(27. – 957.) The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney – A serial killer has raped and killed three women during the winter of 1969 in Glasgow. The papers have dubbed him “The Quaker” because he quotes the Bible on sin, especially sinful women.
There is a distinctly uncomfortable opening to the book. The first victim, Jacquilyn Keevins, recounts the events leading up to her murder and how she was attacked and how she hovers about her family, a ghostly presence of which they are unaware.
The murders have taken place amidst the devastation of urban renewal in Glasgow. Streets are lined with condemned buildings, many still containing a few residents determined to stay until the wreckers arrive at their door. A self-inflicted war zone has been created for the Quaker.
The police have a decent description of the Quaker:
…. A well-dressed modern man with his short fair hair and his neat raincoat, his gallantry and his hair trigger temper. Good manners. Nice diction …. Brown chalkstripe suit, regimental tie. Thick watchstrap. Embassy Filter. Overlapping two front teeth. Suede boots.
And still he has eluded the police.
DI Duncan McCormack is assigned from the Flying Squad to the team of officers still pursuing the investigation. They vigorously resent his presence. They rightly believe he has been designated to review their efforts and provide a report that will justify the dismantling of the team and the unofficial end of the investigation. They will be known as failures.
McCormack was born and grew up in the Highlands. His father died young from the corrosive effects of working in the furnace room of an aluminum plant:
You couldn’t see a yard in front of your face, the air soupy with dust and fumes, and a noise like Hades.
McCormack has asthma he controls with a puffer.
He is burdened with personal secrets.
Above all he is a dedicated thoughtful police officer. He does not blunder about using brute force to extract information.
McCormack sees past the anger of the Quaker team. They are saturated with frustration:
Fifteen months of work. A hundred cops in teams of twelve working fourteen hour days. They’d taken 50,000 statements. They’d interviewed 5,000 suspects, visited 700 dentists, 450 hairdressers, 240 tailors. Scores of churches and golf clubs. How many man hours did it come to – a million? Two? How could all these numbers add up to zero?
So many fair haired men have been suspected, informed upon and viewed by the sister of a murder victim who saw the Quaker that cards have been issued by the police to men cleared so they do not continue to be harassed.
While McCormack conducts his review safecracker, Alan Paton, is contacted to come back to Glasgow from London to join a team planning to rob an auction house of jewels. Initially reluctant he decides to participate. The return will be large and the risk is mangeable.
How McIlvanney connects the commercial robbery with the serial killer investigation reflects his skill as a writer.
And then a fourth murder turns all the analysis, too often assumptions, into turmoil. The investigation must begin anew.
McCormack is a sleuth to remember. His tenacity and intelligence ensure a thorough investigation. He has the rare ability to tackle a problem he has failed to solve by reflecting and taking a new approach. Human nature normally leads us to repeatedly tackle a problem in the same way thinking we must have missed an approach to solution in our first or second or continued attempts.
The plot was clever. There was a twist involving the actions of a suspect that was brilliant but to describe would be a huge spoiler.
The Quaker is one of the best works of crime fiction I have read in 2018. I want to read more of McIlvanney. His book, Where the Dead Men Go, was the winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel in 2014. I expect The Quaker to be on the shorlist for the 2019 Awards.
(I had not planned to read back to back books by New Zealand writers. I read Marlborough Man knowing I had a specific date on this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour for my review. I recently received a copy of The Quaker from the Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. I appreciate them providing me with the book. It was still on my desk waiting to go on the TBR pile when I finished Marlborough Man so I picked up The Quaker and could not put it down. I found my reading accelerating a pace with McCormack’s investigation.)