Friday, July 9, 2010

Shocking secrets and lies: Liam McIlvanney feature

Some great news; as the Weekend Herald (New Zealand's most popular newspaper) does not generally place the books-related stories from its popular Canvas magazine supplement online, NZ Herald Arts & Books Editor Linda Herrick (who was also one of the judges of the recent NZSA Pindar Publishing Prize) has kindly allowed me to republish any articles I write for Canvas on Crime Watch.

Shocking secrets and lies
A University of Otago professor tells CRAIG SISTERSON why his first novel is a contemporary thriller

LOOKING UP at the bronze likeness of iconic poet Robbie Burns, listening to bagpipes wafting on the chill air, Scotsman Liam McIlvanney feels remarkably ‘at home’ considering he’s 11,000 miles from his Kilmarnock birthplace. Professor McIlvanney, who immigrated to Dunedin with his young family earlier this year to become the Stuart Chair in Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, says he’s been experiencing an interesting mix of “the foreign and the familiar” in his new home. “It’s been fantastic,” he says. “It’s quite extraordinary to see all the streets named after Edinburgh streets. It’s a great city; compact, but vibrant and a lot going on culturally.”

In a way, McIlvanney has come full circle. “I grew up in Ayrshire, the epicentre of Burns country, where Burns is absolutely inescapable… just part of the air we breathed”, he says. After a break from the Scottish poet while studying in Glasgow, he returned to his roots with a Burns-themed doctoral thesis at Oxford on the way to becoming an expert in Scottish literature. Now he’s teaching a new generation, in another Burns-mad city, about the man dubbed ‘Scotland’s favourite son’.

He’s also come full circle in another way – penning his first fictional tale after years of producing academic articles and non-fiction books on Scottish (and Irish) culture and society. For when his debut All the Colours of the Town was published by Faber recently, McIlvanney joined his famous father William, a former schoolteacher, in the ranks of published novelists. The older McIlvanney is a renowned Scottish writer, who has won a Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book Award) for his literary novels and CWA Daggers for his ground-breaking ‘Laidlaw’ detective novels.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his knowledge of 18th century Scottish culture, McIlvanney’s own remarkable debut is actually a contemporary thriller (although deeply influenced by historic events). All the Colours of the Town centres on Glasgow political journo Gerry Conway, who receives a tip-off about the unsavoury past of the Scottish Justice Minister, one of his best sources. Initially unimpressed, Conway is eventually drawn into a journey from Glasgow to Belfast, attempting to uncover a shocking story laced with sectarian violence and dangerous secrets.

The recently-released debut has been well-received by critics, with The Observer calling it “a perfect example of why talented writers ought not shy away from tackling genre novels” and The Independent saying “the prose crackles with the sort of neat descriptions Chandler would have been happy to copyright”.

The latter compliment particularly pleases McIlvanney, who considers the American creator of the Philip Marlowe novels “the absolute gold standard for hardboiled crime, and quality of prose”. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact he studies and teaches ‘literature’, McIlvanney firmly believes crime and thriller writing can have an importance beyond mere page-turning entertainment. He points out the current wave of Scottish crime writing, fuelled by the success of Ian Rankin (who incidentally credits William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw as an important influence) and those who followed, has played a potent role in contemporary Scotland by providing a fertile forum for pressing political and social issues to be explored. “Literary fiction can be sort of detached from contemporary realities,” he says. “It’s been left to the genre writers to… hold a mirror up to contemporary Britain.”

Furthermore, says McIlvanney, many books that are now considered great literature were in fact the ‘popular fiction’ of their time. “In my courses on Scottish literature I teach Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde, which is now of course a classic, but at the time was a shilling shocker.”


Literary fiction can be sort of detached from contemporary realities.


It took McIlvanney, who is now snatching time for the second Gerry Conway thriller in between his teaching and family commitments, two years to complete All the Colours of the Town. What started as a evocative vignette of the famous Orange Walk in Glasgow, a highly-charged sectarian celebration of William of Orange’s victory over King James II in 1690, quickly became a book deal after it was read by an agent. “It was just something which had always stuck in my imagination, that I really wanted to write about … it was the germ of the novel,” says McIlvanney. “Then I created my journalist, and the politician whom he’s investigating, and it just developed from there.”

While even on the other side of the world most of us are aware of the ‘Troubles’ between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, McIlvanney says less is known about sectarianism in Scotland. “Unlike Northern Ireland, there is no segregation in terms of housing, and job discrimination is a thing of the past, but the attitudes that were ingrained because of sectarianism are still ingrained to some extent,” he says, noting All the Colours of the Town explores the aftershocks and ongoing effects of The Troubles, including from a Scottish perspective.

“It is a slightly unexplored aspect of contemporary Scotland, which is one of the reasons I found it useful to write a crime novel,” says McIlvanney. “We have so many ties to Northern Ireland in terms of family, and cultural links… there’s an interesting Scottish experience, so I wanted to explore that… some of the issues that are being discussed at a policy level in Scotland.”

If McIlvanney’s debut is anything to go by, perhaps (quality) crime writing can pull double-duty as great entertainment, and the modern social novel.

All the Colours of the Town (Faber & Faber, NZD$38.99)

This feature article was first published in the Canvas magazine of the Weekend Herald on Saturday 31 October 2009, and is reprinted here with permission. Photo Credit: Vanda Symon.


So what do you think of my feature article on Liam McIlvanney? Do you agree that crime and thriller fiction can be the new social novel? That literary fiction can be detached from contemporary realities? 


  1. I enjoyed reading All the Colours of the Town, as well as a good crime read, the politics was fascinating. I learned quite a lot.

    I actually had no idea his dad was a very successful writer, so full credit to Liam for making his own way in the world of crime writing.

    I also enjoyed interviewing Liam for my Write On Radio Show. There's just something about a Scottish accent...

  2. I've just finished this novel, which I enjoyed, but it isn't without its flaws. I particularly liked the journalism aspects but not so much the Irish politics ones (men in pubs etc). Great interview! My review will be up this coming weekend at my blog.