SIMPLE sentences are complicated things. You can lose lifetimes in handfuls of words. He was a friend of mine: six words.

He was a friend of mine who believed we are our words. That sentence needs work, though.

I can hear him now, meditating aloud, in “though”. Everything can stand rewriting before it can hope to stand. Now a sentence cannot be revised. It is this scribbler’s problem, suddenly, that the present tense is no longer allowed.

At the wedding, the registrar asked the witness, our best man, to identify himself. As I remember: “Are you William McIlvanney of Fullarton Street, Kilmarnock?” Jokes need careful writing. “Well,” he said, “that’s the name I’m using at the moment.”

A sentence can contain worlds, or fragments. On Saturday, at the news, I pictured a dingy basement flat and a handsome man in shirt sleeves crooning to a babe in arms. Willie fancied himself an expert in these matters.

The infant might not have had the secrets of writing whispered into his ear. When he sorrows today, the child become a man can have another consolation: if some weird memory of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” ever surfaces, there’s a reason.

Dead reckoning between probabilities tells me I met Willie in 1983. It was our first and last interview. One part of the sentence is uncomplicated: you don’t interview friends. After the first time, I left it to others to attempt trial-by-McIlvanney. That would be the simple part.

It took us three days, that hour of chat. Later, three days became shorthand: the Lost Weekend. We were both shamefaced about it, intermittently, even while “the interview” receded, pub by restaurant by pub, like the last coach of a train we were never going to catch.

It is routine now to say Willie was not “prolific”. There’s a flaw in the claim. Words and sentences and paragraphs germinated within him like fields of Ayrshire barley. Whether you heard him speak for three days or five minutes, you knew that words, examined words, tested words, were never a problem.

He told me a story. In Paris once he had been taken to a dinner party. At one point a noted French author had told the table, “I wrote 5,000 words today”. Willie had not doubted the man. He had only asked a question: “But were they good words?”

What’s a good word? What is, when tides turn and tenses change, the right word? Willie understood the exchange rate between the best and the acceptable. He would not barter. That there is no “Jack Laidlaw Mystery No. 29” is nothing beside the truth: his sentences will stand. It gives you the worth of the dishonest word “prolific”.

This is not, for once, just my opinion. Willie told the truth: he could have been a millionaire. That was the offer made, the proposition set before him. He first told me about it all those years ago, probably when I was asking why so long had elapsed between Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch.

Publishers and agents had made the pitch. Just produce, Willie. A book every 18 months. A millionaire. Guaranteed. So which of us has a mere standard we would not abandon for a million? Had Willie mined his eloquence a Laidlaw franchise would have run to multi-millions.

Instead, his only regret, I think, was that Sean Connery did not exercise his option and play the part. The scene that needs to be written was set at Edinburgh Zoo. Two Scots talking among cages in their lost capital; a pair of Scots who would be better than enough for any country. Yet Willie’s rumination on Connery awaits publication.

We practised the art of falling out, mostly because we were good at it. When Willie fancied an argument, it was time to cancel all appointments. Some people have an itch to find the right, conclusive words: Willie scraped his way through skin for an adjective that would settle matters. Not that it ever did.

The last time I saw him, at Rogano in Glasgow (of course), as the bill rose and night fell, we got to the relative merits of Dylan and Leonard Cohen. In the back of my head, the familiar voice said, “Here we go”. At least, the voice added, it’s not the one about his adored Marlon Brando.

Sometimes it was thrilling, sometimes daft. There was, for one, the game of pool that became an ambling Olympiad to settle something-or-other. Tipsy darts, drunken putting, talk of ten-pin bowling that ended in a learned discussion of which of us (me, obviously) would have been best. Or the contest in a kitchen at a party to remember all of Wyatt Earp’s brothers. How did we get to that? With Willie, that was always the question.

Words were the contest, the contest his vocation. Those who say “crime writer” in the obituaries forget a poet. Much of the art in the fiction had its origins in the struggle with poetry. He made sentences that might, with luck, contain worlds. That the words involved a detective was just a consequence of where words took him.

Before the last hug, I had teased him a little with “godfather” and “tartan noir”. What does a tartan look like all in black? He knew better than to renounce honours, or be owned by them. He was just relieved that his books were back in print, not lost, not forgotten. It says something about a country that almost allowed it to happen.

In 1992, a child who had been Willie’s babe in arms made a long walk through a cold Edinburgh with his parents and grandparents for a parliament’s sake. The uncomplaining boy marched a long way to hear a writer set the moral course for a country with words bought dear and given freely.

We are my friend’s mongrel nation. He wrote us. In all the arguments, all the moments the past tense claims, I didn’t once thank him.