William McIlvanney, 1936-2015

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William McIlvanney

My Italian translator, friend, musician and frequent collaborator, Seba Pezzani, asked if I would contribute to an article he was writing about the Scottish author, William McIlvanney, and I was pleased to agree.

Here’s the link to Seba’s article – useful if you want to brush up your Italian … and below is my little contribution …

The first time I met William McIlvanney was at a crime writing festival in Frontignan in the south of France, a country where we were both published by François Guerif, chef of Rivages Noir. I’d already read much of McIlvanney’s work, of course, the crime novels featuring Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw, as well as other titles, including ‘Docherty’ and ‘The Big Man’.

McIlvanney didn’t often attend these kind of events and I think only his long-standing friendship with François had brought him all the way from Scotland. As can often be the case when people are known more from their absence than their presence, rumours about him abounded: he was a heavy drinker, hard to get along with and possessed of a strong if not violent temper. The man I met could hardly have been more different; quite softly spoken, sober, charming even – handsome, certainly. We were staying a little way out of Frontignan and each evening we were there, at Willie’s suggestion – Willie, that was what he insisted I call him- we would stroll along to the café at the end of the street and sit at one of the corner tables outside, talking of this, that and everything else over a glass of single malt. I think it was Abalour.

Ian Rankin has made no secret of the fact that Laidlaw and McIlvanney’s portrait of Glasgow were a strong and direct influence on his character Rebus and his portrayal of Edinburgh. In my case, the influence was less direct, but no less strong. I’d also read – at around the same time, though they’d been published earlier – the Martin Beck novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which, in a not dissimilar way to McIlvanney, used the medium of crime fiction and the figure of the detective as instruments to open up and explore contemporary urban life. Resnick and Nottingham were not so far away.

Mac 1

Mac 2

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William McIlvanney, 1936-2015

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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.

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