Pick at the threads of All the Colours of the Town and it is possible to reduce it to the familiar story of a hard-boiled unhappy hero - a newspaper Rebus – who risks his job and life in pursuit of corrupt authority. But Liam McIlvanney brings a freshness and energy to his story by weaving it into a tapestry of life in Loyalist Belfast and Glasgow, as stark and vivid as a gable-end mural.
Glasgow journalist Gerry Conway receives a call promising him dirt on the Scottish Justice Minister Peter Lyons. At first he is reluctant to listen because Lyons is one of his best sources, First Minister in waiting and "George Best" in a "parliament full of cloggers". But his interest is kindled by an old photograph of the minister with an illegal Loyalist paramilitary group. His editor is keen to pursue the story because sectarianism is "better than sex" for circulation in the West of Scotland.
It is a difficult assignment for a journalist with raw memories of growing up in a city where the name Gerry and a Celtic scarf were enough to identify him as "a Pape". Glasgow is not the city it was but the Orange Order still march and there are still diehard Loyalists who condemn "Home Rule" as "Rome Rule". There are also old bonds forged when guns and explosives were taken across the water in Ulster's cause.
This connection takes Conway to Belfast in search of Lyons's past. For all its swanky new bars and shopping centres, old paramilitary loyalties die hard. It is still a dangerous place to ask questions no one wants to answer.
This is a remarkable debut. The prose crackles with the sort of neat descriptions Chandler would have been happy to copyright. A girl hears "laughter in little sips" as a door opens and shuts; shoppers wear "the plaintive gaze of martyred saints in Renaissance paintings"; a phone jiggles on a tablecloth "like a beetle trying to right itself". It is McIlvanney's fine eye for the detail that creates a strong sense of time and place that makes this more than a cut above the average thriller.
Conway changes his green jacket for a blue one, as this reviewer once did before an Orange March in Belfast. Yet nothing is simple and even as a "taige" he feels the emotional pull of "the walk" that marks Protestant ascendancy.
Andrew Williams's novel 'The Interrogator' is published by John Murray