His Glasgow gumshoe Laidlaw laid the blueprint for Rebus and co – but William McIlvanney became the forgotten man of tartan noir. Crime novelist Doug Johnstone hails the return of the writer who inspired a generation
In case you don't realise, I'm speaking about William McIlvanney. McIlvanney hasn't actually spent years in the wilderness – he's always been an admired writer in his homeland, though his renown hasn't spread beyond the borders in quite the way some of us think it should have.
McIlvanney isn't a crime writer per se; he's also written literary novels, short stories, essays and poetry since the 60s. But he did happen to write three crime novels, starting with Laidlaw in 1977, that acted as a hard-bitten blueprint for all Scottish crime fiction to come, inspiring a generation of writers to take on the genre in his wake.
Laidlaw's eponymous detective is an existentially troubled individual with a strong moral compass and a stronger sense of socialist justice. The Glasgow he stalks is a brutal place, rife with depravation and poverty, yet depicted with dark humour and perceptive, poetic prose. The plot reads like a cliche today, but that's because McIlvanney was first to do it. The murderer of a teenager has to be found and, well, that's it. But McIlvanney subverts expectations, and gives away whodunit early on, focusing instead on the psyches of characters that represent different facets of Glasgow, and by extension Scotland. In a time when English crime writers were still copying Agatha Christie, McIlvanney took the hardboiled ethos of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and applied it to the working classes of the city around him. It was a revelation.
Now, Laidlaw is back. McIlvanney's event at this year's Edinburgh international book festival is entitled The Triumphant Return of Laidlaw. All three of his crime novels have been given a new lease of life by his new publishers Canongate, and he's talking about writing a new Laidlaw book in the not-too-distant future. He's being cannily marketed to the next generation of readers, who may not realise there was life before Rebus.
How did this come about? Rewind two years: at a sold-out event in Edinburgh, McIlvanney reminisced about his career. But though he was as charming and erudite as ever – he has the old-school movie star charisma of Clark Gable or Sean Connery – the evening had an air of winding-down about it. At the end, McIlvanney mentioned offhand that many of his novels were out of print, including the Laidlaw books. Two thoughts came into my head as he said it. The first was: "If Willie is out of print, what the hell are the chances for the rest of us?" The second was: "If I was a publisher, I'd be collaring him outside the venue sharpish.
It turns out there were several publishers in the room with the same idea. The most determined was Francis Bickmore, publishing director at the super-sharp Canongate. Today, you only have to look at the cover of the new edition to see the debt the tartan-noir scene owes to McIlvanney. Cover quotes from Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Peter May and Chris Brookmyre, all effusive with praise. Bickmore describes it as "Raymond Chandler meets Albert Camus", which pretty much nails it.
Last year I was in the green room of Bloody Scotland, the country's crime-writing festival. McIlvanney was there, and all the other writers, without fail, were queuing up to shake him by the hand. In fact, he was just about the only thing anyone talked about the whole weekend.
This is, after all, the man who inspired Ian Rankin. Rankin tells the story of attending a reading of McIlvanney's back in the day, and letting him know in the signing queue afterwards that he was trying to write a crime novel set in Edinburgh. "Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw," Willie wrote in Rankin's copy of his novel Docherty.
So William McIlvanney is responsible for tartan noir – though he certainly didn't coin the phrase. That honour goes to James Ellroy who apparently described Ian Rankin as "the king of tartan noir". Ian tells it differently, though, claiming he suggested the phrase semi-jokingly to Ellroy in yet another signing queue, only for Ellroy to then inscribe his book with it.
Whichever way you slice it, us Scottish crime writers are now stuck with the term. Some are ambivalent about the label, suggesting that it sounds flippant. And there is an understandable reluctance by writers to be lumped together. After all, can one single word sum up the biting satire of Chris Brookmyre's Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks as well as the social critique of Denise Mina's award-winning The End of the Wasp Season? As for myself, I don't even write about detectives solving crimes; my thrillers are set against everyday domestic backdrops. Does that make me tartan noir?
In the end, labels don't matter a toss to writers or readers – only to those marketing books. But maybe there is something that holds us all together: a down-to-earth quality, an unflinching eye on the social context of crime, a focus on the bleakly, blackly comic side of life and death that we learnt from McIlvanney. Or maybe it's just down to the miserable weather.