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by Liam MacIlvanney
Europa Editions, September 2019
400 pages
ISBN: 1609455408

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Someone casually browsing the cover descriptions in the crime fiction section might be excused for shrugging off THE QUAKER on the grounds of familiarity. Let's see: Glasgow, terrible weather; check. Police procedural, check. Serial killer with a religious obsession, like the real Bible John; check. Young detective on the odds with the rest of squad; check. Detective with a secret; check. It all seems so familiar ....

If however the browser were tempted by the praise for the book that also appears on the cover and takes a chance on it, he or she will be amply rewarded. THE QUAKER, while it does not overturn the conventions of the UK police novel, still explores them to their fullest. McIlvanney writes exceptionally well. Glasgow in 1969 is richly evoked without ever resorting to nostalgic references to brand names or current events. No newspaper headlines to remind of when this is - just a description of how one exited a railway carriage or how quickly half the passengers on a airplane lit up when the No Smoking sign went off. Nor is this one more attempt to solve the Bible John affair. Though many of the factual details are present, this is a fiction and it goes its own way.

Over the last year, Glasgow has witnessed three unsolved murders. All were young women, all strangled and left to be found in areas left derelict by an ambitious slum-clearance project. All had been dancing at a particular club (the Barrowland Ballroom). All (and this was not reported in the press) had their periods when they were killed. A police sketch of a possible suspect is so generic that numbers of men have had to be provided with a card certifying that the bearer is not the Quaker, the name given to the presumed killer as a man who appears repelled by sexual licentiousness. The newspapers were full of it but as time passed and no one was caught, the police assigned to the Quaker case found themselves the object of some ridicule, especially as the Quaker seems to have quit his activities. It's been six months since the last victim was found.

DI Duncan McCormack has been assigned to bring the case to a quiet close. The Quaker is either dead, in jail for something else, or has left town. McCormack is to review the case, make recommendations, learn lessons, and close it down before it costs any more money and time. It's an assignment that makes neither McCormack nor anyone else particularly happy. McCormack really wants to pursue a crime boss he's been after and the squad resents an outsider looking over their work and marking it deficient.

But once he gets his teeth into the case, McCormack becomes obsessed with finding the Quaker. The squad has never quite given up on it, and some of them at least do their best to reexamine what clues there are in the hopes of finding something overlooked. McCormack gradually develops a civil relationship with a member of the squad and the two of them, with the help of other cops, continue a dogged reconsideration of the evidence. Despite false trails, misdirection, and incorrect surmise, they finally get there in the end.

What is striking about how it all unfolds is the utter tidiness of McIlvanney's plotting. Although the reader may possibly discern the final direction of the inquiry, most will be surprised at the economy with which all the random details are at last revealed to be integral to the whole. A vogue word this year is "immersive," and, much as I dislike its overuse, THE QUAKER is certainly that.

The book first appeared last year and won that year's McIlvanney Prize for best Scottish crime book. The prize was named for the late William MacIlvanney, Liam's father, who I am certain would have been delighted with the choice.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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