Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney: A review

I was a bit confused for the early part of this book. I couldn't decide if it was going to be a serial killer murder mystery or a heist caper. Turns out it was both and the author, whom I had not read before, skillfully wove the two stories together. In the end, everything was interconnected.

Liam McIlvanney's novel is set in Glasgow in 1969 during a brutal winter. Not only is the city having to deal with the beastly weather, it is also going through a phase of urban renewal which has devastated much of the city and left blocks of old tenements empty before their demolition. It is in these derelict tenements that over a period of months the bodies of three raped and murdered young women are found. 

The detectives at the Marine Police Station investigate the crimes. The killer is dubbed "The Quaker" based on a perception of his religiosity and those assigned to the investigation are the "Quaker Squad". (It should be noted that the novel is loosely based on the Bible John killings in the Glasgow of that period.)

The Quaker is very adept at leaving no clues behind at the scene of his atrocities and the Quaker Squad is making no progress in discovering his identity. The press, which was initially laudatory in praise of police efforts, begins to turn against them and complain that the murderer is still at large and no closer to being caught.

Enter Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack of the flying squad who is sent to Glasgow to assess the investigation, determine why there has been no progress, and find a way to quietly phase down the operation. You can imagine how popular that makes him with the investigators who have been working overtime for months to catch the killer.  

McCormack himself has secrets of his own which make him vulnerable and he is bullied by his fellow policemen. He is the classic lone-wolf detective of noir mysteries, obsessive, brilliant, and utterly committed to fulfilling the task assigned to him. As events unfold, he also becomes obsessed with finding the Quaker.

Meantime, in a sub-plot, a daring burglary is being planned and executed. The gang of thieves makes away with a fortune in jewels. One of their number, the peterman (safecracker), chooses to hole up in a derelict tenement until the heat is off and it is safe for him to get out of town. Unfortunately, the tenement he selects is where another murder victim is found and he is seen by a witness leaving the building and the witness identifies him to the police. It is just the break they've been waiting for! They've found the Quaker!

Except of course they haven't. He isn't a murderer, only the thief. McCormack is not convinced. He knows the man's record as a non-violent petty thief. The justice system grinds on with the suspect in custody, but McCormack keeps digging.

There were several things that I really liked about this book. First among them was the atmosphere of Glasgow in the 1960s. The descriptions were so vivid, I felt like I was there. Secondly, the author respected the victims of the killer. He gave them their own backstories told in their voices. We know them as human beings, not sexualized objects. Also, the character of DI McCormack; he's a complicated man, a closeted gay man who would be vilified if he were open about his own sexuality. I understand that this was the first in a planned series featuring this character. I would say that McIlvanney has made a strong beginning.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

14 comments:

  1. Sounds good. Mixing of different genres can yield good results. I think that it can lead to creative results. Based on your description, many other things sound appealing about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought McIlvanney did a creditable job of combining the disparate elements of his story and bringing it all together.

      Delete
  2. Great review!! I like your detail of The Quaker as it makes me now want to read it. :-) The last paragraph was wonderful as I enjoyed reading about what you enjoyed most about The Quaker.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, CR. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Delete
  3. Wonderful review! I like when authors blend genres if they do it well, it's just amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am incredibly interested in this one, thank you for such a thoughtful review. I am so completely in love with Scotland that my daughter's middle name is Edin (pronounced Eden) for Edinburgh, and Scotland was almost her middle name itself. I will be looking for this one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I share your love of Scotland and Scotland settings in books. It was one of the things that recommended this book to me.

      Delete
  5. It's so nice to read that the victims have some background around them. Sometimes in books people "just" get killed in the first chapter they appear in and that can feel pretty disrespectful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly. I thought the author did a good job of making these women real people, people we could empathize with.

      Delete
  6. I had not heard of this one but I like the sounds of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had not heard of it until I happened upon a snippet of a review in the Times and was intrigued. I'm glad I found it.

      Delete
  7. Your reviews are quite wonderful, Dorothy, articulate and well-reasoned. Anyone with an interest in the author or the book is well served by reading your comments.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a very generous assessment of my reviews. Thank you.

      Delete