Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Wha daur meddle wi’ me…

😡 😡 😡 😡 😡

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

laidlawWhen Jennifer Lawson’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they’re not alone in the search. Jennifer’s father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city’s underworld – men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on…

McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer – a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.

Set in the late 1970s, this is the Glasgow of my youth and I found it reeked of authenticity. The language, the attitudes, the hard-drinking culture centred around the city’s pubs, the humour and bravado that defended against the ever-present threat of violence – all more extreme in the book (since I didn’t mingle too much with the underworld!) but all very recognisable. And, sad to say, the sectarianism and homophobia were as present and as open in the real world as in the book.*

“Across the street the door of the Corn Exchange opened suddenly and a small man popped out onto the pavement, as if the pub had rifted. He foundered in a way that suggested fresh air wasn’t his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

The characterisation throughout the book is particularly strong, each character as believable as the next. Though there’s an air of menace throughout, there are only a couple of graphically violent episodes and they are all the more shocking for their rarity. Fear runs through the book and, as with all the best crime fiction, moral certainties become blurred round the edges. McIlvanney’s use of language is brilliant – the Glaswegian dialect is completely authentic, and I particularly enjoyed how Laidlaw slips between educated English and dialect depending on whom he’s speaking to. I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre – I can see it’s influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series – and I’m duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley.

* * * * *

*Before Visit Scotland sues me, I’d just like to point out that Glasgow has changed now and is a wonderful, sophisticated place full of welcoming, warm-hearted, friendly and non-violent people!! Honest!

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36 thoughts on “Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

      • But on a more serious note – it does sound like a bit of a grim read…I have images of old tv series Taggart that we still see here…grim, bleak, grey,industrial, raining…I seem to be reading too much grim/bleak lately. (I know that must sound odd as I prefer to read crime but lately all I am reading is grey, sad lives. Crime reads used to be exciting, nail biting, page turning mysteries…what has happened? )


        • I know, I find that too. That’s what put me off Nordic crime for so long – too depressing. But a couple of the ones I’ve read recently have been more like the old style – room for a bit of fun along with the crime. I’ve noticed the Nordic women seem to write far less depressingly than the men. Have you tried Jane Casey? I love them because there’s loads of humour in them along with the crime and her detective is the type of person you can imagine actually liking in real life.


          • I realised my comment might be a bit misleading. Casey isn’t Nordic – she’s Irish and the books are set in England. Mind you, given that I’ve got the heating on at the end of June, I’m beginning to feel a bit Nordic myself…


        • Have you read my review of The Village? And one day when I’m in a really bad mood, I’ll post my review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery – the review title is ‘Dire’. 😉


            • The thing is I’m pretty good at picking books I’ll enjoy so most books get either 4 or 5 stars. And if I hate a book, I abandon it – and I don’t like to review a book if I haven’t read at least more than half of it. Plus I haven’t posted any of my old negative reviews, only the positive ones. But, just for you, I’ll post a couple of my ripping reviews soon – they’re not as funny as yours though!

              Oh, the smileys – no I thought I’d leave the frownies for a while – more appropriate!


  1. This is the third or fourth recommendation I’ve come across for this series which has, I believe, just been reprinted. My library hasn’t taken it up as yet so I shall have to have a go at them and see if I can get them to buy copies. I’ve just finished David Mark’s new book ‘Original Skin’. Have you come across him yet? This is number two and is better than the first – always a good sign.


    • Yes, reprinted last month, which I’m glad of since it was the buzz about it that persuaded me to read it. I’ll certainly be reading the next one, too. No I haven’t come across David Mark at all – I’ll look out for him. It’d be good to get in on a series early for once – I seem to be jumping in the middle too often at the moment, and then ending up with no time to backtrack. 🙂


  2. So glad you enjoyed this – I read it and its sequel “The Toby Veitch Papers” when they came out. I knew Willie Mc Ilvanney slightly,and he was keen to present Glasgow realistically and felt that a crime novel (or two, as it turned out) was the way to catch the popular eye. I was always sorry that he didn’t concentrate on crime, but it wasn’t really his primary interest.
    Another great Glasgow book which you may not have read (generation gap!) is Archie Hind’s “The Dear Green Place” which gives a fairly realistic picture of non-criminal working class life set just slightly earlier,and which was of particular interest to me because it was set around Townhead and Springburn where I, but not you, grew up.


    • That was partly why I enjoyed this so much – although technically I grew up on the Southside, I definitely feel my real stamping ground was the city centre. I’ve been in most of the pubs and discos McIlvanney describes at exactly the time he was writing about, so it was a real trip back to my youth. And so accurately portrayed. I could see all the streets and places he was talking about as they were back then. And you may not remember, but my best friend in that era lived off Duke Street, where some of it is set, so that was very visual for me as well.

      I did end up wondering how much Glasgow has changed or is it just that I’ve changed. Both, I hope. 😉


      • I haven’t lived in Glasgow since the mid-seventies, but as a visitor it seems to me to have improved out of all recognition. The seventies – the second half anyway- was when the post-war depression really began to lift. You only have to take the traditional walk “up Sauchie, down Buchy and along Argyll” and remember what it used to be like to see the difference .I don’t really remember the pubs, and in my day clubs were very thin on the ground, but the feel of the city still had that dangerous edge, which I don’t think exists now to anything like the same extent. Pre-1977, pubs chucked out at 10pm and getting the bus home any time after that was often a not very pleasant experience.


  3. You all are having just way too much fun over here! Love how you sidestepped the lawsuit. You never know who will sue you these days. :o) I suggest instead of marking something with “frownies,” you mark it with “brownies.” In keeping with the chocolate theme…


  4. You’re thinking about inventing “brownies” – I’m still trying to work out how to use the existing ones!


    • The brownies inventing isn’t going too well at the moment. 😥 But 💡 …colon close-bracket will make you smile! 🙂

      That sounds like a rather unpleasant medical procedure though… 😉 (semi-colon close-bracket)


  5. Just read this review, as I have the book in front of me with the intention of re-reading it – it was the 80s when I read it. I recall presenting the charming Mr McIlvanney with a pile of ALL his books to be signed, after a talk in the now sadly defunct John Smith bookshop in Byres Rd….he kindly spoke to me and my fellow Muileach for a good half hour. This is the Glasgow of Mr Crimeworm’s youth; he is a native of Barrowfield, a scheme which struck fear into the hearts of many. Before meeting Mr Crimeworm, the writer visited said place at 11am and can honestly say she had never been scared before like that in Glasgow during the day…


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