All the Colours of the Town
By Liam McIlvanney
Faber&Faber 2009. Paperback, £7.99
Gerry Conway is a political journalist for the Glasgow Tribune. Divorced with two young sons, he lives in a flat in the city centre and when he isn’t at work he’s in the pub. Aware of the general unease and insecurities of the newspaper industry, he and his colleagues are warily collaborative, eyeing each other up and wondering for how long their jobs will last. Gerry has spent much time during his career cultivating John Lyons, a politician who has risen up the ranks to become Scotland’s Minister for Justice, so he gets plenty of scoops and heads-up of stories, in return for presenting the charming but ambitious Lyons in a good light.
This cosy arrangement looks set to come to an end when a random email and phone call alert Gerry to possible criminal activity in Lyons’s past. Gerry can’t even contemplate the allegations at first, but after following up with a retired man who founded an Ulster Volunteer Force sympathisers’ magazine and group in the early 1980s, he comes to believe that Lyons was a terrorist in Belfast at that time. The pace of the novel flags at this point, as Gerry travels to Belfast to try (vainly, most of the time) to dig into the story, and we learn a lot about the ties between Scotland and Ulster at the time of the troubles, and how life for the Glasgow working class has changed in the intervening 20 years. Stimulated by a bit of a lucky coincidence, the pace picks up tremendously in the last 30 pages of the book; and indeed the concluding few pages are even slightly over-hasty in bringing together some of the many aspects of the plot.
One thing I very much liked about this book was the insider’s view of the newspaper industry and the journalists, in particular some nice vignettes about the subeditors at the start. These aspects become less significant as the book develops, and I found it hard to maintain my interest in the middle third (the Irish section), dominated as it was by men getting drunk in pubs and, occasionally, beating each other up, as well as a long part where Gerry stays at the family home of a colleague.
I don’t want to give away information that will spoil this novel for anyone, so suffice to write that the plot is a standard arc of hubris followed by a fall from grace and the eventual prospect of redemption. Although there were not many surprises in it, the story is well told, in particular Gerry’s interview with someone who appears in the prologue. Some passages of the book are quite sensitively poetic, but don’t really seem to belong to the rest of the book, perhaps because Gerry himself is not a likeable character. He’s extremely well drawn both as a man and as a very recognisable type of journalist, but he does not behave particularly well on many occasions during this story, personally or professionally, in small ways as well as larger ones. So although I admire the author’s creation, observation and writing skills, I could not warm to the character or sympathise with his situation and various predicaments.
Nevertheless, this is a very talented debut novel (the author has previously written a non-fiction book about Burns, and is currently Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand). I was drawn to read this book partly because I like crime novels about journalists, and partly because I very much enjoyed reading Laidlaw, by the author’s father William McIlvanney, many years ago. Despite my criticisms of All the Colours of the Town, I enjoyed the novel overall and can recommend it as a worthwhile read to anyone who enjoys crime fiction.
Read another review of this book at the superb blog Asylum, by John Self (far better than my meagre effort!).
Other reviews of this novel are at: Crime Watch, The Telegraph, The Guardian (Christopher Brookmyre), Living Scotsman, and The Independent. There are lots of other reviews of this book that are easy to find on the internet. You can read an interview of the author by Craig Sisterson at Crime Watch.