Fans of the long-running series of Ian Rankin detective stories will need little introduction to the sub-genre of Tartan Noir, a specifically Caledonian brand of granitic hard-edged crime fiction set in Scotland, and often drawing on the poverty and brutality of parts of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and other darker urban quarters North of the border. Its progenitor is widely acknowledged to be William McIlvanney, whose 1977 novel Laidlaw basically inaugurated Tartan Noir – although the actual term was supposedly coined by James Ellroy for an lan Rankin book jacket. Douglas Johnstone, in his coverage of the relaunch of the Laidlaw trilogy by Canongate Books last summer, dubbed McIlvanney “the forgotten man of tartan noir,” which is kind of surprising since he won a slew of major literary awards, commencing with the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his first novel, Remedy is None, in 1967. l suspect that very few of McIlvanney’s fellow writers would have forgotten about him.
McIlvanney has written poetry, historical fiction, straight history and extensive journalism, but it is Jack Laidlaw, the troubled Glasgow Detective Inspector, university dropout and sometime amateur boxer, “polluted avenger, knight of the rusted sword,” that he is best known for. And Laidlaw has an ethos that takes his enquiries far outside police procedural, into society, politics, and also philosophy, ethics, and plain old human nature: “I can’t stop believing that there are always connections. The idea that the bad things can happen somehow of their own accord, in isolation. Without having roots in the rest of us. I think that’s just hypocrisy. I think we’re all accessories.”
Laidlaw may be McIlvanney’s best-honed instrument for chiselling at the crooked timber of humanity, but he uses his tool and his material with tender sensitivity and craft. McIlvanney simply loves people, especially his people. For a supposedly bleak and hardboiled genre, he spends a remarkable amount of time celebrating kindness, hospitality, warmth and strength of spirit. It’s hard not to conclude that he left off “serious” fiction and took to genre writing for the same reason that his protagonist Laidlaw disdains the universities and the law courts: because they seem to be self-regarding little worlds irrelevant to real lives. He is also very hostile to machismo in a style that nonetheless suggests close acquaintance with extreme violence. No room for Hemingwayesque posturing in a McIlvanney novel. Just reading him palpably enriches your emotional intelligence.
At the same time, in a very Scottish way, McIlvanney’s writing makes no assumption that its characters, or its audience, should be uncultured or ignorant simply because they’re not self-consciously intellectual or academic. “Miguel de Unamuno had written something that applied to me, if I could think what it was,” says Laidlaw in Strange Loyalties. “I read quite a lot of philosophy in a slightly frenetic way, like a man looking for the hacksaw that must be hidden somewhere, before the executioner comes.” I wonder if most other noir writers could carry off that kind of allusion without it coming across as forced, pretentious or patronizing. In fact, for a fellow writer, McIlvanney’s prose is just terrifyingly poised.
McIlvanney himself was reportedly not happy with the tartan noir genre coinage, describing it as ersatz. He certainly doesn’t slot neatly into prepackaged marketing categories, and the idea that a writer of his ferocious competence needs some kind of validating endorsement from the birthplace of noir is frankly ludicrous. He writes detective stories in the same sense that Herman Melville wrote sea stories or Leo Tolstoy wrote war stories. Come for the crime: Stay for the writing and the sheer humanity.