Review of The Quaker
by Liam McIlvanney
384 pages, $18.00 (paperback)
New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2019
What I’ll remember most about Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker is not the murder mystery at its center, but the feeling of Glasgow in 1969. The majestic Scottish city is brought to the brink: crumbling from both neglect and demolition, the fist-punch of urban renewal. New Towns spring up as towers come down, creating a purgatorial sense of dislocation. The world beyond rumbles in the background: Belfast riots, the tick-tock of Vietnam, the men who stood on the moon and looked back at the small blue dot. People stream through nightclubs, tenements, offices, pool halls, and pubs as if the ground weren’t shaking beneath their feet.
The past uneasily occupies the present. When the novel opens, three women are already dead by the hand of an elusive, neatly tailored, Old Testament-quoting figure dubbed The Quaker — mysterious deaths that are based loosely on the real-life Bible John murders. Each of the novel’s victims had met The Quaker at the Barrowland Ballroom on the city’s east end before being raped and strangled.
But when we meet our hero, Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack, the high-profile investigation is stagnant, some fifteen months after the first death. Despite all the resources and public attention on the case, nothing — and nobody — is found. Glasgow’s futile policing is mocked by both locals and newspapers as McCormack embeds with the Quaker team. His implicit task is to observe the failures of his colleagues and write a report that will be used to shut the case down. It hardly makes him popular.
McIlvanney’s sentences are so tightly wound, it makes your teeth hurt. They are crisp, clean, bright; each noun polished to a sheen, each verb oiled to propel the story forward just so. For those of us who aren’t Scots, the localisms and dialect have tumbling rhythm. But while cinematic, the book starts slow, and is cluttered with tropes — hardbitten polis brooding over cigarettes and glasses of whisky, attractive young women meeting grisly ends, a standard set of misleading clues.
Credit McIlvanney, however, for coming through. He breaks the story open, making The Quaker both inventive and absorbing. He activates those tropes.
The women, for example, rather than remaining voiceless catalysts, have an opportunity to speak in the first person about their final days. A second storyline involving a jewel heist at an auction house intersects with the Quaker investigation, naturally, but it unfolds in genuinely surprising ways (and this is where the story really gets going). McCormack, our lonely detective, has a secret, which is ordinary enough for your standard noir novel — except in this case, it’s that he’s gay. In 1969. McCormack is enveloped in a case steeped with brutal sexual mores, while his own criminalized sexuality puts him at risk of violence. McIlvanney’s subtle approach to this is quite brilliant: he neither zooms in, distorting it as a novelty, nor zooms out so much that it becomes a mere quirk. Rather, the author holds a steady gaze, letting the story speak for itself.
McCormack’s outsiderhood takes other shapes as well. His foil at the police department, Goldie, properly loathes him at the novel’s outset, as one might expect — but the evolution of their relationship is the emotional heart of the book. The shifts in how McCormack and Goldie see each other, and why, felt true.
Also, McCormack came to Glasgow, a sectarian port city, from a Catholic family in Ballachulish, a rural mining town in the Highlands. He used to be wakened by his mother talking his father through fits of hacking coughs, on his way to a hard death courtesy of an aluminum company. In Glasgow, notably, Catholics crowded into the east end, where the murders occur and where at least one significant scene is set in the jaw-dropping Necropolis.
“Half the population of Glasgow seemed to be clearing out; another Highlander more or less would never be missed.” Whether McCormack is there or here, his sense of being a kind of ghost — watching, wanting, and full of feeling — is moving.
Most compellingly, Glasgow doesn’t simply loom in the background of The Quaker as a pseudo-Gotham. There is a moment where one character stops running, looks about him, and sees that he is lost. “They kept knocking bits of it down. Every time you went out there was another gap-site, another missing street, you never knew where you were.” The wrecking ball of urban renewal is both fundamental to the narrative and an echo of The Quaker himself: an invisible force out to destroy and erase, at once strategic and chaotic, preying upon Glasgow's most vulnerable people while presenting itself as a righteous savior.
What does it take to be saved, then? What does it take to save another? What choices do we have, and what is our responsibility toward others, both the living and the dead? This is the true mystery around which The Quaker turns.
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