Photos: Glasgow alley (Billy Currie Photography /Getty); The Dark Remains; Ian Rankin (Hamish Brown); William McIlvanney in a Glasgow pub, 2009 (Derek Hudson/Getty)
The Dark Remains
Ian Rankin sets Inspector Rebus aside to write a Jack Laidlaw novel from notes left by the late William McIlvanney, his literary hero and the godfather of 'tartan noir' / BY Athena McKenzie / October 28th, 2021
A well-known adage warns “never meet your heroes,” but for Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, the experience was far from a disappointment. Rankin first encountered his writing hero William McIlvanney at the Edinburgh book festival in the 1980s. The late McIlvanney is often referred to as the “godfather of tartan noir” for his celebrated trilogy of novels featuring Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw: Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991).
“I was a fan of his writing from my late teens,” Rankin, 61, says in over Zoom from his home in Edinburgh. “He was a working-class Scot and yet he was a novelist who had won literary prizes. Then he started writing crime novels, and that made it okay for me to write crime fiction.”
At that first meeting, Rankin asked McIlvanney to sign a Laidlaw book for him, confessing that he was writing a book “that’s a bit like your Laidlaw novels, but set in Edinburgh,” Rankin says. “And he just signed my book: “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw.’”
The Edinburgh Laidlaw, of course, went on to be the bestselling Rebus novels, and the two writers stayed in touch over the years, and corresponded frequently.
After McIlvanney’s death in 2015, his widow, Siobhan Lynch, found notes for new storylines featuring Laidlaw. McIlvanney’s publisher reached out to Rankin to see if he thought there was enough material to produce a new Laidlaw novel. When Rankin said there was “just enough,” he was asked to take on the project.
“It’s kind of funny because the arc of our relationship goes from me being a fanboy, to us talking to each other as novelists, to me suddenly being given the task by his widow of completing his final book,” Rankin says.
The author, who will appear at The Toronto International Festival of Authors on Oct/ 30, talked to Athena McKenzie about the challenges of completing The Dark Remains, a prequel that delves into DC Jack Laidlaw’s first-ever case as Glasgow’s original gritty detective.
Athena McKenzie: Did having such a personal relationship with William McIlvanney help or hinder the process of assuming his writerly voice?
Ian Rankin: There was a huge amount of self-inflicted pressure, because I didn’t want to let him down. This couldn’t just be okay, it had to be very good. More than that, I had to disappear. It had to be him who you were hearing when you read this book. It was an act of ventriloquism. The nicest review that I got was when [his widow] Siobhan wrote me a lovely handwritten letter… She said, “for the weekend I read it, you gave Willie back to me. It was as though he was in the room while I was reading.” That was not just very moving, it was also a great relief to me that I had done the job properly.
AM: And how did you get in touch with his voice?
IR: I think it helped that I know the books very well. And I did go and read and reread and reread the books, and take lots of notes. The real challenges were that it’s set in 1972, when I was 12 years old; it’s Glasgow, a city that even now I can’t really say I know that well; and it was William McIlvanney, who’s got a very different writing style from me. When you put those three together, that makes it a tough ask. Especially during lockdown, because I couldn’t physically go to Glasgow and explore the place on foot. I was lucky the libraries in Edinburgh reopened for a short time while I was writing the book. I went along to the library and sat down with an entire year’s worth of 1972 newspapers from the city of Glasgow and just took in everything that was happening in the world … And that was really useful.
AM: For readers new to the Laidlaw novels, would you suggest they start with this one and then go on to the others?
IR: Part of my wish is that this does take people onwards to other books written by William McIlvanney – the three Laidlaw novels he wrote before his death, plus everything else he wrote, because they’re all great books. He’s a great writer. I think, chronologically, maybe do read The Dark Remains first. One big reason for that is at the end, there’s a character who leaves Glasgow for London, and if you then pick up Laidlaw, the opening is that character coming back to Glasgow from London. I put that in specifically so that there would be a nice segue between my book and the first Laidlaw novel.
AM: You’ve said before that this is not the start of a new series. Is that still how you feel?
IR: It’s not a new series for me. I’m not going to do this again. Willie did leave notes for another book. I think he had the idea of bookending his series with Laidlaw’s first case and Laidlaw’s last case. Amongst all the notes I was given were lines relating to another book and it took me a while to figure out that they weren’t related to this book. They’re about Laidlaw’s last case, his last week as a police officer before retirement. Maybe somebody in the future could come along and do something with that. There’s not enough for it to be a William McIlvanney novel. It would be somebody else’s novel based on an idea by William McIlvanney, and there’s not enough there to interest me. But that doesn’t mean to say there won’t be enough to interest somebody else.
AM: You first met McIlvanney at Edinburgh’s book festival and now you’re launching this book there. Do you miss doing the festival circuit?
IR: Touring is hard work, and the older I get, the harder it seems to be. The jetlag becomes more of an issue, especially with the western side of Canada. But all these Zoom events and festivals and everything else that have been filling the void, the downside for the author is you don’t sell books. There is no queue of people at the end waiting to get a book personalized. The authors, they’re not getting a little bump in income that they would have got previously from a physical festival. So I think authors are very keen that physical book events come back again, because they can start selling books again.
I’ve done lots and lots of festivals in and around Canada and it’s always good to travel there. Of course Canadians and Scots have got quite a lot in common. Certainly more so than Americans and Scots. I never thought I would miss the travel, but it’s one of these things, isn’t it? When you’re told you can’t do something, that’s when you start to want to do it.