Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin.

“Why do we hardly ever notice that?” “Because nobody imagines living here … think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

Alasdair Gray, Lanark

THERE was a thump as it landed on my desk, raising a small cloud from the array of ashtrays but otherwise causing little stir in a loud, frantic newsroom. It was the Glasgow Herald of sometime in 1977 and the executive editor had just delivered another job to a callow sub-editor.

“This is Laidlaw by William McIlvanney,” he said, nodding at the manuscript, “and you are going to edit it for serialisation. Pronto.”

My life in reading has been a series of epiphanies. I read Enid Blyton’s chronicles of lashings of ginger beer in my granny’s room and kitchen in Shettleston. I peeked at Jennings’s adventures and wondered at the sheer incomprehensibility of the lower remove while at primary school in Busby, and I luxuriated in Flashman while I should have been immersed in more conventional tomes for my O grades.

All enhanced and developed my love of reading. Laidlaw’s impact was to be the most profound and enduring. I read a lot: novels, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, the back of sauce bottles. But Laidlaw introduced me into a new world. Curiously, stunningly, it was the world I lived in, right down to the grime of the streets, the brilliance of the humour and propensity of many of its inhabitants to talk out the side of their mouths.

It was a Glasgow novel. I had never read one before. As Aye Write!, the city’s literary festival, gets into its stride this week, it is perhaps worth reflecting that books about Scotland, whether historical or fictional, were hardly lauded in schools, beyond Sir Walter Scott and the wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson. But books about Glasgow? They had to be found. Books about me and the streets where I walked? They did not seem to exist. Jack Laidlaw, troubled and smart, was not only a character I recognised in those around me but he drank in the same pubs, nurtured the same doubts (existential and cigarette), and accepted that humour was both mandatory and almost a contact sport in its capacity to wound.

Laidlaw, then, was devoured in two nights. It remains one of my favourite books. My detective fiction had been a diet of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct procedurals, Jim Thomson’s psychopathic pulp (and I mean that in a good way), or Raymond Chandler’s meditations with Marlowe. Willie McIlvanney had taken a genre and made it speak powerfully in an authentically Glasgow accent. It was as fresh and sharp as a cut lemon. And it was mine.

The subsequent years have witnessed a series of testimonies to the influence of Laidlaw. McIlvanney, who died in 2015, had been christened the Godfather of Tartan Noir. It was a label he shrugged off lightly. Laidlaw, after all, was not a whodunit. The crime and the perpetrator are identified early. It was, rather, a whyhedunnit and a wherehedunnit. “I chose the detective format because it allowed me to say things,” he would say. His priority was not the plot twist or the forensic detail of the crime.

He was concerned with a faltering, fallible but intelligent man and placed him convincingly in a city. Laidlaw’s influence has been powerful. Tartan Noir has become a brand but one that is capable of producing fine novels. Glasgow as a scene continues to be rediscovered, reimagined, but Laidlaw, too, had his forebears.

THE streets were meaner than Scrooge as Tory austerity minister long before they were walked by Jack Laidlaw. There are many possible answers as to what precisely constitutes the Glasgow novel. And even more to the inquiry as to what might be the best. But most agree that it all started with No Mean City in 1935. The story by H Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur is now neglected, even routinely dismissed. Its importance endures, however. The story of the violence and depravity of Glasgow slums was once so powerful it was banned from the city’s libraries.

It can be overwrought in emotion and under-developed in character but it remains an authentic testimony to what Glasgow once was and still can be. It remained, too, the synonym for the Glasgow novel for generations. It was preceded by Catherine Carswell’s novels, but they were largely unnoticed until they were republished in 1987.

Open The Door! – which I only read last month on the strong recommendation of Willy Maley, writer and academic – has a subtlety and poise that makes it a great Glasgow novel, not only in its Edwardian setting but in its then revolutionary notion that a woman should seek her own destiny.

Both novels have themes that remain in the Glasgow novel to this day. There is violence, either graphic or threatened. There is revolution, whether social or in the changing landscape of a city, both physically and culturally. And there are strong women. They can be characters in the novel or the creators of them.

Post-Laidlaw and long after Carswell, women such as Denise Mina, Agnes Owens, Louise Welsh and Anne Donovan continued the Glasgow novel in work linked by originality, energy and wit.

The National: Denise Mina is one of the authors keeping the spirit of the Glasgow novel aliveDenise Mina is one of the authors keeping the spirit of the Glasgow novel alive

Owens is, perhaps, the most intriguing. Not strictly Glaswegian as she was born in Milngavie, it is possible to assert too that her novels and short stories were rather of the West of Scotland variety rather than of the Glesca stamp.

But both her pre-occupations and her prose seem to reek of Glasgow, a city of odd, unpleasant smells in the regular industrial fog, a city of homes where the reek of alcohol on the breath of a man could be the warning of trouble to come.

