Noirthern Favourites: The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney
The Quaker is a truly gripping crime novel by Liam McIlvanney, an academic in Scottish Studies based in New Zealand. Son of the famous William McIlvanney (father of ‘Tartan Noir’), the younger McIlvanney sets this, his third novel, on the rough, murky streets of late 1960s Glasgow.
It follows DI McCormack in his pursuit of a serial killer, dubbed 'The Quaker' by the media on account of his moralistic, judgemental comments about women of 'loose morals' (as reported by his one surviving witness). I had serious reservations about this – as a Quaker myself, I’m not confident this label – even when used as a popular stereotype – has ever been the go-to shorthand for misogynistic piety. Within sectarian Scotland, I can’t imagine there wouldn’t have been more apt colloquialisms within the common parlance of the time.
However, don’t let this put you off - it’s one of the best Noirthern novels I’ve ever read.
The book is beautifully written: the almost lyrical description of the locations and characters is strong enough to add real depth but not so indulgent as to detract from the gripping plot.
There are also a couple of clever twists, and the story never quite goes where you expect, despite the well-established genre and the fact that the basic premise of the story is rooted in the true life - and still unsolved - case of 'Bible John', who killed 3 women in Glasgow in 1968-9.
The novel also manages to include some well-handled sexual politics, chiefly through its protagonist, who, as a secretly gay policeman at a time when homosexuality remained illegal in Scotland (although not, by then, in England), maintains illicit liaisons while witnessing vicious homophobia in his day job, including among his colleagues. The emergent tensions are poignant, without being at all gratuitous.
Evocatively set, and sensitively told, The Quaker is a stand-out serial killer story that will thrill all those who like their crime fiction gritty and real, without being soulless.