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by William McIlvanney

Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson lies to her mother about going to Poppies Disco. She lies to her once-best friend about who she plans to meet that night.

Then, the next morning, she lies sexually assaulted and violently dead in a park.

Her father — “the kind of father who eats his young to protect them from the world” — seeks out Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw to report her missing. When the girl’s bloodied body is found under bushes in the park, Laidlaw connects the facts and identifies her.

Laidlaw, a not well-liked maverick in the Glasgow police department, is allowed to investigate on his own while the more conventional Detective Inspector Milligan is officially in charge. Given the sensational nature of the case and the amount of media attention, this is the police commander’s insurance policy.

Like many of the best detective novels, this one is as much about the man seeking answers as it is about answering the questions. The friction between Laidlaw and Milligan underscores how out of place Laidlaw is in a police department where everything is black and white and fits into mutually exclusive boxes.

Laidlaw finds himself drinking too much, “like low proof hemlock.” He’s separated from his wife Ena and a marriage that “was a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal.”

He’s man of paradoxes, “potentially a violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful . . . He was tempted to unlock the drawer in his desk where he kept Kirkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol.”

Where his fellow detectives ride the streets of Glasgow with the confidence of cowboys, Laidlaw cultivates doubts to counteract his own prejudices and biases. One of his colleagues asks, “What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms? We wouldn’t know who was fighting who.  That’s Laidlaw.  He’s running about no man’s land with a German helmet and a Black Watch jacket.”

Beautifully written, richly detailed and absorbed with life, death and meaning, this is the type of mystery you can read again and again.

Laidlaw (1977) was followed by The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991). If novels set in dark, moody Scotland appeal to you, check out Tartan Noir.

About the Author: William McIlvanney (1936 – 2015)


When William McIlvanney died in 2015, Alan Taylor, editor of The Scottish Review of Books, said of him: “William McIlvanney was the greatest Scottish novelist of his generation,” adding that his true peers were not hard-boiled detective novel writers such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, “but the likes of Gogol, Dostoevsky, Zola and Céline. He wrote about hard times and tough people — so called ‘big men’ and trauchled women — dealing with the fallout of unemployment, poverty and ignorance.”

According to Kevin McKenna of The Guardian, McIlvanney’s novels featured “damaged, working class, male characters whose essential humanity and generosity could never quite be obscured by their flaws. James Campbell, also of The Guardianwrote that McIlvanney’s “stated purpose (was) to create a series of books that would give flesh to ‘the unfulfilled stature’ of these people’s dreams, or at least their daily struggle.”

He was the son of a miner and a woman who “defused trouble of every kind, physical, emotional, financial, with calm persistence. A good student, he went on to study English at Glasgow University, and then to work as a teacher from 1960 to 1975.

His first novel, Remedy is None, was published in 1966. His second, A Gift from Nessus, was published two years later. While writing, he taught creative writing at several Scottish universities, was a Sunday newspaper columnist and did a stint as a presenter for a BBC books program. He also wrote poetry and essays.

He won the Whitbread prize for the autobiographical novel Docherty (1975), which many people consider his best work. His novel, The Big Man, about a Glasgow prize fighter was made into a movie starring Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly.

McIlvanney was a lean, dapper, blue-eyed man comfortable in bars high and low. Married and divorced, he had two children, one of whom, Liam McIlvanney, is himself a prize-winning crime writer.


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