James Gault reviews STRANGE LOYALTIES by William MacIlvanney
Let’s be clear. This is a great book, a classic of detective fiction by the father of the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre. Great plot; great characters; the full force of dark Scottish irony; philosophical, literary and mythological references oozing from every pore; tension; plot twists and a surprise ending of the highest order. So much for the eulogy. This being me, time for the critique.
First warning - don’t read this book when you’re feeling a bit down. Mr MacIlvanny’s star policeman, Jack Laidlaw, is not a feel-good character. If there were a trite superlative for ‘pessimistic’, it would be just the right word for him. He’s a man whose glass is half-empty with a hole in the bottom.
In general, the author has created solid wood characters covered with merely a veneer of nuance. He probably couldn’t help it; he was a working class West of Scotland boy ‘made good’ through state sponsored university education. The tentacles of socialism and Rabbie Burns creep deep into the Scottish psyche and no amount of effort can dislodge them. The ‘Worthy Working-class Wumman’ is well represented while the middle classes are viewed with a hint of distrust and resentment. For the most part, the ‘baddies’ are criminals on the surface but underneath we find a heart of gold. Evil is seldom a motivation. Crime is a result of deprivation leaving the perpetrators nothing to give society but needing to eat; they have no choice but to take their share anyway.
The political undertones continue in the author’s aversion to the misogynist. All his women are victims. If you’re a bit of a ‘leftie’ like me, you’ll find all your inbuilt stereotypes reinforced. If you’re a reader looking to read about characters who struggle to resolve the conflict between good and bad in their lives, you might think this book perhaps a little too ‘black and white’.
Of course, this is only my view and I am a self-confessed nit-picker. In the greater scheme of things, my criticisms are insignificant. This is a great book by a great writer.