“Recognisably McIlvanney’s” – The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin

IMG_2022-5-29-192613On his death in 2015, William McIlvanney (Scotland’s greatest crime novelist) left behind half of the manuscript for The Dark Remains and Ian Rankin, using notes made by McIlvanney, has now completed it. McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novels laid the foundations of Scottish noir. Even with Rankin’s involvement The Dark Remains is recognisably McIlvanney’s voice, and an authentically gripping portrait of his Glasgow in 1972.

It opens with a typically ominous statement, “All cities are riddled in crime”, and that is particularly true of Glasgow. Set in 1972, this is the first appearance (chronologically) of Jack Laidlaw, and though it is the fourth Laidlaw to be published, it creates a sense of introduction. We meet Jack Laidlaw as a detective constable, already recognised by his colleagues as “a man apart, easy to spot, almost as if he had a radioactive glow.” The Dark Remains also introduces the other recurring characters of the Laidlaw series, from Bob Lilley (Laidlaw’s partner), Jan (his girlfriend) and even Eck Adamson, his vagrant informant. Above all, it introduces the intensely Calvinist atmosphere McIlvanney casts over Glasgow with Laidlaw as its philosopher: “We know where a crime ends… But where does it begin? … It’s not cops like you and me we need so much as sociologists and philosophers.”

A body is found behind a pub that could provoke a war between Glasgow’s gangs. Only Laidlaw can solve this mystery, despite the damage he will do to everyone around him, including his own family: “he brings the city home with him, and that’s too much for even a decent-sized living room to contain.” The elements of every crime novelist on today’s bestseller list are contained here, from the “archivist’s knowledge of the city”, whether that is Glasgow or Edinburgh, London or Oxford to the quality of McIlvanney’s noirish humour that distinguishes the writing. There is the haunting philosophic tone, the understanding of the evil at the heart of human nature: “whatever else happens, the dark remains”.

Despite being written decades after three previous novels featuring Jack Laidlaw have been published, The Dark Remains manages to persuade the reader that this is the founding text of the series. Anyone familiar with the other novels will find much enjoyment here as will anyone who likes an expertly paced novel, every chapter ends with a pressing reason to start the next chapter immediately. While I assume that the second half of this novel was written by Ian Rankin, it is impossible to notice a difference between the two halves. This is not ventriloquism but a remarkable act of imaginative sympathy by Ian Rankin. That a novelist of Rankin’s stature would complete another writer’s manuscript is the ultimate tribute to the endurance of McIlvanney’s imagination and voice, and the complexity of the character of Laidlaw.

Any Cop:? A new Laidlaw novel is a treat, that it was completed by McIlvanney’s most distinguished heir is an additional guarantee of its quality.

James Doyle

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