Obituary: William McIlvanney
Outstanding Scottish novelist whose popular Laidlaw books brought about a flowering of 'Tartan Noir' crime fiction
Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30
William McIlvanney, who died last Saturday a few days after his 79th birthday, was the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.
In his later years he became known as the 'Father of Tartan Noir', and undoubtedly the flowering of Scottish crime fiction over the last quarter-century owes much to the influence of his three novels featuring a Glasgow policeman, Jack Laidlaw (Laidlaw, 1977, The Papers of Tony Veitch, 1983, and Strange Loyalties, 1991). McIlvanney himself was not altogether happy with the accolade. He was concerned with morality, with how people behave and should behave to each other, not with sensation.
William Angus McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock to a mining family on November 25, 1936. His father was intelligent, but "educated below his ability", his mother, Helen Montgomery, a rock. All his life McIlvanney would express his admiration and love for the working-class wives and mothers of that generation, women who held families together.
He was one of four children, his elder brother becoming an outstanding sports journalist and discussion was fierce round the kitchen table.
He was educated at Kilmarnock Academy and Glasgow University where, he wrote, "every conversation was littered with abandoned prejudices". Like many Scottish poets and novelists, he became a schoolmaster, teaching at Irvine Royal Academy and Greenwood Academy, Dreghorn, where he served as deputy headmaster before retiring in 1975 to devote himself to writing.
His first two novels, Remedy is None and A Gift from Nessus, published in the late 1960s, were praised by reviewers and won prizes, but sold poorly. His third novel, Docherty (1975), a powerful and moving evocation of a declining mining community, was an immediate success.
Seen by some as a Scottish Sons and Lovers - though Tam Docherty, with his sharp, reductive sense of humour, is a more attractive character than the father in Lawrence's novel - it won the Whitbread Prize, even though some English readers found the robust Scots dialogue difficult or off-putting, and it established McIlvanney's reputation.
Docherty has been regularly named one of the best Scottish novels of the second half of the 20th century.
It was therefore a surprise when he followed it with his first Laidlaw novel - an unwelcome surprise to some of his admirers. One teacher, encountered in a Glasgow bar, even told him he had disgraced himself by writing a crime novel. Not surprisingly, he didn't agree.
In any case the charge was ridiculous; crime is a serious matter. Murder is always a form of betrayal, a denial of the reality of the other; it infects and corrupts all around it. Beautifully and sparingly written, with a dry wit and a humour that deflates pretension, the three Laidlaw novels bleakly anatomise society. At the same time they celebrate Glasgow, the city McIlvanney loved, where people revealed their character in talk.
McIlvanney was not prolific. If he had followed well-meaning advice and published a Laidlaw novel every year, he would have been a rich man in old age. No doubt he could have done so; but it would have been a form of self-betrayal.
Instead in 1996 he published The Kiln, a sequel to Docherty. It is a novel of painful maturity. The narrator, a novelist himself, lost in the dark wood of middle life, sits in a rented flat overlooking a graveyard, and himself looks back on a golden summer when he was 17 and everything seemed possible.
McIlvanney was also a poet (publishing The Longships in Harbour in 1970), essayist, newspaper columnist, and author and narrator of a television history of Scottish football, Only a Game? (1986). Walking Wounded (1989) is a collection of his short stories. At different times he taught creative writing at various universities, among them Glasgow and Grenoble.
Like many Scottish writers he became a public figure. Brought up in the Labour movement, he remained a socialist, though one disappointed by the development of the Labour Party in its New Labour identity. He detested Margaret Thatcher, whom he saw as a woman without imagination and with no sympathy for the victims or casualties of her economic policies.
His disillusion with Labour and his dislike and distrust of the neocapitalist economy inclined him to Scottish nationalism, and in 2014 he advocated a "Yes" vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. But it should be said that he did so hesitantly and without notable enthusiasm.
Willie McIlvanney was a handsome man, always courteous and usually gentle in conversation, attractive to women, admired by men. Attending one of his public appearances, one was always aware of an unusual flow of affection from the audience. It was as if they recognised the best of Scotland in him, and felt better people themselves for being in his company. Many authors are admired. Many are respected. Few are loved as he was, for what they are as well as for what they have written. Scotland will be a poorer place without him.
In the end, of course, it is his books that will survive. They may not fill a long shelf, for he was a self-critical writer. But the Laidlaw novels, transcending the genre of crime fiction, will surely endure as Raymond Chandler's have, while in their depth of sympathy and understanding of the complexity of human nature they are as satisfying as Simenon's best work.
The Laidlaw novels are likely to remain his most popular works, and many wish he had written more of them. His disinclination to do so, though he occasionally talked of "another Laidlaw", was a mark of his integrity. "I write what I feel compelled to write," he said. "If you don't like it, read someone else."
One might wish that he had written more, but Docherty and The Kiln may both be accounted masterpieces. If Cyril Connolly was right in saying that the true business of an author was to write a masterpiece, and nothing else mattered, this was a test that McIlvanney passed triumphantly. These novels make you think and feel at the same time. They are written with rare intelligence and sensibility.
He married young and his marriage ended, painfully, in divorce. (Some of that pain is evident in The Kiln.) There were two children of the marriage, Siobhan and Liam, both of whom are academics, Liam a successful crime novelist also. He is survived by both and by his partner, Siobhan Lynch, whose love and care supported him in his later years.