William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin – The Dark Remains
First, the official blurb: Lawyer Bobby Carter did a lot of work for the wrong type of people. Now he’s dead, and it was no accident. Besides a distraught family and a heap of powerful friends, Carter’s left behind his share of enemies. So, who dealt the fatal blow? DC Jack Laidlaw’s reputation precedes him. He’s not a team player, but he’s got a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets. His boss chalks the violence up to the usual rivalries, but is it that simple? As two Glasgow gangs go to war, Laidlaw needs to find out who got Carter before the whole city explodes.
William McIlvanney, “the godfather of Tartan Noir” has become an inspiration to generations of crime writers – those who read him in the 1970s, after Canongate republished the Laidlaw trilogy in 2013, and those just finding him now. His creation, Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw has become something of a touchstone too – firmly set in gritty, urban Glasgow, with a touch of the vernacular tongue and a few quirks (books of philosophy on his desk, his “lone wolf working the streets” style). The three books featuring him – Laidlaw, The Papers Of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties – are fresh, timeless in style while immersed perfectly in a Glasgow in flux, and feature a central character who is both of his time and place and an outsider to it. I can’t urge you enough to seek them out.
Before his death in 2015, McIlvanney had created a stack of notes on two new Laidlaw novels, a prequel and a sequel, to bookend the trilogy. His widow, Siobhan, later took them to his publisher, Canongate, who approached Rankin to see if there was a salvageable novel or two in the papers. Rankin spoke in several interviews around the launch about his trepidation once he realised there was enough to create the prequel and was promptly asked to write it: could he do McIlvanney, and Laidlaw, justice?
I wondered before I began reading whether it would read as a coherent whole, or turn out to be a curio to be treated with generosity. But Rankin’s stubborn determination that this should be “an act of ventriloquism” as he has described it – that it should sound like a McIlvanney novel as much as possible – has paid off in spades.
So, to the book: October, 1972. Bobby Carter, a lawyer who specialises in working for the wrong kind of people, in particular gangster Cam Colvin, is missing. Commander Robert Frederick of the Glasgow Crime Squad is not losing sleep over this. But he is uneasy at the power vacuum this could create and what will happen when the city’s criminal elements attempt to fill the gap. He is also wondering about DC Jack Laidlaw, who has just joined the squad – the latest shuffle to find a place where he fits.
Carter’s body is found in a back alley behind Conn Feeney’s pub – which is John Rhodes territory, not Colvin’s. He was stabbed to death. Laidlaw and DS Bob Lilley are dispatched to the scene. Laidlaw wonders why Carter was here, “in enemy territory and a nightlife black hole” – was he meeting someone he trusted, to be alone with them in a dark alley rather than a busy public place?
Colvin wants the killer found and brought to him to face some very personal justice. He sees Carter’s killing as a message and he’s determined to answer back. There are more acts of violence, and Colvin’s boys get paranoid, their group fracturing. There is unrest between all the city’s gangs, and the feeling that one carelessly dropped match could see the whole of Glasgow explode.
Laidlaw has no qualms about avoiding his boss and what he sees as pointless tasks in favour of visiting gangsters and squeezing informants – despite only being a DC, he’s been a cop a long time, and he has the instincts of a more senior figure. He’s still a DC because he’s a maverick – but he’s a maverick who isn’t an alcoholic, and who has a family, albeit family life is strained. He stays in a hotel during the case, ostensibly to keep the job away from his wife and children, and takes the bus when he needs to think about the city. Lilley’s reaction to both underlines how Laidlaw is an outsider in his own world – and that’s before the philosophy books on his desk are spotted, mocked, and finally defaced.
The plot has plenty of sharp action and plenty of contemplation, unfolding quietly and smoothly yet twisting away every time you think you have a grasp on it, as the original trilogy did. The killer is unexpected – a more philosophical tale of revenge than some would have chosen, but it is true to both character and creator. Laidlaw’s commander isn’t too happy about how the result was found, but Laidlaw is adamant: “I did what needed doing.” The reader can’t disagree.
If it wasn’t for the smoking – which is almost constant – for long stretches you can forget this is 1970. True to the original novels there is only a flash of dating here and there; mostly we’re just in the throes of case and character in a timeless world in a deceptively smooth prose style.
So, a little archaeology digging in the papers, then an act of ventriloquism: Rankin has both proved his skill as a writer, disappearing into a voice and character so very different from his own, and proved his respect and appreciation of McIlvanney the writer and the man at the same time. I know I am not alone in expressing my gratitude that Rankin, Siobhan and Canongate have shared this work with the world so we can all have McIlvanney back with us for a while.
The Dark Remains grabbed headlines because of the unusual circumstances of its creation, but it deserves attention for its excellent contents. I started reading it as a curiosity, but within a page the basic hunger of the reader to find out what happens took over. It’s a superb novel – though of course in an ideal world McIlvanney would have wielded the pen himself, and been around to take the applause too.
William McIlvanney is the author of the award-winning Laidlaw trilogy, featuring Glasgow’s original maverick detective. Both Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch gained Silver Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association, while the third in the series, Strange Loyalties, won the Glasgow Herald’s People’s Prize. He died in December 2015.
Ian Rankin is the number one bestselling author of the Inspector Rebus series. The Rebus books have been translated into 36 languages and are bestsellers worldwide. He is the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association awards, including the Diamond Dagger for a lifetime contribution to crime writing. In 2002 he received an OBE for services to literature. He lives in Edinburgh.