William McIlvanney, ‘Laidlaw’ (1977)

laidlaw coverUsually when I’m reading a book I intend to review, I keep a pencil handy to annotate any passages I like. That wasn’t necessary with Laidlaw, a book so beautifully written and so full of glittering phrases that you could open it anywhere and find something worth memorising. I bought it in a charity shop which also had books two and three of McIlvanney’s trilogy for sale. I was only a fifth of the way through Laidlaw before I resolved to go back and acquire them as well.

Laidlaw concerns the investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, her body found under bushes on Glasgow Green. Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw is one of the officers assigned to the case, but he’s not the one in charge. Instead, he follows his own lines of enquiry assisted by DC Harkness, who in turn links in with the main enquiry team, run by Laidlaw’s nemesis DI Milligan. The differences and divisions between the two officers become ever more stark as the novel continues – Milligan calls Laidlaw an ‘amateur’, whilst Laidlaw in turn feels that Milligan is too wedded to procedure, and leaves little room in his work for sympathy or understanding of the crimes they investigate.

It’s a classic tension, one seen elsewhere in crime fiction but rarely handled as well as McIlvanney does here. There are some fascinating lessons in police-work and human psychology to be found here, as Laidlaw guides the less experienced Harkness through the investigation. ‘It’s the questions you don’t ask that count,’ he says at one point. ‘People don’t give answers, they betray them. When they think they’re answering one thing, they’re giving an honest answer to something else.’ And it’s good old-fashioned police work that brings results – following leads, talking to people, finding the inconsistencies into which they can drive a wedge. And much of their travelling takes place by bus, which Laidlaw describes as a way of getting closer to the city: ‘A car is psychologically sterile, a mobile oxygen tent. A bus is septic. You’ve got subject yourself to other people’s prejudices, run the risk of a mad conductor beating you to death with his ticket punch.’

The characterisation of the investigating detectives is very much a part of the extraordinary humanity that shines through the book. In just a few lines McIlvanney can describe an individual, or perhaps their relationship with someone else, with breathtaking deftness and clarity. The book is home to several (unhappily) married couples. Early on, Laidlaw’s own marriage is described as a labyrinth, ‘a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal down which Ena and he wandered separately, meeting occasionally in the children.‘ McIlvanney’s portrayal of the murder victim’s parents is also striking, leaving one to consider who is really responsible for bringing Jennifer Lawson to the moment at which she is killed. ‘A lot of people had been present at that murder.

william mcilvanneyLaidlaw is a serious, humane book but one that also contains great flashes of humour. These again show McIlvanney’s keen eye for an arresting image. A man struggling to open a door does so ‘with all the ease of the Venus de Milo cracking a safe.’ And there are several beautifully drawn scenes featuring men in various states of inebriation. In one, Harkness watches a man leaving a pub:

‘He foundered in a way that suggested  fresh air wasn’t his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return… He waved with an air of preoccupied royalty and proceeded to negotiate the rest of the roadway with total concentration and in a zig-zag pattern of immense complication. The road, it seemed, was a river and he was the only one who knew the stepping stones.’ 

McIlvanney’s book is a wonderful evocation of Glasgow, describing the city and its inhabitants with great skill and empathy. Like Jack Laidlaw himself, McIlvanney is never sneering or judgemental. Rather, he is very much aware that every face (however unprepossessing) hides a story; and we should not be too quick to judge people without first hearing it.


  1. Critics whose judgments I trust have sung Laidlaw‘s praises to the sky, but I could get nowhere with it — I’m not sure I even finished it. You’ve almost made me decide to go back and give it another try!

  2. […] William McIlvanney, Laidlaw – I was sad to hear of McIlvanney’s recent death, but this most poetic of crime novels stands as a real testament to his talent. Laidlaw is that most humane of policemen, steadfast in his pursuit of justice but also willing to acknowledge that the root causes of these crimes are much more complex. McIlvanney’s writing is also ridiculously quotable; one old man struggling with a door opens it ‘with all the ease of the Venus de Milo cracking a safe.’ […]

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