"Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw." These were the words William McIlvanney inscribed in my slightly worn paperback copy of his novel Docherty. I was 24 and a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. He was the award-winning author of many novels, in town to give a talk at the literary festival. It was August 1985. I had pounced on him as he walked towards his event, explaining that I was a huge admirer and writing a novel that was a bit like his Glasgow detective series, but set in Edinburgh. My character, in part based on Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, would be called John Rebus.
McIlvanney listened, smiled, then signed my copy of his book. And almost certainly thought no more of it.
It is difficult, writing now, to overstate how important McIlvanney was to my writing career. He was working class like me, but had not let that hold him back. He was well-read with a lively and engaging intellect, yet down to earth, as happy in a rough-and-ready Glasgow pub as on the stage at literary festivals and awards ceremonies.
The Scottish crime novel existed before him, but he added polish and depth to its surface grit. He had always written about masculinity, especially the bruisable masculinity found in urban bar rooms and on the streets of Scotland’s central belt. Glasgow at the time was undergoing radical change, shipyards closing and the traditional heavy industries no longer giving shape and meaning to the lives of those who worked in them, just as their fathers had worked in them. All of this McIlvanney had documented in literary novels such as Docherty, which won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction in 1975.
He would bring the same sensibility to his crime fiction, penning three novels – Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991) – featuring Jack Laidlaw, whose CID desk boasts philosophical tomes by the likes of Miguel de Unamuno rather than the usual policing manuals. Gangsters feature in all three books, many of them recurring figures, but the series becomes more personal as it progresses. By the trilogy’s final instalment, McIlvanney writes in the first person. He has, in effect, become Laidlaw in a tale that takes the detective back to his childhood hometown, the fictional Graithnock, as he attempts to discover how and why his brother died.
As a PhD student and soi-disant novelist, McIlvanney’s crime fiction was literature. There was no distinction between the two. He made it all right for me to write my own crime stories and not feel they were a poor relation to the books I was studying.
Although I moved away from Scotland in 1986, I stayed in touch with Willie. We exchanged letters, which is probably how he learnt that early in 1997 I would be pitching up at John Smith’s bookshop in Glasgow to promote my eighth Inspector Rebus novel, Black and Blue. Willie was duly among a select gathering that night and after the signing we met.
He had long since given up on Laidlaw. There were stories he wanted to tell and themes he wanted to explore that he felt could not be contained within the tight confines of the whodunit form. His agent had told him that if he kept writing crime, he’d almost certainly make a packet, but that was not Willie’s first concern. Instead, he watched as a fresh young intake of crime writers arrived on the publishing scene.
My own books were not yet bestsellers. Willie’s thrillers, however, were vanishing from sight. He had moved on, writing essays and poetry and short stories and new novels. Invited back to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011, he mentioned on stage that the Laidlaw books were out of print. An editor from Canongate was in the audience and decided that this must be rectified. The new edition of Laidlaw came garlanded with praise from younger writers who had learnt from Willie. He was lauded as the godfather of what had become known as Tartan Noir. This heralded a glorious third act in his life, which involved sell-out appearances at literary festivals in Harrogate, Stirling and elsewhere.
I can’t be sure, but maybe this is what stimulated his renewed interest in the character of Laidlaw. Unfortunately, it was too late. In 2015, when Willie died, he left notes and scenes for what he planned as a prequel to Laidlaw’s adventures. Not that I knew any of this until his partner, Siobhan, contacted Canongate. Would I take a look and see if there was enough there for a novel?
How could I refuse? I was being given access to the private notes, jottings and thoughts of an extraordinary writer. Having looked at everything, I could see a path from beginning to end, shadowy and overgrown though it was in places. For example, Willie had written an epilogue but no actual climactic scene. The identity of the murderer was, I’m sure, known to him, but he hadn’t felt the need to write it down. There was, however, more than enough thread there to weave together a story.
The title – The Dark Remains – is Willie’s and he had written a paragraph to explain its significance. He had also created a cast of characters, some of whom readers had encountered in his previous Laidlaw adventures. My first stop was those three novels. I read them over and over again, trying to learn his voice and style of writing. It was important to me that anything I wrote would be by way of ventriloquism. This had to be the McIlvanney universe and philosophy.
An additional problem was that the notes showed clearly that the book was set in October 1972. I was 12 years old back then and had never set foot in Glasgow. Fortunately, a lull in pandemic hostilities allowed me to visit the National Library of Scotland, where I sat with issue after issue of The Glasgow Herald. I also read novels set in and around the Glasgow of that era, and got hold of street maps from the period.
A couple of fellow writers helped correct the few resulting mistakes and gave me encouragement, as did Siobhan herself, who told me that she was unable to see "the joins" between my sections of the book and Willie’s. This came as a huge relief, since I had never tried anything like this before (and probably never will again).
My hope was, and is, that new readers may investigate the Laidlaw novels, helping keep Willie’s flame alive. The pressure not to let him down was huge, but there was also a sense of release in being able to write about a simpler time – no mobile phones or CCTV; no DNA analysis or computers to aid the investigation.
I kept thinking back to a conversation I’d had with Willie in a Glasgow pub called the Saracen Head (aka the Sarry Heid), a few years before he died. We were being filmed for a TV documentary about him. I had brought along my copy of Docherty, inscription and all. He studied it and smiled. "The Edinburgh Laidlaw did OK," he commented.
Maybe so, but it’s doubtful Rebus would ever have been the character he is had it not been for the influence of William McIlvanney and Jack Laidlaw. Willie showed me that a crime novel can get beneath the skin of a city, showing its dark heart. Laidlaw is the classic tarnished knight, seeking to slay dragons so that order can be restored to the land, while knowing full well that this is an endless and often thankless quest that may end up destroying his humanity in the process. Whatever the hero does, the dark remains.