by Colin Waters

Doubt and the Detective

June 28, 2013 | by Colin Waters

The name is misleading. Laidlaw. Makes you think of a man of certainties, of cast-iron convictions, someone who lays the law. William McIlvanney’s detective hero, Jack Laidlaw, is distinguished, however, from the ever-multiplying scrum of fictional sleuths by his uncertainty. ‘The most certain thing about Laidlaw was his doubt.’ Not that he is a procrastinator or wishy-washy in his opinions. Doubt, in his case, is a philosophic choice. ‘If everybody could waken up tomorrow morning and have the courage of their doubts, not their convictions, the millennium would be here. I think false certainties are what destroy us.’

Jack Laidlaw is at the centre of a loose trilogy written across three decades: Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). The first part was published two years after McIlvanney won the Whitbread Novel Prize for Docherty. Critics expressed surprise that this promising young author, barely 40, should follow up a prize-winner with, of all things, a roman policier. His choice is logical, however. Read in a certain light, Docherty is a subversion of genre, in this case the historical novel; it gives a presence to the sort of people never ordinarily allowed admittance to the historical novel unless it is to play rude mechanicals: the Scottish working class. For his next book, McIlvanney, like Laidlaw, went rogue to achieve his goals, and in doing so created a sub-genre, ‘Tartan Noir’, that grew enormously successful despite – because of? – its practitioners rarely admitting into their fictions the intellectual currents that underpin the trilogy.

The Laidlaw books pose the tidy-minded a dilemma. From a distance, one might be tempted to call them detective novels; after all, that is the profession of the titular character.  And there’s the rub. Describing them as ‘detective novels’ suggests a whodunit, and McIlvanney’s trilogy only assumes the lineaments of genre when it suits his deeper purposes. For example, in Laidlaw, we know almost from the start the identity of the murderer. The trilogy can be described as detective novels only in the sense that the latter part of The Brothers Karamazov is one too. The dialogue and metaphors might give the impression a Gorbals Chandler had a hand in their composition –

‘Sometimes I get the urge to rearrange your face.’

‘You should fight that,’ Laidlaw said, not looking up. ‘It’s called a death wish.’

– but its substance is spun from the same dark thread Dostoevsky worked with. Consider the authors whose volumes the lawman keeps in his desk drawer ‘like caches of alcohol’: Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno. McIlvanney doesn’t raise the names of those authors as a sort of intellectual perfume, just a whiff to persuade you Laidlaw is a deeper character than you might expect in such a setting, a concession to the crowd the Whitbread Prize attracted. Camus especially was important to his concept of a moral cosmos, as the Frenchman had been since the start of McIlvanney’s writing career; his debut novel Remedy Is None is marked by the same struggles to make sense of the self as L’Etranger. Laidlaw doesn’t merely interrogate suspects; he continually questions the subject of how to live well in a godless world: ‘All we have is each other and if we’re orphans, all we can honourably do is adopt one another, defy the meaninglessness of our lives by mutual concern.’ Ironically, despite his advocacy of communal responsibility, Laidlaw – in genre as well as existential terms – stands alone.

Canongate, which is reissuing the Laidlaw novels, have made two mistakes in their blurb. Firstly, pandering to Tartan Noir fans, it describes their hero as ‘the original damaged detective’, when, if anything, with his love of literature and his children as well as his generous moral code, Laidlaw is the best-adjusted character in the trilogy. Secondly, each volume is branded ‘A Laidlaw Investigation’. It would be more accurate to describe them ‘A McIlvanney Investigation’. What does the author pass his magnifying glass over? The soul of Glasgow, the ills of masculinity, the nature of guilt: ‘…Born in Scotland, you were hanselled with remorse, set up with shares in Calvin against your coming-of-age, so that much of the energy you expended came back as guilt.’

Laidlaw, as his exasperated colleagues would have known, has a different take on the matter of guilt than the consensus view. A large part of Scotland’s post-WW2 culture wars have focussed on ameliorating the historical causes and consequences of its natives’ capacity to suffer and harbour guilt. Taking the opposing view, Laidlaw believes we all need to experience more, not less, guilt: ‘Who shouldn’t feel guilt? In our guilt is our humanity…. The acknowledgement of your own guilt shouldn’t be a means of absolving others. No scapegoats. Everybody shares.’

This lies at the root of Laidlaw’s anti-Manichean worldview. McIlvanney’s protagonist chases wrongdoers, convinced that it takes more than one man with one weapon to make a murder. Homicide, he might say, constitutes a radical critique of society. ‘I can’t stop believing that there are always connections,’ Laidlaw says. ‘The idea that bad things can happen somehow of their own accord, in isolation. Without having roots in the rest of us. I think that’s hypocrisy. I think we’re all accessories.’

The murder in Laidlaw is a consequence of two criss-crossing fault lines that emerge from the murk of masculinity, Glasgow-style: sectarianism and homosexuality. Tommy, the young man responsible, is gay but unable to accept his orientation, Glasgow’s emotionally and violently repressive attitude screwing him up enough to murder. Jennifer Lawson, his victim, is a teenager, the investigation of her murder complicated by the lies she told to conceal from her father, Bud Lawson, a Proddy hardman, that she was dating a Catholic. Interesting that the surname of Bud, a self-styled angel of vengeance as the plot progresses, should, like our investigating officer, contain ‘law’, as if suggesting that even these two characters, polar opposites in most ways, share something; that we all share something. For that reason, without ever condoning the crime, Laidlaw is unusually sympathetic towards its killer, and is clear that homophobia was largely responsible for creating the killer.

In the most political of the three books, The Papers of Tony Veitch, McIlvanney indicts the callousness of a society that, unlike Laidlaw, doesn’t see much point in investigating the suspicious death of a homeless tramp. ‘Laidlaw remembered that one of the things he hated most was elitism. We share in everyone else or forego ourselves.’ Recall the book was published in 1983 as the Thatcher revolution was moving into first gear. At one point, Laidlaw pursues a student suspect to Glasgow University where he overhears academics speaking, which reminds him why he left university after a year of studying to be a lawyer. Whereas Morse exited Oxford early because of a failed love affair, Laidlaw had been angered at the way in which the groves of academe bent language into a ‘private code’ accessible only to a few who could speak the same lingo. ‘A lot of what passes for intellectuality’s just polysyllabic prejudice.’

Practically no one shares Laidlaw’s point of view. His wife throws him out at the end of the second book, his lover at the end of the third. His partner, Harkness, respects him without always liking him but doesn’t accept his theories of ethics. Yet he gushes empathy compared to the rest of Laidlaw’s colleagues. Simply put, his fellow policemen dislike him. His would-be nemesis and fellow Detective Inspector Ernie Milligan puts it this way: ‘He thinks criminals are underprivileged. He’s not a detective. He’s a shop steward for neds’.

Interestingly, the criminals don’t agree with Laidlaw either. ‘Steal enough money and they put you away for thirty years,’ thinks John Rhodes a soi-disant ‘ordinary decent criminal’. ‘Kill a girl and they would try to understand…. Money bought everything, even the luxury of being able to pretend that everybody really meant well and evil was an accident. He knew better.’ An uneasy alliance of criminals, determined as everyone else to ignore their own small part in the climate out of which came the death of Jennifer Lawson, spend the latter part of the book hunting for Tommy, a race against time with the police that echoes Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. While M prefigured the rise of the Nazis, McIlvanney’s trilogy traces nothing so portentous, although it does at times hint at a change in the perception of society’s weaker members that has come fully to bloom in recent years with talk of strivers and skivers. When in The Papers of Tony Veitch, Laidlaw gives the ignorant Harkness a colourful lecture about the legendary street life of Glasgow’s past, it isn’t merely to entertain him; it’s an implicit reminder of a period when certain characters of the demi-monde were celebrated for who they were, rather than condemned for who they are not. By the time of Strange Loyalties, Laidlaw, finding himself at a stuffy party in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying Glasgow, reports: ‘I stopped myself from haranguing a group who were explaining to one another how the poor create their own problems.’

By the final part of the trilogy, the narrative has changed perspective from third- to first-person. Whereas the preceding volumes had departed from Laidlaw at points to build-up a portrait of the Glasgow underworld, here, the focus remains on Laidlaw, who, unsurprisingly, is subdued, given the recent death of his brother. Nor is the action centred on Laidlaw’s usual beat, but in a small semi-rural village, Graithnock, the fictionalised version of Kilmarnock that served as the backdrop to Docherty. One wonders what hardened crime fiction readers will make of it. To get the most out of it, you have to have read McIlvanney’s 1985 novel The Big Man, whose story Strange Loyalties concludes, while Laidlaw is even more speechifying idealist than before. The ‘case’ he investigates isn’t a murder or even criminal at all, but the events leading up to his brother’s death in a non-suspicious car accident. What he is actually investigating is Laidlaw himself, or rather his generation’s ideals and the mess they made of them.

One can’t be surprised that McIlvanney wrote no more Laidlaw novels after Strange Loyalties. Although Laidlaw figures out the mysteries at the centre of each book, the solutions, you realise, are consolation prizes. What the trilogy charts is the defeat of his values; his belief that doubt and guilt are better stars to navigate by than power and money. He ends the books exactly as he feared he might, alone in a bedsitter, a father by appointment, not friendless, exactly, but unable, seemingly, even to share a drink with colleagues after work; not so much hard-boiled as heart-boiled. Jack Laidlaw’s ideals have backed him into a corner his creator has yet to find a way to free him from. ‘My quarrel was with all of us. Where do you go to deliver that one?’


Laidlaw
William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP280, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 986 9

The Papers of Tony Veitch
William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP298, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 992 0

Strange Loyalties
William McIlvanney
Canongate Books, PP362, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 993 7

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