Liam McIlvanney – The Quaker
Published by HarperCollins, paperback £8.99. I bought this book new, in hardback.
I first read The Quaker not long after it came out in 2018, around the time I read The Long Drop by Denise Mina, and I wasn’t the only one who thought they were a complementary pair of novels as they did a panel together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that summer, which was fascinating. The authors take different approaches to their true crime starting points (The Quaker uses the Bible John killings of three young women in 1968-9, The Long Drop focuses on Peter Manuel, who murdered seven people between 1956-8; both took place in and around Glasgow), but both have created exemplary works and have the awards on the mantelpiece to prove it (The Quaker took home Bloody Scotland’s McIlvanney Prize – named for Liam’s father, writer William McIlvanney, in 2018).
The Bible John killings terrorised the city of Glasgow and frustrated its police officers. Half a century on, they still raise a frisson of fear, for he was never identified, never caught – the killings just stopped. Plenty of theories about who and why were floated at the time and have been since; his nickname and the police photofit used on posters are ingrained in the city’s history and have become a legend known to successive generations. As with most serial killers, though, the victims are mostly forgotten. And this disparity has obviously touched something in Liam McIlvanney, for in his fictional take on events, he gives the women a voice. Their stories, in first person, are interspersed between the portraits of a terrified city and detectives chasing the culprit, and suddenly they are no longer victims, they are women with families, jobs, hopes and dreams, favourite dresses and quirky habits.
Our way in to the investigation is Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack, on secondment from the Flying Squad to review the case – and shut it down, for it has cost thousands of man hours without yielding anything resembling a result. He’s a Highlander too, a Gaelic-speaking shinty player, so twice over an outsider and resented, for all that he has worked with the team since the first murder. And he has secrets of his own…
Elsewhere, former Glasgow resident Alex Paton is arriving back in the city after a spell in London, to meet an old friend – Stephen Dalziel, aka Dazzle – for a job that needs “particular skills”. And there’s John McGlashan, chief gangster of the city, who remains unseen for much of the novel but casts a huge and dangerous shadow throughout. McCormack’s Flying Squad team recently put away one of his lieutenants, but Dazzle and his gang still have to pay McGlashan a slice of their takings from the robbery. And it all takes place against the backdrop of the demolition of swathes of tenements and the building of new estates and schemes on the edge of the city, and a new motorway through the centre of the city.
The early part of the book plays fast and loose with the timeline, so while the “now” is the reinvestigation, several months after the third murder, we also see glimpses of McCormack’s background and the murders both as they happen and as they are first investigated. Half-way through, The Quaker and the robbery are brought together. Seven months after the third victim was found, is this his fourth? And is this man spotted leaving the place where the body was found the killer the cops have been searching for all this time? McCormack is not so sure it’s all cut and dried.
I remember the first time I read Laidlaw – the first in a Glasgow-set trilogy by Liam’s father, William McIlvanney, published in 1977 – I was struck by how modern and fresh the style was; unfussy and clear, a trait also seen in Ted Lewis’s Get Carter and Plender. You can turn a lot of pages between reminders of when the books were written, and Liam McIlvanney has created a similar feel here – there’s mention of bus routes, an occasional song, McCormack ducking into a phonebox to contact the office, but otherwise there’s little other than plot and character. Too many writers, having done the research, then slap it all over the pages; to me the trick to good historical fiction, especially of recent history, is to give the impression it is contemporary.
The style is quiet, measured, thoughtful, just like McCormack himself. He is also dogged and determined to solve the case, which gives the novel most of its tension and pace, though there is a little fast-paced action dropped in here and there. But this isn’t a book to tear through to find out whodunnit, it’s a book to savour for its unhurried move from questions to answers, and above all for the character of McCormack, as in this cop McIlvanney has created a fascinating combination of straight-talking and secretive; the outsider who knows the inside better than the insiders do. (I’m delighted that there is a sequel to The Quaker in the works – The Heretic is scheduled for publication early in 2022.)
When the last pieces finally slot into place, it’s a bombshell moment with far more impact than you would think possible from a few pages of McCormack worrying at the problem – and then there’s more, and real danger with it too. Connections and corruption are at the heart of the matter, but connections also work in McCormack’s favour, and amid the corruption, justice – and police-and-prison justice at that, not wild vengeance – is done. It’s almost old-fashioned for a police procedural to end with the bad guys behind bars, but it’s fitting for this beautifully crafted period piece that evokes a Glasgow long gone so well you can smell the stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer of the Barrowland the morning after as if you were standing there.
Laidlaw was a March 2021 pick for the Bloody Scotland book club – catch up with the panel discussion on the festival’s YouTube channel (including a reading from William McIlvanney). You can join the club on Facebook – you can read along, chat with other members and watch a live book group-style discussion each month.