Friday, June 22, 2018


THE QUAKER by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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

Fifty years ago, an unknown killer terrorized Glasgow. His clean-cut visage, an artist’s impression from witness statements, stared from newspaper front pages. ‘Bible John’ butchered three women after they'd enjoyed nights out at a local dance hall, and left the police chasing smoke.

He was never caught.

Literary professor and award-winning novelist Liam McIlvanney explores the effect of those killings on his home city in THE QUAKER, a novel with strong echoes of Glasgow’s real past. He shows a deft touch for character and setting throughout this absorbing, atmospheric read which uses a lightly fictionalised version of the Bible John killings as a launch-pad for a textured, nuanced novel.

DI Duncan McCormack is the man tasked with sorting out the long-stalled investigation into the murders of three women. He’s parachuted into the ‘Quaker’ investigation after recent success in the elite Flying Squad, with instructions to work out what’s gone wrong and why the Quaker hasn’t been caught. It’s a test for the fast-rising copper from the Highlands, and a poisoned chalice. His new colleagues are tired, frustrated, and dislike him on sight, the bosses are demanding certain outcomes for political purposes, and throughout it all he’s harbouring dangerous secrets of his own. A sense of dread still hovers over the city, even as months have passed since the last killing. Could it be over?

McIlvanney has created a really interesting main character in McCormack, but this novel is about much more than a singular detective trying to track an elusive serial killer, while dealing with internal politics and outside pressures. It's a superb tale with a vivid sense of time and place. 1960s Glasgow was a different era, but McIlvanney also brings some modern sensibilities, perhaps, by giving the female victims a strong voice, rather than merely being inert props for the male cops and criminals.

THE QUAKER is an evocative slice of the past that’s populated with an array of intriguing characters, tough issues, and some nuanced interplay between them. McIlvanney may call himself a 'slow motion crime writer', but he certainly ensures his books are well worth the wait.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

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