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