Tartan noir and a different world

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dark Remains, by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin (Canongate)

It’s autumn 1972 and Glasgow is a far cry from the city that will be named the European Capital of Culture in 1990.

Tall sooty buildings, rival gangs and incessant drizzle characterise the world of Detective Constable Jack Laidlaw and his colleagues.

The body of lawyer Bobby Carter is found in an alley behind a pub called The Parlour near the city’s shipyards. The pub used to be busy place, six deep at the bar, but with the decline in ship-building “you could prefix ‘Funeral’ to the pub’s name and it would not seem out of place”.

Carter’s clients included all sorts, including gangsters. In fact one of his closest associates was the head of a gang. And oddly, The Parlour is in the territory of a rival gang. But dumping the body in that area’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?

DC Laidlaw is a maverick. Laidlaw is impatient with formal briefings and paperwork – he prefers to “read” the streets, catching buses and seeing what’s going on. This doesn’t go down particularly well with his bosses, and even his partner Bob Lilley is a little wary of him.

But Laidlaw’s instincts are invariably right, and Lilley humours him – which turns out to be the best policy.

William McIlvanney’s novels, which he termed “tartan noir” are said to have changed the face of crime fiction. He wrote three Laidlaw novels, Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties. I haven’t read any of them but if they’re anything like The Dark Remains, they are characterised by a strong sense of place, mordant wit, a fair bit of violence and the clever solving of a puzzle.

When McIlvanney died in 2015, he left half a handwritten manuscript which was essentially a prequel to his Laidlaw series. Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus crime novels, saw McIlvanney as a mentor and by all accounts jumped at the chance to finish the book.

The result is, in the words of Lee Child, who knows what he’s talking about: “Fantastic – like witnessing Scottish noir’s Big Bang creation in the company of its greatest living exponent… like Maradona and Messi playing in the same team.”

I puzzled as to where McIlvanney left off and Rankin picked up. There is a change of direction to the story, a bit of a twist, and I wondered if that had been set in motion by McIlvanney or was introduced by Rankin.

It doesn’t matter though, as this is a great read.

I was struck by the authors’ evocation of life in the 1970s, particularly by two things.

One was the smoking. Laidlaw smokes all the time, everywhere. On the bus, in the office, in people’s houses.  Remember that? When I was a young reporter the first thing I would do as I sat down at my typewriter was to light a cigarette. It was as though I couldn’t write a story without a smoke.

And the other thing was the phone.  Obviously no cellphones then, but you forget how cumbersome life was without them. If you wanted to make a call you had to find what here we called a tickey box – and did you have a tickey? (For millennials, a tickey was a small three-penny silver coin.)

If you didn’t have change, or didn’t feel like wandering down the road in the rain looking for a call box, you could persuade someone to use the phone “in the office”. Or if at home, the phone was usually on a little table in the hall. But many people didn’t have a phone at all.

I remember it, but in many ways it seems to have been a different world. It probably was.

What is not different, though, is McIlvanney’s thesis expressed in his opening paragraph: “All cities are riddled with crime. It comes with the territory. Gather enough people together in one place and malignancy is guaranteed to manifest in some form or another. It’s the nature of the beast. …The preoccupations of our daily lives obscure any dramatic sense of threat …It’s only intermittently… that people may focus on how close to random risk they have been living.”

*The Dark Remains was one of Exclusive Books’s recommended top reads for January.




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