Strange Loyalties, by William McIlvanney

Review published on July 11, 2014. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

When I read the first in the Laidlaw trilogy, I all but wept for the wasted years before I knew of them. I left a long delay between reading each instalment, because – and I’m not exaggerating here – I wasn’t in a hurry to find myself in a world with no more Laidlaw books to read. This isn’t hyperbole, they really are that good. As a result, I came to Strange Loyalties with the very highest of expectations.

Strange Loyalties appeared fourteen years after Laidlaw, and it feels like a full generation of time difference. The Laidlaw we rejoin in 1991 is still a brooder and crusader, but time has ravaged his body. A beer belly – or rather a whisky belly – protrudes over his belt loops, and his relationship with wife Ena (never a key player in the novels) has broken down. He has found a new relationship with another woman, Jan, but this too is fraught with difficulty. Laidlaw, ever filled with the frailties of the human condition, is not a man for whom relationships succeed easily.

It is one of Laidlaw’s most profound relationships that comes under the microscope in Strange Loyalties. Scott Laidlaw, our hero’s brother, was killed in a road accident, and Laidlaw conducts his own unofficial, deeply personal investigation into the circumstances of his brother’s death – and life.

Were it not for Strange Loyalties following two crime novels, you could be forgiven for not realising it’s crime at all. There are no tussles with the brass or with Laidlaw’s peers, and no adherence to procedure. As was ever the case, the things Laidlaw seeks are not evidence, perpetrators, or even justice (in the narrow legal sense of the word). Laidlaw seeks the truth. He is more Christ than Columbo, preferring the company of sinners, and shunning the hypocrisy of the wealthy. It’s a motif which McIlvanney plays with more emphatically as the book progresses, and with thunderous righteousness in the finale.

Strange Loyalties is strong in all the areas its predecessors were. On this showing, Laidlaw still remains in the pantheon of fictional sleuths – engaging, individual, and with a voice that cuts through to the essence of what it is to be human.

McIlvanney’s metaphors remain glittering, even on mundane subject matter. The amount of water Laidlaw places in his whisky gives rise to an internal monologue about biological self-deceit. Still, there are also imperfections where none existed before. The switch from third to first person narration removes an element of Laidlaw’s mystique, and there is less urgency than the previous two books. Though he was never a traditional gumshoe, early Laidlaw did still chase down criminals. In Strange Loyalties there is less threat, less action. He still comes up against the hard-men, but his quarry now is emotional not physical – a little harder to feel intimidated by.

Nevertheless, even a slightly imperfect William McIlvanney book deserves rapturous applause. There has never been another detective like Laidlaw, and as we approach a full quarter-century since this, his last appearance, I fancy there never will be again.

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