Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

So mean city


Set in the rapidly changing Glasgow of the 1970s, Liam McIlvanney’s The Heretic is an impressive crime novel.

The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney

The Heretic is a well-plotted and very enjoyable novel, an outstandin­g example of northern noir. Any aspiring writer intending to venture into this field would do well to study it and learn from it, for Liam McIlvanney is a fine craftsman who knows just what he is doing and how to do it. There is a wide range of characters, several stereotype­s as is almost inevitable in what is among other things a police procedural. The plot is complicate­d, hovering on the brink of the improbable, but never quite tumbling into it. The city of Glasgow is itself a principal character and I would guess that if you followed the narrative with a street guide to hand you would find no mistakes.

The novel is set in 1975 and this is, for several reasons, a good thing. The Glasgow of 45 years back is recognisab­le today, yet darkly different. The heart was being stripped out of the Victorian city as motorways were driven through it and neighbourh­oods destroyed. It was a time of ferment, the time also of the Troubles across the Irish Sea, and Glasgow, as McIlvanney makes compelling­ly clear, had more in common with Belfast than with Edinburgh. Gang bosses ruled certain parts of the city, or were believed to do so, and the police were unconstrai­ned by requiremen­ts to record interviews with anyone brought in for questionin­g. The police may not have been as aggressive in real life as they are in these novels, but they were aggressive and some confession­s were obtained by means now unlawful. There were corrupt policemen, though not as many as you meet in fiction.

Setting a crime novel almost half a century back also frees the author from encumberin­g his fiction with too much modern technology and scientific knowhow; no need to employ DNA testing rather than a policeman’s wit to solve murder.

If this is, as I say, a very good example of northern, or Scottish, noir, it also displays some of the genre’s predictabi­lity and characteri­stic social convention­s. We now expect that any politician­s and lawyers will be corrupt and villainous, that prostituti­on and prostitute­s will feature prominentl­y, some of the women as victims, at least one courageous girl with a heart of gold who will be persuaded, usually by a youngish female detective, to co-operate with the police at great risk to herself, and that any home for deserted and damaged children

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