Source: Review copy
Publication: June 28th 2018 from Harper Collins
A city torn apart.
Glasgow, 1969. In the grip of the worst winter for years, the city is brought to its knees by a killer whose name fills the streets with fear: the Quaker. He takes his next victim – the third woman from the same nightclub – and dumps her in the street like rubbish.
A detective with everything to prove.
The police are left chasing a ghost, with no new leads and no hope of catching their prey. DI McCormack, a talented young detective from the Highlands, is ordered to join the investigation. But his arrival is met with anger from a group of officers on the brink of despair. Soon he learns just how difficult life can be for an outsider.
A killer who hunts in the shadows.
When another woman is found murdered in a tenement flat, it’s clear the case is by no means over. From ruined backstreets to the dark heart of Glasgow, McCormack follows a trail of secrets that will change the city – and his life – forever…
When you start to read The Quaker, it is so easy to believe you are reading about the infamous and never caught serial killer, dubbed ‘Bible John’ by the media. Were it not for the fact that the names of the victims have been changed, everything else feels so very like that time in 1969 when Glasgow was selling the dream of new housing conurbations in idyllic sounding places like Easterhouse and Castlemilk. When the notion of moving from your red sandstone tenement with a cludgie on the stairheid to a place with an inside lavvy was the biggest dream many folk had.
But this is no fact into fiction rehash. Loosely based on the murders of the real – and never caught – serial killer “Bible John”, who is believed to have raped and strangled three women after meeting them in the city’s Barrowland Ballroom, quoting passages from the bible to them as he danced with them. This novel goes much deeper into the fictional realm to create a classy and atmospheric novel that is redolent with the fear that gripped Glasgow during that time, when newspapers could sell thousands of copies by putting a murderer on Page 1.
Many theories abound to this day about the existence of Bible John (or not) but McIlvanney isn’t chasing that story; rather he has created a distinctive and beautifully written fiction from the genesis of the facts.
DI Duncan McCormack, a gently spoken Highlander and shinty player, stands slightly apart from his colleagues. He is brought in from the flying squad by the bosses who are fed up with being pilloried in the press for failing to catch the killer. McCormick has a great track record in catching villains, but he’s not welcomed into the arms of Glasgow C.I.D. who have spent well over a year of their lives trying and failing to identify their man. Thousands of witnesses have been interviewed; the cops have even taken to mingling with the young mean and women in the Barrowlands Ballroom in the hopes of spotting the predator, but to no avail. They have no leads and identified no pattern.
These cops resent McCormack, rightly believing that his review will be about identifying their failures as a prelude to shutting down their investigation.
McCormack himself isn’t wholly delighted at his task. He wants to continue his previous task of putting away the henchmen of notorious Glasgow gangster John McGlashan through identifying and jailing his lieutenants.
Meanwhile, known ‘peterman’ Alex Paton, has come up from London to take part in the robbery of an auction house and these two stories run in parallel as the novel progresses.
Two things are striking about this book. The figure of D.I. Duncan McCormick, always an outsider, at odds with pretty much everyone at one point or another, is an intriguing figure for a detective. There is sufficient in his persona to create a character at odds with his time and yet as dogged and determined as it gets and with a quiet intelligence and analytical mind that can seek out patterns where others have failed.
The other is that whilst this is a dark, chilling and sometimes very gritty book that does not hesitate to dwell on the particularly unsavoury aspects of these murders, the women are not mere female cypher victims. McIlvanney gives each of them their own voice, so that we see them as individuals, with hopes, dreams and fears, not simply victims and this makes their deaths all the more tragic.
With rich characterisation and once into the story, a strong pace, McIlvanney’s rich prose takes us on a journey through Glasgow’s deprived working class areas and out into the contrasting nearby Loch Lomond countryside, considering along the way the pervasive sectarian divide, the prejudices of the time and the all too prevalent freemasonry of the police force. With a clear and multi-layered plot and dialogue that is sharp and often quite lyrical, McIlvanney weaves a strong story into a propulsive powerhouse of a book.
I’d be keen to read more of his protagonist, too.
Verdict: Atmospheric, authentic, and compelling, this is a powerful and expressive addition to the ‘tartan noir’ canon.
About Liam McIlvanney
Liam McIlvanney was born in Scotland and studied at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. He has written for numerous publications, including the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. His debut, Burns the Radical, won the Saltire First Book Award, and his most recent book, Where the Dead Men Go, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. He is Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He lives in Dunedin with his wife and four sons. The Quaker has been longlisted for Bloody Scotland’s 2018 Crime novel of the year.
Follow Liam on Twitter @LiamMcIlvanney