The Irish Times
Novelist and poet who laid the groundwork for later success of Scottish ‘noir’ fiction
School records show him to have been a brilliant pupil
William McIlvanney Born: November 25th, 1936 Died: December 5th, 2015
William McIlvanney, who has died aged 79, grew into the title “the godfather of tartan noir” – the term for Scottish crime fiction – though it was not one he fully welcomed.
His grander ambitions are represented by the autobiographical novel Docherty (1975), for which he was awarded the Whitbread prize. It was, however, the Glasgow-based crime novel Laidlaw (1977), which caught the fancy of the broader reading public.
Detectives with existential anxieties, marriage problems and a deep literary hinterland are not uncommon now, but Det Insp Jack Laidlaw was a bright arrival on a dull Scottish literary scene in 1977.
In policing the rougher territories of Glasgow and environs, Laidlaw found many things stacked against him; what he had going for him were a realistic outlook on life, abundantly laced with wit and philosophical reflection – a voice he inherited from his creator.
No one had previously encountered a Glasgow cop who described his regular tipple as “low-proof hemlock” and who hid his Camus and Kierkegaard in the desk drawer, the way an alcoholic keeps a secret stash.
McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock, the son of a miner, William, who was “educated below his ability” and a mother, Helen (née Montgomery), who was a rock of stability.
The family, with four children – William’s elder brother Hugh is a renowned sports journalist – was “comparatively poor”, but school records at Kilmarnock Academy show McIlvanney to have been “a brilliant pupil”. He went on to study English at Glasgow University.
By the time his first novel, Remedy Is None, was published in 1966, he had embarked on a career as a teacher. A second novel, A Gift from Nessus, followed two years later. Both won prizes but neither had notable commercial success.
The dialogue in Docherty, which McIlvanney considered his most important achievement, was not immediately welcoming to outside ears: “‘That’s richt.’ Tam was laughing. ‘You cairry oan. An’ the Germans’ll no need tae kill ye. Ah’ll save them the joab.’”
With Laidlaw, however, he established a voice that combined his working class background and his educational advantages: streetwise and intellectual at once.
There were to be two further outings for Laidlaw: The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991) and the three novels were republished together in 2013.
It was the godfather’s godchildren, however – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and many others – who turned Scotland into a land of wretched victims and ingenious crime solvers.
In 1990, McIlvanney’s novel The Big Man, about a Glasgow prize fighter, was made into a film starring Liam Neeson and Billy Connolly.
In 1975, after the publication of Docherty, he gave up teaching in order to write full-time, a decision that would have seemed to be justified by the success of the first Laidlaw novel.
But Scotland was never an easy place to make a literary living. McIlvanney also had a stint as a presenter of a BBC books programme, a spell as a columnist for the newspaper Scotland on Sunday and a number of periods as a teacher of creative writing.In addition to his novels, he also published poetry. His influence on younger generations of Scottish writers is beyond dispute.
A good-looking, photogenic man, with an old-fashioned courtesy, particularly towards women, he relished Glasgow’s hard man atmosphere, although he himself wanted to be thought of as more tender than tough. He once said that the impetus behind his writing was to give flesh to the unfulfilled dreams of his parents and of the Kilmarnock community he came from.
His marriage, by which he had two children, Siobhan and Liam, broke up in the late 1970s. He is survived by his partner, Siobhan Lynch, a teacher, and by his children.