read of his beyond the Laidlaw novels. Various comments on blogs and social media have mentioned titles I had not known or thought about before.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I even have it and can see it from where I'm sitting. I'll try to squeeze it in soon.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I fully expect that you will enjoy it and will be impressed.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

When you say he surpasses Chandler and Izzo at making a city his own, you are creating some pretty high expectations.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I hope no one is let down because of it. Those three are terrific at giving a city a personality and a feeling of its own. But no one I have ever read doe sit better than McUlvanney did.

December 05, 2015  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

I'm going to re-read Docherty. Every line is a gem.

December 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen that book much talked up. A good place to begin my non-Laidlaw McIlvanney reading, is it?

December 06, 2015  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

Absolutely, Peter. Here's what one commentator had to say - "Docherty, which won the Whitbread Novel prize, is one of the great European novels in the tradition of Dostoevsky, Orwell and Sartre – examining poverty, morality and the human condition through the hard life of miner, Tam Docherty as he fights for his family and his dignity."

December 07, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That sounds a bit weighty. I would bet that McIlvanney leavened all that with a bit of humor, as he did so well in the Laidlaw books.

December 07, 2015  
Blogger R.T. said...

As my homage to a great writer, I will be sure to include something by McIlvanney in my readers' challenge (The A.B.C. Murders Challenge for 2016); perhaps you will be kind enough to pass the word to your many followers about my humble attempt to get more people involved in reading crime/detective/mystery fiction. Thanks.

December 11, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep. McI;vanney would make a fine choice for the letter M, and a surprising one for some people.

December 12, 2015  

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