Review: Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Europa Editions | June 2014 | Reviewed by Andrea Pura
Originally published in 1977, Laidlaw is the first book in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy and is often credited as the novel that launched the Tartan Noir genre. Detective Jack Laidlaw, known for his unconventional approach to his work, is assigned to investigate the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson. Complicating the matter, however, is the fact that Jennifer is the daughter of Bud Lawson, a notorious gang figure who is looking to take the law into his own hands and avenge his daughter’s death. Paired with rookie detective constable Brian Harkness, Laidlaw’s quest to solve Jennifer’s murder becomes a race against the clock to prevent the murder of her killer as well.
One of the most noteworthy features of Laidlaw is that three chapters in, McIlvanney reveals the identity of the murderer. Like Jack Laidlaw himself, the novel is much more interested in the story behind Jennifer’s death than it is in its solution. As the author puts it, “This isn’t a whodunnit but maybe a why did he do it.” As readers search for a motive, they are introduced to a motley crew of characters—including an infamous mafia boss, violent gang members, a cancer-stricken hit man, several temperamental pub owners, and the occasional drunk—and we learn that many of these characters have families and stories of their own.
Laidlaw immerses its readers into the gritty underside of Glasgow, leading them through its pubs, nightclubs, hotels, and homes. The city becomes a character itself, and its shadows further obscure the circumstances surrounding Jennifer’s murder. Many of the conversations are written in a heavy Glaswegian dialect, which is difficult to read, even for native English speakers. The novel’s language serves to constantly remind readers that they are tourists, preventing them from ever feeling completely comfortable in this city. Laidlaw artfully blends this tough Scottish attitude with sharp philosophical insight, creating a novel that has inspired generations of crime fiction writers.
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