Novelist, poet and essayist

Born: November 25, 1936;

Died: December 5, 2015

IN the considered and generous opinion of his contemporary and peer, Allan Massie, William McIlvanney, who has died aged 79, was the finest Scottish novelist of his generation. While others may make the case for Alasdair Gray and, indeed, Massie himself, there is no doubt that McIlvanney found countless, discerning fans, not least among those not normally drawn to reading anything more taxing than newspaper back pages.

His books, which taken as a whole may be read as paeans to a lost country and culture, evoke an era when men were hard and women wore pinnies. Some female commentators accused McIlvanney of the crime of male chauvinism but that is to deny reality. The world described by him was often violent and an excess of alcohol was invariably involved. Moreover, it was one from which women were routinely excluded, their role subservient to the men with whom they were associated.

The west of Scotland was McIlvanney’s heartland, in particular an industrial town that he called Graithnock, which was based on Kilmarnock, his birthplace. Poverty was commonplace and sharing was “a precautionary reflex”. The portrait McIlvanney drew of that community, which would not have been alien to Emile Zola, was as unvarnished as it was unsentimental.

“Sometimes,” he wrote in Docherty (1975), “men would disintegrate spectacularly, beating a wife unconscious one pellucid summer evening or going on the batter with cheap whisky for a fortnight. Such bouts of failure were not approved of, but they also never earned a permanent contempt. They were too real for that.”

The eponymous Tam Docherty, though only five foot four, was “a man too formidable to be patronised”. He was the first of McIlvanney’s little “big” men, who could patrol mean streets with impunity and who were conditioned to stand up to authority.

Like his soulmates, such as Dan Scoular in The Big Man (1985) and Jack Laidlaw in the three novels he bestrides – Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991) – Docherty manages to maintain his dignity in a society which has done its best to strip him of it. This is one of his creator’s enduring themes. For McIlvanney, poverty lay at the root of myriad ills and it informed, for example, his approach to tackling crime, which is Laidlaw’s raison d’être. While Laidlaw – whose preferred reading is the Spanish philosopher, Unamuno, the French novelist Albert Camus and Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian – must solve crimes he would also like to confront their causes.

William Angus McIlvanney was born in 1936, the youngest of four children – three boys and one girl – one of whom, Hugh, is an acclaimed sports writer. His father was a miner and his mother looked after the house with matriarchal pride. She was an enthusiastic reader and McIlvanney liked to remember her reciting poetry and relating stories from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Books and learning were part of family life, as was argument.

By all accounts, the McIlvanneys were an eloquent, witty and contumacious clan; Willie once said his father held “a PhD in rage”. He attended Hillhead Primary School and Kilmarnock Academy. Thereafter he studied English at Glasgow University. It was the start of an enduring love affair with the place that was to feature throughout his work. His is a Glasgow of garrulous, gallus souls, low dives and dark nights and deeds; “the city of the stare” where “you never knew where the next invasion of your privateness is coming from”, where you are never alone and where every cab driver and bar-tender appears to be auditioning for a slot on the stage at the Empire.

McIlvanney’s chosen career, however, was teaching, which he enjoyed while at the chalk face. He wrote in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays. His debut novel, Remedy Is None, was published in 1966 to enthusiastic reviews. Its principal character, Charlie Grant, is an undergraduate at Glasgow whose father has scrimped and saved to send him to university. The template was Hamlet. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and nearly half a century later its author could still reel positive reviews off by heart. The Observer, for instance, said: “he creates characters so strong you feel you might not put up much of a show in their company.” Next came A Gift from Nessus (1968), which featured Eddie Cameron, a salesman in the grip of a personal crisis. It, too, was given a round of applause.

After a short spell teaching in Grenoble, France, McIlvanney returned to Scotland where he was promoted to principal teacher which – by his own admission – was a position he soon realised did not suit his talents. “I was running about with wee bits of paper. But I couldn’t organise a raffle. All I could do was be in the classroom. I packed it in after a year.” This coincided with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina which he was asked to cover by two newspapers. He spent seven weeks in South America which, he later admitted, may have been a contributory factor in the break-up of his marriage.

Docherty, his third novel, won the Whitbread Award, and was immediately decreed its author’s masterpiece. The hero, he acknowledged, owed something to his father, including his height. It was an elegy for a certain kind of man who felt defeated and unfulfilled by life and circumstances.

Docherty, he wrote, “lived very much in a personal climate of squalls of sudden temper, spells of infectious pleasure that couldn’t be forecast, brief winters of brooding isolation that were apparently unrelated to events around him.”

It was followed in 1977 by Laidlaw, which has since been credited with kick starting Tartan Noir, which McIlvanney took as a compliment without ever accepting he was part of that genre. Though Laidlaw bears the influence of wise-cracking, hard-boiled thrillers written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it is markedly different in style, tone and location.

McIlvanney’s detective’s sympathies were very much in line with his own. On reconnaissance in Drumchapel, Laidlaw is told by a fellow officer that the people who live there must be terrible. “I find the people very impressive,” retorts Laidlaw. “It’s the place that’s terrible. You think of Glasgow. At each of its four corners, this kind of housing-scheme. There’s the Drum and Easterhouse and Pollock and Castlemilk. You’ve got the biggest housing-scheme in Europe here. And what’s there? Hardly anything but houses. Just architectural dumps where they unloaded people like slurry. Penal architecture. Glasgow people have to be nice people. Otherwise, they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.”

Unlike typical thriller writers, however, McIlvanney was disinclined – or temperamentally incapable – of churning out the book a year which the market demands. He wrote slowly with pen and paper. Until relatively recently, new technology was not something he felt the need to embrace.

Blessed with movie star good looks – Clark Gable comes to mind – he was always dapperly dressed. When he spoke it was with the enunciation of an actor whose lines have been written by an aphorist. “A new book,” he once said, “is a new risk or it is nothing.” He also said: “You first renew your wonder. Then you relearn the techniques to impress.” Not surprisingly, audiences at book festivals and on other occasions hung on his every word.

Though his output was not prodigious he accumulated an oeuvre that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Big Man was published in 1985 and was subsequently filmed with Liam Neeson, Joanne Whalley and Billy Connolly. The Kiln, which features Tam Docherty’s son, Tom, won the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award in 1996. McIlvanney was also twice winner of the Glasgow Herald’s People’s Prize; in 1990 for Walking Wounded, a collection of stories, and in 1992 for Strange Loyalties, the third of the Laidlaw novels.

His last novel, Weekend, was published in 2006. He was also an accomplished poet and essayist and wrote pungently on literature, politics and football, about all of which he cared passionately. Whisky was his lubricant of choice. Morality not materialism was his cri de coeur. He was a nationalist with a small ‘n’ and came to believe that Scotland would be better off independent. His prevailing vision was that of someone born and bred to believe that socialism offered the best hope for the most people.

He is survived by his brother Hugh, his son Liam, his daughter, Siobhán, and Siobhán McCole Lynch, a teacher, who was his partner for many years.