Book review: The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney

Most Scottish readers will immediately identify the inspiration behind Liam McIlvanney's new novel. In Glasgow, in 1969, women are being killed by a man with a penchant for Biblical quotation and, it seems, an obsession with menstruation. But instead of being a retread of the ghastly and unsolved Bible John case, the book also morphs into a far more elaborate study of Glasgow in that period. In many ways its closest cousin would be Denise Mina's The Long Drop, which similarly took real crimes and looked at hidden causes '“ indeed serial killer Peter Manuel, the subject of that novel, appears offstage during McIlvanney's novel.

Liam McIlvanney PIC: Sharron Bennett/REX/Shutterstock
Liam McIlvanney PIC: Sharron Bennett/REX/Shutterstock

There is more than one perspective on the crimes. On one hand, traditionally, we have the copper, DI McCormack. He’s bright, he’s intuitive and he’s been dropped into the investigation to find out why, 15 months on, there seems to have been little or no progress towards a solution. This does not endear him to his colleagues, but nor does the fact that he is a Catholic Highlander from Ballachulish, in a city where most of his co-workers are Protestant Lowlanders. McCormack has a job to do – shut down an enquiry going nowhere – but as he gets involved he becomes obsessed with a different role that the moral policeman must play; to find the actual killer. Given there are red herrings strewn around like the novel was a fish market, this propels the narrative with vigour.

The other perspective comes from the other side of the tracks. After a successful jewellery heist at an auctioneer’s, one of the principal figures in the raid becomes embroiled in the case of “The Quaker”, our substitute for Bible John. So as much as the police are looking for the dangerous villain, other villains are seeking out the predator. It becomes a double-detective story, in the fine tradition of Stevenson, Barrie and Buchan. Although I sort of solved the mystery two-thirds of the way through, McIlvanney introduces a very ingenious set of twists. The two narratives are intertwined as McCormack is a thief-taker, not a murder detective, so when the coincidence of murder and safe-cracking comes about, in a properly Scottish paranoid way, he wonders if there might be a connection between the crimes. Is everything in some way, or in someone, connected?

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The other major character is the city of Glasgow itself. In a period when high-rise towers were going up, New Towns were being created and tenements were being demolished there is a palpable, viscous sense of dereliction about the novel. People leap over middens and hide away in abandoned flats; at one point a character feels almost nostalgic about seeing a dead rat. This atmosphere of profound change links into the novel’s political concerns. When the city is in flux, who can get away with what, and where, and why?

This is almost a Chandler-esque style of storytelling. At one point a possible witness is described as having “reached that stage of drunkenness where she had decided she was forcefully and mysteriously alluring”. Or there are “little rosettes of mud”, or a “banknote-thin fillet of breaded fish”. It never seems like striving for effect, however. These flashes across the story cannot, in some ways, come from the characters, but seem perfectly adept of the narrator.

The best part of The Quaker is its clever toying with one of the fundamentals of serial crime stories. McCormack is constantly drawn to the idea that with sufficient thinking some kind of pattern of motivations might emerge from the killings. This is not wholly like a novel, such as Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, where the desire to manufacture meaning becomes a kind of apophenia, the psychological condition where connections are seen where no connections exist. McIlvanney does give us connections between the various narratives, but they are occluded in a clever manner. What does blaze through is an anger at how power – whether at the level of the gang boss or the police high heid yin or the council employee – can be utterly toxic, and how it will always target the weak and the vulnerable.

It would be sad if this book were not just the debut of McCormack, but his retirement. He is a character who has legs. He is sufficiently complicated, empathetic and tough – and foul-mouthed when he needs to be – to deserve another outing. McIlvanney easily joins the likes of Rankin, McDermid and Mina in using the crime novel as primarily a way to think through the levels of society and the manner in which “as above, so below”.

Who is The Quaker? Although the novel has it as the moniker of the murderer haunting Glasgow, there is a lot of quaking going on in this book; a pervasive sense of guilt like an East Coast haar. I can’t commend it highly enough.

The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney, HarperCollins, £12.99