Monday, March 10, 2014

The Literary Crime Novel

I have just finished reading William McIlvanney's recently reissued novel, Laidlaw. His books aren't nearly as well known as they ought to be since he was, as Ian Rankin said recently, the father of  Tartan Noir, the Scottish crime tradition that has produced not only Rankin but Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and a dozen others.

I had read Laidlaw a long time ago, before there was a collective term for Scottish crime writers, but in re-reading it I realized that it doesn't fit neatly into any of the sub-divisions of the genre. Yes, it's hard-boiled – it's about the sordid underworld of Glasgow in the 1970s; yes, it's a police procedural  – Jack Laidlaw is a Detective Inspector; yes, it's noir - the main character is a hard man, a flawed individual, a maverick, an adulterer.

But it's different from all of these.  It's not a whodunit either – we know the weak and terrified rapist right from the start. You don't read it being drawn along by cleverly organized 'hooks' at the end of every chapter.

Yet you are compelled and fascinated by the glittering brilliance of the writing, the wise insights and the elegant wit, and the sheer humanity of Jack Laidlaw, a policeman who sees crime as just another facet of normal existence, its perpetrators not as monsters but as human beings to be understood even as he brings them to justice.

There is often a debate about whether a book dealing with the subject of crime can ever be a literary novel; for me, this is one of the best arguments in favor. It's not really genre fiction: it's a literary novel about the human condition in a violent, bigoted and corrupt society.

And it suffered the fate of so many novels of that calibre. The books went out of print and Willie McIlvanney – a man of enormous charm, warmth and wit – was all but forgotten on the literary scene.

There is, however, a happy ending. He was a guest of honor two years ago at the first Bloody Scotland, the Scottish crime festival - do come, it's well worth the journey! – and the tributes paid by the Tartan Noir writers resulted in the reissue of his books, talks about another one and now the prospect of a TV series. Class will out.

I'm working on my own next book.  Reading Laidlaw made me think very carefully indeed about what I want it to be.  I don't dare to aspire to Willie's heights, but it has made me more aware of the need to be vigilant against glib and shallow writing as I go against the clock for my word count.

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