The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

The Blurb On The Back:

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 … 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1969 in Glasgow.  DI Duncan McCormack works in Glasgow’s Flying Squad, a thief taker who’s just secured a big conviction for one of John McGlashan’s lieutenants and now intends to move in on the big man himself, putting an end to one of Glasgow’s self-appointed crime lords.  But McCormack’s boss, DCI Flett, has other ideas.  For the last 18 months the city has been haunted by a killer nicknamed The Quaker who’s raped and murdered three women, leaving their bodies in the back streets of Glasgow’s derelict tenement blocks.  The murder investigation has stalled and the newspapers are baying for blood.  McCormack is to join the murder squad and review what they’ve done but everyone knows he’s really there to shut the unit down for good and that means no one on the squad is predisposed to help him.

McCormack sets about his task reluctantly but doggedly, reviewing the extensive case files and witness statements, cataloguing what’s been done and where the investigation has gone wrong.  And then the Quaker strikes again and McCormack has a chance to help the squad make a fresh start, but McCormack has secrets of his own and as the investigation takes him back to Glasgow’s criminal underworld, he finds himself set on a path that will change his life forever …

Liam McIlvanney’s historical crime thriller novel (inspired by the real life unsolved Bible John case) is a slow-burn read that’s rich in period and geographical detail and evocative of the criminal underworld while having an interesting main detective who I would be interested to read more of, but I felt that the antagonist was under-developed in a way that left me with more questions than answers, specifically regarding their motivation.

McCormack is an interesting detective – very much a thinking man driven to do the right thing but who is forced to hide his sexuality from his fellow officers as homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland during this period (a scene where he witnesses officers humiliate a man arrested for gay solicitation is particularly well done).  However, I have to say that I was disappointed that so much of his detection is essentially having a sudden flash of inspiration or sitting and thinking about clues until the next step suddenly occurs to him as it had a bit of a deux ex machina element to it at times – particularly a series of clues relating to Scotland’s history.  His relationship with DS Derek Goldie has a bit of a run-of-the-mill enemies to grudging admiration vibe and I would have enjoyed seeing the eventual friendship develop more on the page than off it.  I did enjoy the mentor/mentee relationship he has with ex policeman Greg Hislop (a soldier from World War II with a fierce legend attached to his name) and again, would have liked to see more of that on the page, especially given the way it shapes the ending.

The crime element itself is clearly inspired by the unsolved Bible John case and I thought that McIlvanney does a good job of weaving together the various plot lines – bringing in a side plot involving a theft on an auction house on the way – and keeping Glasgow’s criminal underworld right in the background so that the reader is always aware of who really runs the city and what that involves.  Also good is the way that McIlvanney incorporates the real life destruction of the tenements during this period and the way people were being moved to new communities on the outskirts of the city (a fact that has a particular poignancy given that so many of those former council blocks have since been demolished in turn) and I thought he recreates the shattered tenement communities in a vivid and evocative way, notably in scenes where Paton (a safecracker) watches children playing through the shattered backstreets.  McIlvanney also makes the interesting – and welcome – choice of allowing the victims a chapter each to voice their own experiences, a decision that gives the book an emotional context and helps it rise above your normal serial killer read.

That said, although I enjoyed the conspiracy elements of the book, I was a little disappointed in the reveal of the killer. This was specifically because I just didn’t understand the motivation behind it given the killer’s position and role and the implication is that they do it simply because they can and know they can get away with it and although I don’t doubt the realism behind that, it still didn’t completely satisfy me.

That said, the book ends with an interesting set-up and although I don’t know if McIlvanney plans to continue with McCormack as a character, I would definitely be interested in reading a sequel if he writes one and in the meantime I will be checking out his other work.

THE QUAKER was released in the United Kingdom on 28th June 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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