Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

Moving the stars to pity…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

strange loyaltiesIn the third and, to date, last outing for Jack Laidlaw, he is grieving for the death of his brother, Scott. Although Scott’s death was accidental – he was knocked down by a car – Laidlaw believes that his brother’s state of mind played a major part in his death. And so as the story begins, he has taken some time off work to try to find out what had led Scott into the depression and heavy drinking that marred his final months. As he talks to the people who knew Scott best, Laidlaw finds there were things he never knew about his brother and begins to realise that the answers he is seeking may lie far back in Scott’s past…

Nobody had said ‘crime’. But that dying seemed to me as unjust, as indicative of meaninglessness as any I had known. And I had known many. For he had been so rich in potential, so much alive, so undeserving – aren’t we all? – of a meaningless death. I knew.

I should know. He was my brother.

The first book in the trilogy, Laidlaw, would certainly be in contention on any list I might draw up of best crime novels, possibly even best novels overall. The second, The Papers of Tony Veitch, came very close to matching it in quality. So for me, this one had a couple of hard acts to follow, and it was with some trepidation that I began to read. And, although this is undoubtedly an excellent novel in its own right, in truth it didn’t reach quite the same heights for me, though only by a small margin.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very much a matter of personal preference. The Laidlaw brothers grew up in Ayrshire so, unlike the previous books which were very firmly set in the Glasgow of my youth, this one takes place mainly away from the city. McIlvanney himself was an Ayrshire lad so for him the emotional connections are just as strong, perhaps stronger, but for me, there wasn’t the same resonance as in the other two. It also meant there was very little of McIlvanney’s wonderful use of Glasgow dialect which so enhanced the earlier books for me. The other reason is that this one is written in the first person from Laidlaw’s perspective, whilst the first two were third person. I found Laidlaw a more believable character seeing him from the outside, as it were. Being told his philosophical thoughts in his own voice meant I found that, just occasionally, he came over as a little pretentious.

William McIlvanney Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph
William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

However, slightly less good from McIlvanney is still about a zillion times better than excellent from most authors, so I certainly wouldn’t want either of these quibbles to put anyone off reading this one. McIlvanney’s prose is wonderful – there is a poetic edge to it that makes the reading of it an intensely pleasurable and often emotional experience. I don’t usually use such longs quotes as this but I feel this gives a true flavour of the deep understanding and love of – pity for – humanity that pervades these books:

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

His characterisation is superb – each person flawed but believably so, and he writes them with a sympathy that makes it hard for the reader to condemn. He is very much of the school that believes criminals are made, not born, and for his characters there is always the possibility of redemption. Some of the most moving scenes in this book are of a petty criminal back in Ayrshire to look after his dying mother in her last weeks. No McIlvanney character is black or white – they are all multi-shaded and multi-layered, and Laidlaw has the empathy to see them in the round. And it is Laidlaw’s empathy and understanding that makes these books special, because through him the reader is also brought to feel a sorrow and a pity for the way the world is.

One of my favourite quotes is Flaubert’s “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. In this trilogy, McIlvanney’s writing surely moves the stars.

Amazon UK Link
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34 thoughts on “Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

  1. So glad to hear that this was a fitting end to the trilogy, FictionFan. As you say, McIlvanney’s weakest is better than lots of people’s best. But even so, sometimes that third book can land with a dull thud. I’m pleased, ‘though not surprised, that this one didn’t though :-).

    • Yes, really a great trilogy, and though ‘Laidlaw’ was the best in my opinion, the other two certainly kept the standards nearly as high. I must try to read some of McIlvanney’s other stuff when time permits…

  2. Okay, FEF…this is a Stellar Review! Really. From what you say, this professors gathers that the Laidlaw trilogy is some of the best crime stuff out there today. I think you recommended I read the first…didn’t you? Now, don’t answer ‘yes’ unless it was true!

    What do you suppose William is looking at? Goodness.

    *bangs head on desk* Reading P&P again…rats.

    • Thanks, C-W-W – woohoo! *grins* Yes, it is on your TBR from back when I reviewed it, but mostly because of the Glasgow setting. But I think there’ll be one later in the week that will suit you better, TBH…though of course you could read both! *listens for the sound of sobbing*

      I think he’s looking at the stars…or else he’s just met a Thark.

      Hahaha! I wondered if you’d spot that! It’s the manga version…

      • *hears lots of sobbing* The Glasgow setting…how’d you know I’d be interested in that? Maybe I told you. Nice! I’m like really excited to see what that book is! No hints I suppose?

        I think he looks happy with himself. Therefore, he’s staring at picture of himself! (Or looking a mirror.)

        Manga…never heard of those! Well… *laughs* How is it?

        • Haha! Just out of interest I went back to the review to see why it ended up on your TBR…and I cannot tell a lie, you really didn’t express much interest – it appears I just decided you should read it! Poor C-W-W! *guilt-ridden face marred by wicked chuckling* But the other one is definitely for you – when it appeared on TBR Thursday you said ‘That just seems simply awesome!’

          You might be horrified by this but…I think he looks really quite yummy in that picture…

          Utterly unexpected! But is that good or bad? Watch this space…

            • *chuckles* I still haven’t removed it from your list though… Well…um…yes! But on the other hand I’ve been reading A Fine Balance for 2 weeks now and I’m not even a third of the way through… *yawns*

              *laughing lots and lots* Very mean! Cheeky Chicky! I told you I’m not pernickety…

              Darby’s very gorgeous! Nearly as gorgeous as Colin. And it’s going to be a great excuse for some more pics on the blog…

            • Well, don’t you suppose we can probably remove it now?! A Fine Balance…must be 1000 pages long!

