The November 2021 selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
The Man Who Died Twice

Richard Osman (Viking: £18.99; e-book £9.99)

This is the sequel to Richard Osman’s highly successful The Thursday Murder Club. The fact that immediately following the publication of this novel one may pre-order the third volume suggests that the author and his publisher believe they are on a roll.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first in the series. While being on every game show on the BBC may ensure maximum publicity, it is no guarantee of writing prowess. It turned out to be a nicely crafted, genial tale of four strong minded characters in Coopers Chase retirement village, inspired, apparently, by Osman’s mother’s place of residence. We encounter them again here: Elizabeth the former spy, therapist Ibrahim, sometime union leader Ron, and Joyce, the only one of the four who is allowed to tell her story in her own voice.

We begin in a fairly straightforward way with Ibrahim being mugged and Elizabeth accepting an invitation to share a drink with a man she buried some decades earlier. You know the sort of thing. Supporting players brought back include a couple of local detectives, generally capable of being manipulated by Elizabeth’s wily ways. Throw in a local drugs dealer or two and £20 million worth of diamonds, and you start to get the picture.

No, of course you don’t. Web weaving is Osman’s specialist subject. Even when I got to the unlikely ending, I’m not sure I fully untangled all the strands. There are a lot of dead bodies, nothing to do with the average age of the residents of Coopers Chase. If you missed volume one, it might take you a little time to get a handle on our heroes.

This is an agreeable enough read; however, I was left with the impression that what has been cooked up here is less of a masterly second course, and more of a potboiler.

The Dark Remains 

William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin (Canongate: £20; e-book £8.54)

I was saddened by the commission to write this review. The tristesse had nothing whatever to do with the chance to read a masterwork which is the joint product of two of Scotland’s finest ever crime writers: it was the buildup. So many people to whom I spoke confessed to never having heard of Jack Laidlaw, a Glasgow detective created by McIlvanney in the 1970s and given just three outings. An unconventional cop with a different slant on the world from his peers – he reads philosophy, for heaven’s sake – and a distinct indifference to authority. That may sound a little conventional these days, but it all began with Laidlaw.

Don’t be misled by the dustjacket, which tells us that this is Laidlaw’s first case. It’s not. We are told that he’s in his late 30s, broad shouldered and square jawed. He is summed up at the outset in a dialogue between two superior officers in Police HQ:

“Who has he rubbed up the wrong way this month?”

“Who’s left? But the same message keeps coming through – he’s good at the job, seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening in the streets.”

The Dark Remains came to light when William McIlvanney’s family found detailed notes for an unfinished Laidlaw book, a prequel. They asked Ian Rankin to write it, a task which was apparently accepted with some reluctance, and with the proviso that he could abandon the project if he wasn’t happy with the end result. It’s set in 1972, when the police force was a very different organisation, and Laidlaw’s Glasgow was very different from Rebus’s Edinburgh. The end result is a triumph, the fruits of detailed research allied to Rankin’s grasp of narrative, and some cracking dialogue.

The story begins when the body of a dodgy lawyer is found outside a pub belonging to a rival hoodlum, John Rhodes. While Rhodes may have echoes of Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s nemesis, it’s really the other way round. I reread the original Laidlaw. Rankin gets all of the original dramatis personae down to a T. It also reminded me how much of a blatant ripoff the Taggart series was. At the time it first appeared, there were two major Ford distributorships in Scotland – one named Laidlaw; the other, yes you guessed it, Taggart. Early in the original book, Laidlaw’s wife asks why he has to go out so late in the evening. The answer: “There’s been a murder.” Judge for yourself.

Enjoy a cracking crime story, travel down memory lane with the 1972 references – The Godfather; Upstairs Downstairs; only three years since Bible John last struck – and enjoy some wonderful one liners:

“Ever hear the saying, all coppers are bastards?”

“At least I’m a bastard with a glimpse of self awareness.”

Or:

“We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns right enough.”

“And what a bastard of a father he turned out to be.

This is a novel to be enjoyed in its own right but will also, I hope, encourage a new generation to enjoy the original Laidlaw trilogy.

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