William McIlvanney, 1936-2015


William McIlvanney was a writer, not a crime writer, though his influence on crime writers and crime writing, in the UK especially, was immense. I first read Laidlaw, the first of his three novels featuring the Glasgow-based police detective, Jack Laidlaw, in the late 70s, soon after it was published. It made an impression that was close to indelible, the writing precise and in the proper sense, poetic, for he was an accomplished poet as well as a novelist, carrying with it the rhythms, sometimes harsh, of the place and people it conveyed and contained. So that when I came to write the first Resnick novel, some ten years later, much of Laidlaw – its force and its ambition – lay behind what I was attempting to do. It was to take me another ten years, no, more, before I even came close.

I first met him some ten years ago, at a festival of crime writing at Frontignan, in the South of France, and I have to say the prospect all but terrified me. It was his reputation, of course, both as writer I revered and as an apocryphal hard drinker who didn’t suffer fools gladly. The real Mac, I found – at least, the one I was privileged to spend time with over that long weekend – was something different. He was generous, surprisingly gentle – he was, in the most positive but old-fashioned sense, a gentleman.

Each evening we met before dinner and sat at a corner table outside one of the cafés by the canal, drank a glass of two of Scotch – it was Aberlour, as I remember – and talked. I enjoyed those times, brief as they were, and cherish them now.

Tomorrow I’ll take Laidlaw down from the shelf and read it again.

And now I’ll raise a glass and say fare thee well … William McIlvanney, I feel honoured to have known you.



Author: John Harvey


4 thoughts on “William McIlvanney, 1936-2015”

  1. One of my favourite authors. Your comment about him writer rather than just a crime writer is one that has long fascinated me. There’s a bit of snobbery about this, and it patronises those who write crime fiction.

  2. The Papers of Tony Veitch I read shortly after it was published in the 1980s, I suppose my first foray into “genre” fiction. I re-read it, along with the other Laidlaw novels on their republication a couple of years back on their recent reappearance in paperback.

  3. Fantastic writing, some paragraphs had me wanting to read them to my fellow travellers on the bus upon which I was journeying to work. Remarkable novels, worth reading and re-reading. And not a huge output either, sadly. Someone with which, though I never met him, I felt I made a real connection, learned stuff I never would have otherwise.

  4. I wrote a few years ago that the Laidlaw novels were “the answer to anyone who needs proof that literary fiction can be tough, gritty, and unpretentious, or that crime writing can be beautiful, affecting, and a portrait of its time and place that deserves to last.”

    Happily, I did get to meet William McIlvanney, at Crimefest in Bristol. He was a commanding presence on stage and a fine and self-effacing companion at the hotel bar.

    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
    Detectives Beyond Borders

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