Scottish mystery novelist Ian Rankin had admired William McIlvanney (see below) for a long time. Rankin had read all of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series—there were only three books in that series—and had been captured by McIlvanney’s unique writing style and his point of view. Finally, early in his writing career, Rankin got to meet McIlvanney in person at a book fair in 1985.
It was one of the highlights of Rankin’s life.
Rankin’s career writing goal was to construct a police detective like McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw but to put that character in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow. Rankin did just that, producing more than a score of John Rebus novels that have captured a worldwide audience.
The last of the Laidlaw novels appeared in 1991, and Laidlaw fans had hoped for another one. Alas, it never happened, and McIlvanney died in 2015. In the years since his death, Laidlaw’s widow Siobhan has been sifting through his papers and has found the notes to a fourth Laidlaw mystery. It is a novel, she believed, should be written and who better to do that than Scotland’s best mystery novelist and Laidlaw fan Ian Rankin?
When approached about the possibility, however, Rankin was hesitant. As Rankin told The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s main newspapers:
“I told Canongate (the publishers) that I thought they could get a novel out of it if they did X, Y and Z. They then came back to me and said that Siobhan wanted me to do it.
“I don’t think I would have tried it with any other writer, but because I’m such a huge fan of Willie and he was such an influence on me I thought I’d give it a go.
“But I did say to them ‘no promises, if I can’t capture his style I’m not going to do it’.
“It was very important to me that this book was a McIlvanney – his voice, his world and his characters.” The Scotsman (August 28, 2021)
None of that would be easy, Rankin knew. McIlvanney’s style would be hard to match, but with Covid locking him down, he decided to give it a try, and the result, The Dark Remains, is due out this month.
The book is set in Glasgow in 1972, and The Times of London reviewer has called it a “fine prequel to the (Laidlaw) trilogy.”
The book is currently available for order on Amazon in Kindle and hardback editions.
From the archives: ‘Tartan noir’—you can probably figure it out
Tartan noir is not a term I had heard before a couple of weeks ago—but you can probably figure it out. It refers to crime and detective fiction that is either set in Scotland or by Scottish writers.
It’s not an especially good term either. Tartan as a reference to Scotland is pretty shallow and unsatisfying. Scotland is a whole lot more than a few colorful cross-weaves, although the tourists still seem to get it.
Author Craig Robertson doesn’t like it either, as he confesses in his recent article in The Guardian, but that’s not the point of his article. The point is to select his 10 best Scottish crime novels, and though selecting the 10 best of anything is tricky business, his list contains the usual suspects: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, and the like.
Number one on his list—though he does not like to rank them—is William McIlvanney, about whom he says:
Forensic examination would likely reveal that all Scottish crime novels have a little Laidlaw in their DNA. Powerful, gripping and beautifully written, it uses a brutal murder to shine a light on the city’s dark injustices, both criminal and social. McIlvanney had the enviable ability to use just a handful of words to make acute observations and deliver them with the certainty of a head butt. Source: Top 10 Scottish crime novels | Books | The Guardian
I had never read any of McIlvanney’s books before, and this article prompted me to download Laidlaw, and Robertson is right. McIlvanney’s sentences are worth the price of the book.
McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and he studied English at the University of Glasgow. He was a teacher from 1960 to 1975 when he left the profession to become a full time writer. He was a regular contributor to newspapers and was also a football commentator for BBC sports.
While he wrote a number of books of fiction and non-fiction, he is most famous for his crime trilogy Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). Each novel features Inspector Jack Laidlaw, an intellectual cynic who finds himself having to deal with Glasgow’s lowlifes.
McIlvanney won numerous awards for his books but never achieved the fame or financial rewards of those Scottish authors who followed him—and who give him credit for being their inspiration.
McIlvanney died in 2015, but examples of his writing can still be found on a website that he contributed to for several years before his death: www.williammcilvanney.com.
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