William McIlvanney: Laidlaw

I used to think I knew the names of all major Scottish writers, although of course I hadn’t read every one of them. When William McIlvanney died last year, I was surprised by the the number of authors, from Irvine Welsh to Ian Rankin, who claimed he’d influenced them, as I didn’t remember having ever heard about him before. After some hesitation I bought his first crime novel and now I’ve read it.

And I was surprised again. How could I have missed such an outstanding author for so long? Even allowing for the bias in the book’s favour I probably have on account of its mentioning so many Glasgow places I know, its enlightened attitude (it was first published in 1977) towards homosexuality, and its having a cynical eponymous character, it’s still a masterpiece. Imagine a Scottish novel by Ed McBain who’s been helped by Raymond Chandler for the wisecracks and by Iain Banks for the geography and the ambience (and of course the lingo) …

I don’t say it’s one of the top ten books of my life. I do say I wasn’t amazed by a first-time-read book as much as by this one for quite some time. During the last two years I’ve read several books I enjoyed but don’t expect to ever read again. This is not one of them.

********

Quotations:

He had been taught despair but he had learned defiance.
(of Harry Rayburn, p 136)

 

In that careful balance between pessimism, the assumed defeat of contrived expectations, and hope, the discovery of unexpected possibilities, Harkness recognised Laidlaw.
(p 185)

 

Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice? It’s what we have because we can’t have justice.
(Laidlaw, p 204)

 

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