World Noir, 208 pages, $27
Years ago, I read the three Laidlaw books by William McIlvanney: “Laidlaw,” “The Papers of Tony Veitch,” and “Strange Loyalties.” I was very impressed at the time by those dark, dark tales of Glasgow’s criminal underbelly. There was a lot I didn’t understand, because I had never been to Scotland, hadn’t kept up with the news of Glasgow, couldn’t make out sometimes if people were saying something nice or cruel. And what the heck is a “bahookie” or a “bawbag”? (Never mind.) Now that the years have passed and I’ve read a tidy number of Scottish noir (Rankin, Denise Mina, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid), I can truly say I only understand a wee bit more than I did at the start of my Scottish reading career. I do know this: Scotland is a dark, dark, dangerous, shadowy place. And William McIlvanney was the first to shine a light on the darkness.
Ian Rankin is one of the biggest names in Scottish crime writing for his John Rebus series. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was chosen by the estate of William McIlvanney to finish the novel he was writing just before his death in 2015. McIlvanney swore he wasn’t interested in writing another Laidlaw book, the last of which was published in 1991. But he changed his mind and had begun work on another book. In fact, there were two stories he had in mind, but only one of them was fleshed out enough for Ian Rankin to see the structure and get the flavor of McIlvanney’s writing.
Laidlaw was a warrior, a man with his own moral code and most definitely his own way of solving a case. Laidlaw and Rebus are of a feather, as described by their creators. They are two police detectives who spend a lot of time dodging superiors, including dodging dodgy superiors. They get the mysteries solved but the law might take a second seat to justice. Rankin has said he respected McIlvanney and that McIlvanney’s books inspired his own.
“The Dark Remains,” as the subtitle indicates, is a prequel. Laidlaw is a youngish detective in this book, but he already knows what he wants out of the job and what he doesn’t. (What he wants out of his personal life befuddles him more.) He knows a lot about the criminal gangs, their history, alliances, and weak points. Given that, Laidlaw insinuates himself into a case involving the murder of the consigliere of one of the crime bosses. Of course, everyone’s first thought is that the competition killed him. The second thought is that his beautiful wife — now widow — may have inspired some romantic murderous gesture.
Rankin and McIlvanney give their readers a long look at the underworld. There is action, deceit, conspiracy, and backstabbing. One of the crime guys, so the legend goes, actually survived a knife stab in the back.
When one transcendent writer takes on the task presented by another transcendent writer, the result could be cock-eyed. But not in this case. What a joy to see the return of Laidlaw!
I would comment more on one writing style versus the other, but it has been too many years since I read the Laidlaw books to remember anything other than I loved them. I remember a poetry to McIlvanney’s writing. His Laidlaw was haunted by the existential and transitory nature of man. Rankin’s Rebus is a sly dog of a philosopher, but an eminently practical romantic. Win-win.