Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Then you're a mug"- owning our human condition

Writer William McIlvanney is sometimes referred to as Scotland's Camus. He passed away in December of last year. I've discovered his writing only very recently. I am currently reading the first of his trilogy of crime novels featuring Glasgow detective Jack Laidlaw, entitled simply, Laidlaw. McIlvanney is known as both the father and king of so-called Tartan Noir. According to his obituary in the Telegraph, "McIlvanny himself was not altogether happy with the accolade. He was concerned with morality, with how people behave and should behave to each other, not with sensation."

Laidlaw is in a rocky marriage. He and his wife, Ena, have two children. He is seen as a liberal and idealist by most of the other Glasgow police officers with whom he associates. The crime in the book is the rape and murder of an attractive young woman whose body is found in the bushes of Kelvingrove Park on a Sunday afternoon. Detective Inspector Laidlaw is assigned to investigate the case using his own strange methods while another, more conventional, investigation is conducted in parallel. Detective Constable Harkness is assigned to assist him and report back to their superiors any information that would help the more formal investigation. Prior to being assigned to work with Laidlaw, Harkness had worked with Milligan, a hardened police officer who thought Laidlaw was soft on criminals and a bit too philosophical, who sees things in very black and white and terms- it's us against them; we're good, they're bad. Indeed, Laidlaw keeps some works of Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno in a locked drawer of his desk.

During their first day together, Laidlaw lays out some of the forensic details of the murder, which included an act necrophilia, to Harkness over breakfast. What Laidlaw describes nearly makes Harkness ill. He balks at Laidlaw's suggestion that in order to catch the murderer they had to find a way to relate to him, to connect with him. At this suggestion Harkness retorts, "It's hopeless. How are we supposed to connect with something like this? How do we begin to relate to him?"



In response to Harkness' objection, Laidlaw says, "Because he relates to us." Harkness replies, "Speak for yourself." Laidlaw asks him, "What do you mean?. . . You resign from the species?" Defensively, Harkness retorts with an all too familiar response that smacks of denial, "No. He did." To which Laidlaw sensibly answers, "Not as easy as that." "It is for me," says Harkness, still trying to put as much moral distance between himself and the murderer as he can. "Then you're a mug. You'll be telling me next you believe in monsters. I've got a wee boy of six with the same problem." Harkness then asks, no doubt referring to the perpetrator of the heinous crime, "Don't you?" Laidlaw retorts, "If I did, I'd have to believe in fairies as well. And I'm not quite prepared for that." This prompts Harkness to ask, "How do you mean?"

Laidlaw then spells it out for the junior officer who is still full of his own moral superiority: "What I mean is, monstrosity's made by false gentility. You don't get one without the other. No fairies, no monsters. Just people. You know what the horror of this kind of crime is? It's the tax we pay for the unreality we choose to live in. It's fear of ourselves." Harkness, seemingly softening a bit, asks, "So where does that leave us?" Laidlaw says that, as cops, they're "stand-ins." He then goes on to explain, "Other people can afford to write 'monster' across this and assign it to limbo. I suppose society can't afford to do anything else, or it wouldn't work. They've got to pretend that things like this aren't really done by people. We can't afford to do that." I would say, likely not with McIlvanney's agreement, judging by the views on Christianity expressed in his book, which no doubt arise from his own experience, that Christians can't do this either.

Observing the people as the two detectives step out the café, Laidlaw, trying to help Harkness see the connection, observes: "Your way of life is taught to you like a language. It's how you express yourself. But any language conceals as much as it reveals. And there's a lot of languages. All of them human. This murder is a very human message. But it's in code. We have to try and crack the code. But what we're looking for is a part of us. You don't know that, you can't begin." To which Harkness says, "Forgive me if I feel a bit sick with a part of us." To which Laidlaw responds, "All right . . . You can even cry if you want. It clears the eyes."

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting. I might have to check this one out.

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