              *laughs* You should be! Imagine… *laughing more*

              I’d actually like to see a Japanese Darby.

            • No, I’m sorry. Once it’s on the list you can only have it removed by either reading it, or bribing me with something truly phenomenal… It’s only 600 pages but each page feels like a walk through sludge. I may abandon it soon…

              *laughs* You are so rude!! What’s wrong with him? He looks like a man who’s seen a bit of life…and survived!

              You will at some point, but the review writing enthusiasm has dropped below zero at the moment I fear, so I don’t know when.

            • What do you suppose the professor could bribe you with? Besides chocolate, of course. Yes! Abandon it. Definitely.

              Okay, then…his ears are ugly.

              No! Maybe you should review HP…

            • Hmm… I think I’ll leave you to come up with something…

              I think I’ve abandoned reading temporarily altogether…I might take up bungee-jumping for a while, or bullfighting.

              Note to self: the Professor must have lovely little neat ears…c&a, but hopefully not fluffy…

              Huh! I’ve given up all hope of brainwashing you into reading that one!

            • Giant Jap Hornets!

              *laughs* Don’t do anything…dangerous! (I’ll miss your reviews, but I understand completely.)

              *bangs head and laughs* I couldn’t–in my wildest dreams–foresee how you’d use that against me, but you did!!!

              *smiles proudly* That’s because I’m a hopeless cause.

            • *laughing lots* Is that a threat? ‘Cos I have to be honest, as bribes go, I’ve had better…

              (I’ll be around – I’ll just cut back from the five days a week for a bit.)

              *smiles smugly* I’m good, aren’t I?

              You are – I may have to bewitch you…

            • What was the best you’ve had? Have to know what I’m up against. I can only think to bribe you with stuff that would work on me. Like a new katana or ka-bar.

              *nods* Of course! If you disappear, I’ll come hunt you!

              You are! Too good. I shouldn’t try to battle you, should I?

              Oh dear. Is FEF a…?

            • Hmm…most bribes I’ve received have involved chocolate, I admit, but I’m expecting the Professor to be more original. I can see the attraction of weapons, but would they be safe in my hands?

              Oh, I might disappear then… *runs off and hides, chuckling*

              Not when I’ve got my pea-shooter handy anyway…

              *mixes magic potion and mumbles inaudibly* Of course not! *cackles*

            • Sure they would be! Once I taught you how to use them. Umm…flowers are ugly and they stink, so none of those. Or candles. How about a hat!

              *laughing* Really? Must I strap on the gear?

              Maybe Tuppence will steal all your ammunition.

              Haha! Well, it doesn’t matter.

            • *laughs delightedly* A hat!!! Brilliant idea – and so Professorish!! What kind?

              Yes, I fear you must. And do hurry up! Sitting behind this bush is becoming most uncomfortable…

              Little beast! She would too…

              It will when I turn you into a toad…

  3. While I think this is unlikely to make my shelves, i really enjoyed the review – and the Flaubert quote caught my breath nicely. I did also very much appreciate the last 5 lines of your Mcilvanney quote. Touched a chord or several.

    The author pic rather looks as if he is waiting for Papal benediction to arrive! Unless he is out in the street in his best suit, after a visit to the hair stylist, without a brolly, and some spots of rain are descending threateningly on the newly coiffed creation…………..

    • Thanks, LF! I was sort of hoping that the quote might talk you into trying these though. I really think they could as easily be classed as litfic as crime.

      I must say his coiffure is indeed looking newly coiffed – and when the girl said ‘would you like mousse’ he accidentally said ‘yes’…

      • Well I’ll have a back-burner think on it – re the coif – I hope there wasn’t a failure of communication – HE thought she said mousse, she actually said (because she was a bit of a joker) MOUSE and there is a live one scampering through the upswept locks

  4. I will read ‘Laidlaw’.
    I will read ‘Laidlaw’.
    I will read ‘Laidlaw’……. to be repeated as many times as it gets to make me take action:-)

  5. So glad you enjoyed this one even if it missed the mark of the previous two by a smidgen! This post has brought up that pang of guilt that Laidlaw still sits unread on my kindle – I really need to remedy that!

    • Yes, but I think it only missed because of the change of location really, so wouldn’t affect non-Glaswegians. So once you’ve read the first two, you should speed straight on to this one… 😉

  6. So, I might try first in series, Laidlaw. But when I checked the amazon content
    line, it mentioned that Laidlaw has to deal with “Glasgow’s hard men, gangland
    villains and the moneyed thugs who control the city.” Huh? Glasgow? Say it
    isn’t so!

    • Haha! Yes, I don’t think McIlvanney does much for the tourist trade! But honestly the city’s changed now – we’re all lovely peaceful people – honest! Though an English friend of mine really enjoyed pointing out a guide book for Glasgow that lists all the nightclubs and ERs on the same page… 😉

  7. So glad you weren’t disappointed. If you were thinking of reading another McIlvanney, I would suggest “Remedy is None” -one of my all-time favourites. The photo must have been taken on a very special day – usually he looks much less “coiffed”. 🙂

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