This is my review of Laidlaw (Laidlaw Trilogy Book 1) by William McIlvanney.
Curiosity over the recent revival of interest in a crime writer said to have inspired Ian Rankin, led me to read the first in his trilogy on DI Laidlaw. Prickly, sardonic, subversive, a maverick with a rocky marriage and a boss who only tolerates him because he gets results – all this sounds like a stereotype of fictional detectives we have come to know, but Laidlaw was one of the first, appearing in print back in 1977.
This investigation of the brutal murder of a young woman is less of a whodunnit- we are catapulted into the murderer's confused psyche in Chapter 1, and more of a whydunnit, exploring the personalities of the main characters against the background of gritty gangland Glasgow. The images are often striking and original: "A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with a cataract", Laidlaw is described as "looking terrible with a right eye like a roadmap", or a man watches "a blackbird balance its beak like a nugget of gold". The language is often quite poetical and repays reading slowly, but the pressure is on to find out what happens next.
Some scenes read almost like a play, as when Laidlaw's young sidekick Harkness asks how they can begin to relate to the murderer. Laidlaw's unusual view is that, "This murder is a very human message. But it's in code. We have to try and crack the code. But what you are looking for is a part of us. You don't know that, you can't begin."
When we first meet Laidlaw, he is "feeling a bleakness that wasn't unfamiliar to him….doing a penance for being him." Since this negativity, combined with great intensity, often oppress both Harkness (driven to ask "who wants to be batman to a mobile disaster area") and Laidlaw's long-suffering wife Ena ( she's looking after the three kids he claims to love whilst he is out philandering), you may wonder how the author expects his readers to put up with his creation. Yet, the gloom is offset by wry humour and tight plotting. Although I sometimes found the style of writing contrived (and could not get some sentences even after several readings), this novel stays in one's mind longer than the usual monosodium glutamate thriller, and leaves you with the sense that it is both gripping and worth reading.