Ian Rankin to complete William McIlvanney’s final novel The Dark Remains | Books

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Ian Rankin to complete William McIlvanney’s final novel The Dark Remains | Books

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Ian Rankin has spent most of lockdown writing a novel – but it isn’t a new Rebus. Instead, the Scottish writer has been putting the finishing touches to a handwritten manuscript left by the late William McIlvanney, the so-called godfather of “tartan noir” and author of the Laidlaw detective books.

McIlvanney died in 2015, at the age of 79, leaving behind a trilogy of novels that Val McDermid says “changed the face of Scottish fiction”. The manuscript of The Dark Remains was found by his widow Siobhan Lynch among his papers. Set in October 1972, it was intended to be a prequel to the author’s hardbitten, Glasgow-set detective novels featuring Jack Laidlaw, about his first case.

Lynch approached McIlvanney’s publisher Canongate to see if they could do anything with it, and the publisher asked Rankin if he would be interested in finishing it. “Ian is the writer Willie would have chosen,” said Lynch.

“It’s notes towards a book, a few scenes, some central characters, a sense of what the story might actually be about, but fairly incomplete,” said Rankin. “Canongate asked me to take a look, and I said, ‘Well, no promises.’ But immediately I was completely entranced. I was back in William McIlvanney’s world.”

Rankin approached the project with a little trepidation. “I’m a huge fan so I didn’t want to do him a disservice. I wanted the book to be as good as it possibly could be, as good as a Laidlaw novel. I owe him a huge debt, as pretty much every Scottish crime writer does – he’s the godfather, so you want it to be right. You want it to be his world, his story and his voice. And I’ve not tried to get inside the head of another writer before, tried to try to mimic their style. I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a line that felt like a Willie line and I would scribble it down, a little bon mot I could imagine Laidlaw coming out with.”

Rankin went over the notes McIlvanney left behind with a fine-tooth comb. “Willie doesn’t quite lay out who the killer is, so I had to get inside his head to see what he was actually saying,” he said. “It seemed like he had two or three stories that he was juggling … It was an act of archaeology, and an act of detection.”

Rankin first met McIlvanney in 1985 at the Edinburgh book festival, two years before the first Rebus novel was published. He asked McIlvanney to sign one of his books for him, and told him he was writing his own novel that was “like Laidlaw but set in Edinburgh”. McIlvanney inscribed his novel: “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw.”

“I wanted to write detective stories in a city that I knew, and he had done that for Glasgow – the books are as much about Glasgow as they are about Laidlaw. And although I wanted to write about Rebus, I really wanted to write about Edinburgh, so he was always an influence,” said Rankin. “It’s doubtful I would be a crime writer without the influence of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw.”

Canongate will publish The Dark Remains by McIlvanney and Rankin on 2 September 2021. Publishing director Francis Bickmore said: “In his later years, Willie and I talked about his work on one of Laidlaw’s early cases. But death robbed him of the chance to finish it. And to our delight, Ian felt this was one case he couldn’t turn down. The result is gobsmacking. It’s Laidlaw at his very best – white-knuckle plotting, real-life complexity and writing sharper than a gangster’s blade.”

Lynch said she was “overjoyed to be able to share Willie’s last words with his beloved readers and introduce Laidlaw to a new generation”.

McIlvanney is not the first author whose character has continued after their death: Sophie Hannah has written a number of new Hercule Poirot novels; Anthony Horowitz, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver have continued the James Bond thrillers; and Eoin Colfer wrote a final novel in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide series.

But Rankin said The Dark Remains was unlikely to be the start of a franchise. “It’s just there was that one unfinished book and there was enough material there that meant it could be finished,” he said. “And why wouldn’t you want a new William McIlvanney book out in the world?”

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