08 December 2021

What Remains

I’m not always a fan of a dead writer’s unfinished work being ghostwritten by somebody else; in fact, very seldom.

Islands in the Stream, maybe.  And that was only lightly edited, not actually reimagined.  (Pastiche is a different animal: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen and vampires.)  That being said, I’m going to immediately contradict myself, and declare for The Dark Remains.

Back story.

  William McIlvanney wrote three Laidlaw books, along with a bunch of other stuff, before his death in 2015.  He left behind notes and a rough draft for a fourth Laidlaw, and Ian Rankin was invited to try his hand.  McIlvanney is widely considered the eminence grise behind Tartan noir, Rankin the most visible brand name, and Rankin has cited McIlvanney as a prime influence. 

You could, I suppose, make a case for

Tartan noir going back to Macbeth, but for our purposes, let’s set the benchmark at Robert Louis Stevenson.  One of the Rebus books is titled Resurrection Men, which conjures up Burke and Hare, of course, but also Stevenson’s meditation on the anatomist murders, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Stevenson is as much a model for style as material.

  His tone is always reasonable, never hysterical, and the most hair-raising incidents and adventures are served up with a dash of the convincingly commonplace.  Jim Hawkins in the apple barrel.  You hear the echoes in McIlvanney, the flat affect of tone, the undercurrent of violence.  It might remind you, too, of Ted Lewis, a Manchester boy who wrote Jack’s Return Home, the novel Get Carter was based on.  The harmonic below decks is the periphery of despair.

It’s fair to say that if Stevenson wrote romances, then McIlvanney and Rankin are writing

anti-romances.  Laidlaw and Rebus aren’t romantics, in the sense that Chandler’s Marlowe is, nor are they nihilists, like the gang chieftains they so often rub the wrong way.  Not two sides of the same coin.  And not, in other words, a literary convention.  What they bring to the table is something more specific and grave, less of a fashion or a fancy.

This is grounded, as well, in language.

  They lean away from the lyric, not into it.  I don’t mean that their writing is leaden, or pedestrian, far from it, but that it has an earthbound density.  Words have weight.  They’re not to be squandered, but counted out like coin.

Talking about


“It’s a small town.”
“You could paint it in a day.”


“Not so much a city as a hangover.”

Why a woman left her husband:

“He bored me to my back teeth.”

And this:

“Ach, he’s somebody’s rearing.” 

“You’re telling me even arseholes have their good side and deserve some sort of justice?”

“The law’s not about justice.  It’s a system we’ve put in place because we can’t have justice.”

This last is the closest you get to any kind of social commentary.

  Curious, because both McIlvanney and Rankin clearly have opinions, but choose to express them through character and circumstance.  A lot of these people, if not in dead-ends, are headed down one-way streets, or locked into a fated embrace.  There’s something more than a little Manichean about it, with choice playing no part. 

Can you tell where McIlvanney leaves off, and Rankin picks up a dropped stitch?

  Nope.  The voice is consistent.  I think that’s a testament to Rankin.  He doesn’t impose.  It’s still McIlvanney’s story, and feels of a piece, breast to back. 

‘Remains,’ in the title, is used as a verb, not a noun.

  It comes up as a line of dialogue, late in the book: darkness is what we’re left with, when all is said and done.  But you could be forgiven for hearing it differently.  I’m sure McIlvanney and Rankin enjoy having it both ways.


  1. Thanks for the introduction to Mcilvanney. I will look up his books.

  2. “The law’s not about justice. It’s a system we’ve put in place because we can’t have justice.” - Sums up a lot.
    I will check McIlvanney out.
    BTW, in the Tartan Noir sweepstakes, the real noir Stevenson wrote is "The Master of Ballantrae". Endless bleak, black, chilling...

    1. Absolutely. I'd cast a vote, too, for "A Lodging for the Night," although it's a little tongue-in-cheek.


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