The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

The Quaker is simply one of the best crime novels I’ve read for a long time. I devoured it.

Unusually the book begins several months after a series of murders has already taken place. Glasgow of the late sixties is in a state of flux. Families are being moved out of the slum tenements that are being pulled down; relocated to the new build flats further outside the centre of the city. And amidst this, three women have been murdered by a man that the press has dubbed The Quaker. There’s no link between the three victims or commonality, beyond them having been dancing at the Barrowlands dance hall.

Despite feverish press coverage, and an artist’s impression being on posters across the city, the investigation has dried up and the police have no new leads. And so, we’re introduced to DI Duncan McCormack, something of an outsider who comes from the Highlands, who is really there to see whether the case should be shut down after months of getting nowhere. It’s a no-win situation. The team on the case know why he’s there.

Elsewhere in Glasgow, a group of career criminals are planning the robbery of one of the city’s auction houses, where some valuable jewels will be going under the hammer. All of this in a city of gangsters that run or take cuts of most of the criminal activities that take place.

All of these stories will somehow collide in what is a masterful piece of fiction.

The sense of place in this book is fantastic: smokey pubs, phone boxes and lots of whisky. There’s sectarianism bobbing around just below the surface, and a smattering of Gaelic. This is seedy Glasgow through a noir lens.

Unusually, we get a first-person perspective from each of the murder victims. Author Liam McIlvanney (son of the famed Scottish crime writer William McIvanney and nephew of the late sports writer Hugh McIlvanney) says that he used this device to try to work around the problem that many crime novels have, of female victims being avenged by male detectives. Of course, all the detectives in Glasgow at the time would have been male, so there’s no getting around that. I think this was a smart decision.

The novel is, of course, based on the true-life murderer Bible John. I say “of course,” but in fact I didn’t really know the details of that case until I read about it afterwards – only vaguely recalling the name. I came into the novel cold, and while those who do know the details of that case will no doubt get a lot from it, it’s absolutely unnecessary to be acquainted with those horrible true events.

The book does veer away from the true-story and reaches a bracing conclusion.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins for my ARC. The Quaker is out now in hardback, with the paperback published on 1 February 2019.