Review published on June 17, 2014. Reviewed by Mike Stafford
In reviewing William McIlvanney, I keep coming back to the same word: ‘peerless.’ Oh yes, Agatha Christie may have sold billions while McIlvanney went out of print, but Dame Agatha’s characterisation is pale compared to the Scotsman’s. Raymond Chandler may have been immortalised by Bogart and have spawned a whole genre of imitators, but his similes and metaphors are cartoonishly shallow compared to those of Kilmarnock’s greatest.
The Papers of Tony Veitch is the second in McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, a series spanning three decades. Laidlaw came first in 1977, The Papers of Tony Veitch followed in 1983. Across the trilogy, eponymous hero DI Jack Laidlaw wrestled with criminality, and with the human condition. Drawing as much from Camus as from Chandler, with Laidlaw McIlvanney created a protagonist who was gritty but urbane, dogged but sensitive, and intelligent but worldly.
The book begins with the death of alcoholic vagrant Eck Adamson. As he lays dying, Eck calls for Laidlaw to attend his bedside. Eck provides Laidlaw with a clue to both the murder of a gangland thug and the disappearance of a young student, Tony Veitch.
Laidlaw’s subsequent investigation takes him through all sections of Glaswegian society, from the aristocracy to the homeless, from gang enforcers to working families.
As might be expected, given his creator’s unshakeable left-wing principles, Laidlaw is a crusader for social as well as legal justice. Who else would care to investigate the death of Eck Adamson? After all, as another character observes, killing Eck would have been “like bombing a grave.” For Laidlaw though, either everyone counts or no-one does. Eck’s death is investigated because he was a man. He lived, was loved, had a family, albeit estranged. His social status is insignificant, his humanity is all.
All McIlvanney’s characters are richly drawn, even passersby and voices in the street. During a confrontation on a balcony between enforcers, the unspeaking family inside the flat are examined, in all their quiet dignity. Bit part players in The Papers of Tony Veitch are richer than protagonists in the work of lesser writers. They are also rewardingly complex. Gangland thugs aren’t merely sociopaths; some are calculating, others are pretenders, a rare few are “pure, 100% proof violence.”
The most striking thing about ‘Papers’ is the style. The text is filled metaphors and similes, each one going beyond mere imagery to make a wider point. McIlvanney’s homeless are “urban Bedouin.” In two words, McIlvanney evokes itinerant Arabs, contrasting the romantic image of wandering desert dwellers with the traditional view of the homeless as reeking social detritus. In a single phrase, he offers a dignity so rarely offered to the homeless. For all this, McIlvanney rejects dry intellectualism. For all the profundity in his writing, all the social commentary and all the searching of the Glaswegian soul, McIlvanney is a champion of human experience. Whenever conversation turns to pure theory or to academia, Laidlaw is on hand to bring the conversation back to reality.
The Papers of Tony Veitch is a magnificent book. Rich in language, content and character, it has more to say about the human condition than the work of potentially any other crime writer. Scarcely a paragraph goes by without a moment of total literary perfection passing. It is a true work of art, that rare breed of novel that brings sadness with the turn of the final page.