Glasgow Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, nearly forty, feels his own nature:
"as a wrack of paradox. He was potentially a violent man who gated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, and active man who longed for understanding. He was tempted to unlock the drawer in his desk where he kept Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol."
He is married and his three kids at home, but both domestically and professionally he can grate. As his wife notes:
"He was so hard to live with. It was the demands on people that she found most difficult. Moral aggression, she called it to herself"
The contrasting figure on the local force is the plodding Milligan, who does exactly what's expected but shows little imagination or insight. Laidlaw suggests:
"It's up to Milligan and his soldier-ants to take the situation apart leaf by leaf. Except that, for me, putting your faith in Milligan is just a fancy term for despair."
Young Harkness, moving from working under Milligan to assisting Laidlaw, is warned by Harkness: "he's not a good polis-man" -- because Laidlaw doesn't play by the same book and follow the social norms of the rest of the force, he doesn't fit the typical policeman-mold. Harkness approaches Laidlaw somewhat warily, but unsurprisingly he's fairly easily won over: Laidlaw might be quite the character, and he may have a different approach to police work (and life ...), but he's an honest and effective copper, and he knows how to handle almost any situation -- helpful, because Laidlaw and Harkness find themselves in quite a few, as they travel around Glasgow (generally by bus and tube) and find themselves in encounters with a variety of locals in their investigation.
Laidlaw isn't set up as much of a mystery. The guilty party confesses to the crime (albeit just to a friend) -- "I've killed a girl" -- even before the body is discovered. He is in hiding, and what there is is a race to find him -- as the police are't the only one eager to get their hands on him, the victim's father as well as a seedy businessman peripherally connected to the murderer each having their own reasons for wanting to get him out of the way.
Laidlaw and Harkness do have to figure out whodunnit -- the readers and some of the other characters know, but the police have to follow the dead girl's trail (and past) to find their way to his identity. Laidlaw's methods are a bit unconventional, but he understands how to deal with (most of) these people; his reputation helps a lot when he faces down some of these figures.
The race to get to the murderer is pretty deftly done; even without Laidlaw's dominant personality -- the book is about him (as the title suggests) rather than the crime, after all -- it's a decent crime story. But there's more to it than that. First, there are the slices of Glasgow life: McIlvanney is excellent with character, from the angry father to the crime boss to the corrupt businessman to the wannabes. The writing is also exceptionally sharp, including a great deal of dialogue in a heavy Scots dialect (perhaps a bit of a challenge to some American readers, but not enough to scare anyone off). And Laidlaw is a great protagonist: two hundred fifty pages is very little space to flesh out a character in this sort of novel, but McIlvanney paints a pretty rich portrait, and Laidlaw is certainly a gripping character.
As the first in a trilogy, aspects don't quite stand alone -- Harkness, for example, feels a bit underdeveloped, McIlvanney devoting considerable attention to him but not able to present as full a picture of him, for the most part presenting him reacting to situations rather than standing on his own. While some details do date the novel -- folks without telephones in their homes; the police taking public transport --, it's only some of the attitudes (especially towards the homosexual characters, but also towards the casual use of violence) that give Laidlaw an occasionally dated feel.
Uncomfortably aggressive and violent at times, Laidlaw is still an exceptionally controlled piece of work. It is not just a superior work of crime fiction, but simply a very good novel in every respect.