The Quaker, Liam McIlvanney

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

The problem with books like THE QUAKER is that Liam McIlvanney calls himself a 'slow motion writer' so his books are rare little gems, dropped into your reading list like pearls. To be savoured, unless desperation takes over, and like me, you move the first two Gerry Conway books (ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN and WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO) into the re-read pile, on the strength of just how good THE QUAKER was.

In Glasgow in the late 1960's there was a real life serial killer - 'Bible John' who killed three women and then disappeared ( In my mind, there have been a few Scottish noir novelists who have incorporated Bible John aspects into their novels, with THE QUAKER joining those ranks, although each of them approaches this in a different matter. McIlvanney, won the best Scottish crime novel prize in 2018 (the prize now re-named in honour his late novelist father, William McIlvanney), for THE QUAKER, and at the time he was quoted in the Guardian (…) as saying:

...had previously told the Herald Scotland that while he started out writing a “true-life novel” about the Bible John murders, he quickly changed his mind.

"Part of what gave me pause was dubiety over writing about something that was still a source of hurt to people, the relatives of the victims. But following the facts of the story with utter faithfulness constrained what I wanted to do. As a writer your duty is to the story rather than the facts as they happened,” he said, in July. “So I thought it was easier if I based it loosely on the Bible John story, then fictionalised it. It gives you leeway to take care of the trajectory of the story.”

It's not hard to understand the fascination with this story - unresolved serial killer lines of enquiry dwell in people's minds. Using the true facts as a springboard, never resorting to sensationalism or anything that could cause pain to relatives or those involved in the true case, what McIlvanney has done is create a story that is steeped in the time in which it is set, centred around an interesting and very real young detective, adding a more modern touch by giving a voice to the victims, personalising them in a way that was most unexpected.

Of course, DI Duncan McCormack, pulled into the 'Quaker' investigation after recent success elsewhere is set up to be the quintessential outsider. Not from the area, it's through his eyes that you get glimpses of the city of the 1960's, one that's almost physically twitching as the wait for the killer to strike again drags out. He's resented by the squad he's parachuted into, he's under pressure from bosses desperate for resolution, and he's dealing with plenty of stuff in his own head, in his own life to boot. His lone wolf type standing is nicely pitched against those internal battles, and the victims, and the place and the overall effect that a random killer has in a town that probably isn't any stranger to violence - but violence explained and not explained are two very different beasts.

All of which left me hoping that McCormack's coming back, and McIlvanney is mulling his next case, and that maybe, just maybe the third Gerry Conway book is loitering somewhere on the fringes as well.

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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

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