Following another of his periods in the wilderness, William McIlvanney is once again a name to conjure with. When he appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011, McIlvanney vented his frustration that he could not get a contract for his latest book. The publishers “wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole”. Two years on and now well into his seventies, McIlvanney is promoting the Canongate reprints of his three celebrated crime novels: Laidlaw (1977); The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983); and Strange Loyalties (1991). At the Dundee Literary Festival on Saturday 26 October 2013, McIlvanney described this turn of events as a kind of “resurrection”.
Given the trends in Scottish fiction and in reading habits, it is unsurprising that his inventive and sincere crime novels have brought him back into the public eye. As Allan Massie suggests, “Crime and Scotland go together, fictionally at least… The most-read Scottish novelists today are crime-writers”. The most successful names in Scottish crime fiction, including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina, are quick to pay tribute to McIlvanney’s trailblazing Laidlaw novels. His heavyweight reputation is ably demonstrated by the title chosen for the event: “The Crime Writer’s Crime Writer”.
Chaired by Dundee-based crime writer Russel D. McLean, the event revolved around the provenance of the Canongate reprints, McIlvanney’s feelings about the genre, his West-of-Scotland working-class background, and the relation between his crime fiction and his other novels. McIlvanney commanded the attention of the audience throughout, weaving little narratives out of the answers to the questions that McLean posed, and moving seamlessly between sincerity and irreverence. When asked about the reprints, for instance, he spoke of how he grandly told his previous publisher “I want my books back”, before self-effacingly admitting “Nobody was buying them anyway!” He similarly recalled his agent telling him “Write one Laidlaw novel a year, and you’ll be a millionaire”. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he satirised the expected narrative of the high-minded writer refusing to sell out: “But, ladies and gentlemen, I am a man of purity”.
McIlvanney’s discussion of the crime genre was the event’s highlight. Before turning to crime fiction, he had tried reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), commenting: ‘I’m sure Agatha Christie is a perfectly nice lady, but, oh no, Mrs, I cannot join you in the vicarage”. Later, however, after reading the work of Raymond Chandler and following Gore Vidal’s advice that serious, socially-committed writers should “colonise the genres” and “go where the readers are”, McIlvanney found himself writing a crime novel for two reasons: he was “starving for contemporary life” after finishing his historical mining novel Docherty (1975), and also had a striking character’s voice in his head (“Christ, I sound like Joan of Arc!”). He eventually decided it would have to be the voice of a police detective. McIlvanney was, then, “not drawn to the genre, but not intimidated by it”, observing, “If you don’t know the rules of the game, then you can find yourself introducing some pretty interesting aberrations”.
For the event, McIlvanney read an early passage from Laidlaw in which Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw and Sergeant Brian Harkness investigate Poppy’s Disco. This passage introduced Laidlaw’s thorny character and methods of working, and offered a window into the now seemingly antiquated world of 1970s Glasgow. Indeed, McIlvanney commented that, upon re-reading the novel, he was struck by how well it exposed the “phenomenal changes” in society over the last thirty-five years. He pointed out that, even at a trivial level, it amused him to read a scene featuring a bus conductor: “You just don’t get them anymore!” Perhaps ill-advisedly, one parochial audience member chimed in with “You do in Dundee”.
McIlvanney finished with a piece about pets called “Zooistry” from his blog). It was a fitting piece to end on, showcasing the qualities that he had excelled in throughout the evening, and indeed throughout his career: sinewy prose, a penetrating wit, and a sincere irreverence.