It was and is a city of tenements and football too. The best writing on these subjects came from Alan Spence in Its Colours They Are Fine and The Magic Flute and in James Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy.

Kelman, though, took the Glesca novel into deeper territory. If Laidlaw walked the walk, Kelman’s characters talked the talk, often to the dismay of critics. Kelman was and is dangerous because he did not conform to what was expected. He wrote in a language that could confuse the outsider but was unapologetically authentic.

His was the Glasgow novel that swaggered in its own certainty about how it should be written while trembling under the insecurity and fears of its characters. There is a confidence allied to a deep disquiet in his books. This combination will be familiar to any Glaswegian.

Kelman’s greatest triumph, however, is not to win the Booker Prize with How Late It Was, How Late, or even to succeed in maintaining an artistic integrity when there is not much call for it nowadays. It is, rather, that a case can be made that his two novels set in the USA – You Have To Be Careful In The Land of Free and Dirt Road – are unmistakeably Glasgow in tone, language and a desire, however daft, to be home.

This home does not have to bristle with the violence depicted by No Mean City or Mina’s Garnethill, or even the exotic perversions of Welsh’s stunning Cutting Room. George Friel’s Glasgow Trilogy of The Boy Who Wanted Peace, Grace And Miss Partridge and Mr Alfred MA certainly have the traditional elements of crime and violence, but are more concerned with universal traits such as the failure of materialism to satisfy, the downgrading of learning and the awful power of ignorance.

However, such is his style and sensibility that one divines they are set in Glasgow before any mention of Parkhead Cross or Dumbarton Road. This suggests that there is something in Glasgow and the Glasgow novel that is constant.

But it is never as simple as that. Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing! is concerned with the birth of a baby while an old city dies under the modern imperative whereby development means destruction. It is a book covered in the stoor from falling tenements. This may be appropriate. Torrington was once asked why so many great writers came from such a relatively small city.

“Gloom,” he replied. “Gloom.”

THERE are two curious aspects to much of the Great Glasgow Novel. First, many have been written by outsiders: H Kingsley Long was a Londoner, Willie McIlvanney was from Kilmarnock, Denise Mina from East Kilbride, Andrew O’Hagan from Irvine.

It is a trait that continues. The best two recent Glasgow novels have been by Liam McIlvanney, from Kilmarnock, like his father, and Alan Parks from Elderslie.

McIlvanney is precise about why he set a novel in Glasgow while having an Ayrshire past and a present as an academic in Otago, New Zealand. He believes it made him more alert about the “things that made Glasgow distinctive”. Parks, too, felt that living on the periphery of Glasgow was “like being on the edge of adult conversation”. He added: “You just picked things up and became intrigued by what you didn’t quite know or understand.”

The second aspect is the modern novel’s compulsion with history. Mina, McIlvanney junior and Parks all write of a past Glasgow. Mina’s spare, sharp The Long Drop is a retelling of the Peter Manuel case of the late 50s with a denouement in the High Court. McIlvanney’s The Quaker holds intentional similarities to the Bible John murders of the 1960s and Parks’s Bloody January tells of a slew of killings in the city in 1973.

All bring a dead city alive. It is the diabolical alchemy of the best of novelists. McIlvanney and Parks both talk of deep research into a city and time they barely knew. This focus, this authenticity, gives the stories a fascinating hinterland. It is one of lost values, both good and bad.

The National: The late William McIlvanneyThe late William McIlvanney

Indeed, Parks once wanted to write a history of Glasgow, though he believed he did not have the skills. He does, though, have the facility of describing a city through a novel which, like Laidlaw, is a “whydunnit”. Like Laidlaw, the crime and its perpetrator are disclosed in the first pages. Like its illustrious predecessor, Bloody January is preoccupied by motives, drives, desires and doubt.

It is, though, not purely a human story. There is always something beyond the person, something for the man or woman to stand in, look at, touch, drink or smell. With Mina, McIlvanney and Parks, the peculiar aroma of the city, the noise, its pubs, clubs and concert halls, are all evoked to suggest a special place where extraordinary events take place. Many of these are awful, some are gently inspiring, casting a shaft of light into that gloom.

Interestingly, too, they all look to the past. It is as if Glasgow is shrinking, its intrigue diminishing as the population flees to the suburbs or hunkers in the schemes. Is Glasgow now too small to carry a novel? Of course not. A novel of a Glasgow without The Arches but with dodgy tranquillisers, open-top tourist buses, zero-hours contracts, political instability and the disenfranchisement of the young may be in the writing now.

But as we wait, Glasgow’s history holds us tight. As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It is a lament of Long Island and of the American dream rather than a song of the Clyde and bruises and blows inflicted on no mean city. But there are worse fates than drifting into the past. Glasgow has suffered most of them and survived. The truth of that is in the novels.