Was Taggart McIllvanney sleuth’s doppleganger?

THIS week I finally got round to reading William McIlvanney's latest book, Strange Loyalties. It has already been favourably reviewed in the Herald by Hayden Murphy and I too enjoyed it immensely.

It is the latest and, Willie tells me, the last of the novels about Jack Laidlaw. In the book the Glasgow detective goes in search of the truth about the death of his brother. It is set inter alia in Glasgow, Ayrshire, Kelso and Edinburgh. As a crime novel it seems to me considerably superior to the new Elmore Leonard, Maximum Bob, which is piled so high in all the bookshops.

There’s more to it than just crime. Willie uses it to explore some of his favourite themes — Scotland, violence, working-class heroism and despair. It is a reflective and compassionate book with a great deal of charm. But what gives it real power is that it deals with one of the most persistent motifs in Scottish writing, that of the doppelganger.

”His last gift from the grave for me,” concludes the detective about his brother, ”had been perhaps a more intense vision of the blackness in myself. It gave me a proper fear of who I was.” His pursuit of his brother has been a pursuit of his own tortured conscience.

As I closed the book I, for my part, reflected that here was a writer every bit as good, if not better, than many of the modern American school so widely celebrated and so much in vogue. It is a cruel business devoting your life to your art in a small land. It is that much harder to be heard in the wider world. Worse, you may be treated shabbily in your own patch.

It is not the case, of course, that Willie has been neglected. He has achieved considerable critical standing internationally. The Big Man was filmed. His books are, moreover, popular with the public. Last year he won the People’s Prize organised by the Glasgow Herald and the Scottish Libraries Association. In this competition the short leet is chosen by ordinary book-readers rather than a quarrelsome and effete panel of literati.

But Willie’s experience with Laidlaw has been a painful one. He does not think about it too much, for if he did he might become bitter. When the first Laidlaw book came out in 1977, there was considerable interest in filming it. Sean Connery was keen to act in it and direct it. He and Willie had a meeting in Edinburgh Zoo, and the way they left it was that Connery would try to raise the money for the project from backers in America.

Some months later a US company bought the option on film rights. Connery had been unable to put a deal together and released Willie from any obligation in an amiable letter.

Still nothing happened. The option passed to the Glasgow company Pelicula. Willie went as far as preparing a draft screenplay and a second version. The option has now been sold outright to a Canadian company.

Such a story is by no means unusual in the film business. Los Angeles is awash with screenplays. What was harder to take was the treatment Willie received from Scottish Television. Over a period of more than a year Willie talked to STV about a series based on Laidlaw.

Willie recalls the last meeting at STV particularly well because he left his coat there. As they parted he was told that STV were commissioning a programme called Thriller. This was the first of Taggart, the series that has since gone on to be a great moneyspinner for STV.

At first Willie was not too worried, perhaps naively. But then a friend at STV, the late Clark Tait, came to him in some alarm. He had seen the rushes. He advised Willie to consult a lawyer.

In the end Willie took no action. No doubt STV’s denials that Taggart is derivative of Laidlaw are sincere. To me, I hope a disinterested outsider, it seems the connection is so obvious as to make any denial disingenuous. It remains, I should have thought, something of a burden on STV’s corporate conscience. It is, of course, true that Taggart, once launched, developed directions of its own. Taggart and Laidlaw are more distant cousins now. But that is not really the point.

Willie has put the disappointment behind him. He has been commissioned to write a three-part drama for BBC Scotland. Although this is the last Laidlaw book, the new novel on which he is working will feature as the first-person voice a character called Tom Docherty who flits in and out of Strange Loyalties as a distant and slightly oracular figure. He is the grandson of the eponymous hero of Docherty, the novel which brought McIlvanney serious critical appraisal in 1975.

For Laidlaw Tom is something of a mentor, but for my part I hear in him the voice of Willie himself. Here is Tom on literary criticism: ”It’s nearly all about register. There’s a lot of po-faced crap that gets highly praised because of its tone of voice. ‘I’m serious, I’m cultured,’ it’s telling you all the time. Bollocks.”

Willie, through Tom, is touching on a very serious problem for contemporary literature and for the book trade which has put publishers, in particular, under severe financial pressure. It is that the public does not on the whole buy fiction in any great amounts. The novel is out of touch with popular taste. Those novelists who do sell well are usually sneered at.

Willie is something of an exception. His books are both popular and critically regarded. If the novel is not going to vanish into the antechamber of high art, or become, as in Europe, an intellectual crossword puzzle, the genre needs more of his kind.