“The Quaker,” which was published last year in Great Britain and promptly anointed the Scottish crime book of 2018, takes place in Glasgow in 1969. The city is enduring a brutal winter and the ongoing devastation of an urban renewal plan, which is emptying out blocks of old tenements before their demolition. It’s those condemned tenements that a serial killer, dubbed, “The Quaker,” has made his killing fields. (The story is based loosely on the Bible John killings that struck fear into the hearts of Glaswegians, including a young McIlvanney.)
The bodies of three murdered women have been discovered in them over the past nine months. Police investigators are flummoxed: Their only clues are that each of the women went to a local dance hall on the night of her murder and that the last victim was sighted in the company of a suave, light-haired man. Newspaper reporters, who initially lauded the efforts of the police detectives, have begun to ridicule them and their clumsy efforts to pose undercover as dance hall patrons to catch the killer.
Enter Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack, who’s been ordered by police higher-ups to embed himself with the investigators at the Marine Police Station, review their investigation for mistakes, and then make recommendations for a quiet exit strategy to mask their failure. There’s no need to elaborate on how unpopular this snoop-and-snitch assignment makes the already alienated McCormack with his new colleagues. Here’s McCormack on a late-night ramble through a city cemetery, reflecting on the job he’s been burdened with: “McCormack thought about the men at the Marine, the fatalistic gloom in which they labored. Cops were superstitious. They believed a case could be hexed, jinxed, the guilty man uncatchable. Sometimes it was hard to disagree.”. . .
Every aspect of “The Quaker” is superb: the desolate urban atmosphere of Glasgow in the 1960s; the painful solitude of McCormack and the bullying he experiences from the colleagues whose work he’s scrutinizing; and a suspense plot with more wrinkles in it than our worried hero’s brow. Time and again, in quintessential mystery “Aha! moments,” the Quaker Squad and McCormack himself will grab hold of likely suspects or motives; time and again, these too-too-solid solutions melt and resolve themselves into the Scottish dew. In a move that distinguishes the sexual politics of his novel from the standard serial-killer narrative, McIlvanney resists objectifying the female victims of “The Quaker” and, instead, gives each of them a haunting postmortem voice. Here, for instance, is a soliloquy spoken by the spirit of the first victim, Jacquilyn Keevins, who left behind a 6-year-old son named Alasdair:
“There are things we need to remember. I tell them to Alasdair, lying weightlessly beside him on the narrow bed, wishing I could smell his skin. I pour them into his ears when he sleeps. . . . For a while I thought I was different from the others. Better. Less to blame. I was the first. I had no way of knowing that [The Quaker] even existed. . . . And then I saw I was wrong, I was kidding myself. I knew he was out there too. I knew it all along. We all do.”
Maybe it’s the pervasive sense of fatedness that gives “The Quaker” its especially intense noir charge. Given that the murders (or most of them) have already taken place, they can only be solved, not prevented. Old Glasgow is destined for obliteration and, as the story unspools, we readers realize that McCormack himself is something of a marked man. In “The Quaker,” McIlvanney doesn’t so much update the classic hard-boiled formula as he reminds us of its enduring dark beauty.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Liam McIlvanney
Europa. 384pp. Paperback, $18.