Reviewed by Gerard Healy
A terrific Scottish crime story from William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin about a murder in Glasgow in 1972 and the fictional beginning of maverick detective Jack Laidlaw’s career.
I am a long-time fan of Ian Rankin and his John Rebus stories but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of McIlvanney (who died in 2015) but I’ll be searching out his work after this one.
One of the joys of reading this tale is the sense of humour displayed. One character says the chances of something happening are about as rare as finding the toilet seat up in a convent. Another delight is the adroit turns of phrase that pepper the book, like when two women visit a cemetery, “where the city’s great and good finally rubbed stone shoulders with everybody else.”
There are the occasional obscure local references that a Scottish audience would probably quickly grasp but left me puzzled. Do you recall the Ibrox disaster or who Bible John was? Thankfully, when someone gets a Glasgow ambulance, we’re told that means a taxi. These are minor matters overall because the context is usually indicative of the word’s meaning.
The story centres on the murder of a crooked lawyer Bobby Carter, who is a trusted aide to a gangland figure Cam Colvin. Colvin’s fierce rival is fellow crime boss John Rhodes and these two alpha males lock horns over who’s responsible for the murder. Colvin suspects Rhodes is responsible but he now has a power vacuum near the top of his organisation. The ambition of some of this inner circle mixes with the underlying doubt about the loyalty of others. The writers cleverly leave the reader wondering who, if anyone, among these violent men may have struck the fatal blow.
Another possibility is that a minor criminal player might have planned that the murder would lead to a gang war between the big two, thus leaving the field open for their rise. The detective in charge, DI Milligan seems to favour this theory for a time based on some gang graffiti found near the body.
An additional theory is that Carter’s private life, which is far from blameless, might have something to do with his demise. Mudding the waters somewhat is the attention that Carter’s attractive widow Monica is now getting from Colvin and others. Even DI Milligan seems over-interested in her looks and at risk of being distracted from the main game.
Laidlaw is a most interesting detective; a lone wolf type with a gift for finding out the truth and rubbing up his colleagues the wrong way. Not a team player and one who prefers riding around on a bus to sitting in the office. His open disrespect to his boss DI Milligan is jaw-dropping and only ultimate success will save him from another transfer you’d think.
We learn that he’s in his late thirties, still at the lowly rank of detective constable and physically a big man able to intimidate the less honest citizens of Glasgow. He has a rough, good-looking face, which misleads some into thinking he’s some kind of actor. His private life is a sea of troubles with his long-suffering wife carrying the burden of raising their three young children.
He is paired with a steady, middle-of-the-road character named DS Bob Lilley, whose brief is to babysit Laidlaw and try to keep him inside the tent (a reference to President Johnson). I thought there were shades here of another Scottish writer’s team of Holmes and Watson in this pairing. The brilliant but eccentric detective and his more mainstream sidekick.
On one level there was one obvious puzzle to solve, who murdered Carter? But the more subtle one is which writer contributed what to the text? In the blurb, we’re told that McIlvanney left half a hand-written manuscript for Laidlaw’s first case when he died. It was long-time admirer Rankin who finished the job. But was it a case of filling in the details already laid out or did more meat have to be put on the bones of the plot? Whatever the truth, the end result is a cracker of a read.
A highly recommended book of crime fiction with a clever plot, interesting characters and drama and humour mixed expertly.
William McIlvanney (1935-2015) attained a MA from Glasgow University then taught English. He was widely respected as “the godfather of tartan noir” and wrote several award winning books as well as two volumes of poetry. He wrote three Laidlaw novels.
Ian Rankin was born in 1960 and has written over twenty Rebus novels. He was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger for life-time achievement in crime writing in 2005 and has been granted several honorary doctorates from UK universities. He lives in Edinburg.
The Dark Remains
by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin