LAIDLAW'S LEGACY
Mystery Scene|Fall #169, 2021
During the pandemic, Ian Rankin stepped away from Rebus and into the shoes of friend and literary hero, the “Godfather of Tartan Noir” William McIlvanney.
Craig Sisterson

We first see him in a pub in Hope Street, standing at the bar with his cigarette in one hand balanced by the glass of Antiquary whisky in his other. Broad-shouldered and “handsome enough,” in his late 30s and already wielding a visage weighed by baggage. An outlier, this Glasgow detective has made an impact beyond his chosen gig of catching crooks.

Even standing in the crowded pub, surrounded by fellow coppers seeing off a retiring colleague, “Jack Laidlaw seemed a man apart, easy to spot, almost as if he had a radioactive glow.”

A talented detective shuffled from team to team, never quite fitting in. Disappearing from the office to work the streets. Taking long bus rides to think and to get the feel for his city as it goes through so many changes in the 1970s. Enduring taunts about the philosophy texts on his desk; utensils in his search for the reasons why. Watching lesser peers become his superiors.

“When I first read the Laidlaw books, what might have been attractive was that he was a tough guy but also a philosopher,” says Ian Rankin, the modern king of British crime writing who’s now, in a “beyond the grave” collaboration with William McIlvanney to bring Detective Jack Laidlaw back to the page.

For almost 35 years Rankin has entertained millions of readers around the globe with his excellent mystery series starring Edinburgh detective John Rebus, alongside several other novels. Translated into more than 30 languages, adapted for television, winner of major prizes in several countries (including the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement), Rankin is not only one of the bestselling British authors of all time, he’s been honored as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and received an OBE from the Queen.

But many years ago, before the Edinburgh author ever put fingers to keys on his first Rebus tale, Ian Rankin was simply a reader, like many, who loved the books of William McIlvanney. He was fascinated by the escapades of Jack Laidlaw, the character who kick-started “Tartan Noir.”

“What attracted me to Laidlaw is that like a lot of writers I was a lover not a fighter, you know, I was a reader not a doer, quite a passive person in some ways,” says Rankin as we video chat about the writing of The Dark Remains, the first new Laidlaw tale in almost three decades.

It’s a great novel begun by McIlvanney, the “Godfather of Tartan Noir,” before his death in 2015, then recently finished by Rankin, the Michael Corleone to Willie’s Vito in the world of Scottish crime.

“I was quiet, introspective, and I wished I was a person of action,” continues Rankin. “Well, Laidlaw is both; Laidlaw is a person of action who is also a deep thinker and philosophical. He’s someone who thinks really deeply about things, and he almost crafts his thoughts before he puts them into words. So, everything he says just feels like a series of aphorisms. I loved that, because like everybody else, I always think of the witty one-liner an hour after I should have said it.”

But how did The Dark Remains, a moody and sublime tale set in early 1970s Glasgow— effectively a terrific prequel to McIlvanney’s game-changing Laidlaw trilogy—come about?

A HUGE RESPONSIBILITY

Rankin had just finished writing his latest Rebus tale, A Song for the Dark Times, early in the pandemic when he was contacted by Canongate, who’d reissued McIlvanney’s classic Laidlaw trilogy in 2013 after the groundbreaking books had head-scratchingly fallen out of print.

“They said that Siobhan, William McIlvanney’s widow, had come to them and she’d typed up about 100 pages of Willie’s handwritten notes she’d found towards what was going to be a new novel featuring his detective Jack Laidlaw,” remembers Rankin. “The book would be the first in the series as it were, chronologically, set in 1972. They said ‘would you take a look at the notes, because we don’t know if there is enough there to get something from—a novella, a novel?’”

Rankin poured over the typed-up versions of McIlvanney’s notes, fascinated to get inside the head of one of his literary heroes, who’d become a friend before he passed away in late 2015.

“Obviously, there were lots of gaps,” explains Rankin, “so you’re going ‘Okay I’m trying to make a jump here, what are you not telling me Willie? You knew in your head what was going to happen, but you didn’t actually write it down.’ Eventually, I said to the publisher that if you do x, y, and z you could get a short novel, no problem at all. They said, ‘Siobhan wants you to have first go at it.’ Which was a huge responsibility.”

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