What could be better than a Scottish noir with the authentic ring of its slang as a major component of the characters vernacular? In the present case of Liam McIlvanney’s first attempt at the genre in THE QUAKER, very little as the complex and creative mystery moves along on a straight path, presents a number of forks in the road and settles into a marvelous whodunit. The novel focuses on the search for a serial killer who has already claimed three women as his victims. After a yearlong investigation, the Marine Flying Squad of the Glasgow Police Department have reached a dead end and are searching for closure. The problem that arises is that a fourth victim turns up, but an individual who is charged with all four murders has nothing to do with the first three which authorities do not want to hear or accept. What could be the motivations of the powers that be? A commander who has reached a retirement age and wants to go out with a major success. A police department that wants to put the crimes behind them and move on or for some other nefarious reason.
The scenario that McIlvanney has laid out becomes quite frustrating for the main character, Detective Duncan I. McCormack who is brought in from another department to bring the case of the first murders to some type of conclusion. McCormack is instructed to investigate the Marine Flying Squad and determine what went wrong and why the police have failed in trying to solve the case. McCormack is not accepted by his colleagues that he is overseeing, and he receives little cooperation which does not stop him from conducting his due diligence and concluding that the Marine detectives have conducted a thorough investigation but relied too heavily on a particular witness and that other avenues of inquiry were overlooked. As he was tasked McCormack advised that the investigation be wound down, especially since there had not been another murder for over a year, and it was logical to assume that the perpetrator was no longer at large in the Glasgow area.
The original murders centered on three woman, Jacquilin Keevins, Ann Ogilvie and Marion Mercer who had gone out dancing and wound up raped and murdered. McCormack was against investigating the investigators as he wanted to concentrate on putting away John McGlasham, the biggest crime boss in Glasgow. In conducting his reinvestigation McCormack comes across important characters who his colleagues reject. As the author lays out the noir he provides an intimate portrait of Glasgow in the late 1960s focusing on run down parts of the city and a program to renovate the city’s many decaying tenements. In addition, by relying repeatedly on Scottish slang for dialogue the conversations between characters present a high degree of authenticity.
There are a number of important characters that are developed. McCormack’s partner, Derek Goldie is a big mouth blowhard of a detective who seems cocksure about everything. DCI Angus Flett, McCormack’s boss is the Commander of the Flying Squad who tries to keep McCormack aboard, and DCI George Cochrane in charge of the first failed investigation, among others. McIlvanney has the unique ability to develop clues that appear far-fetched but in the end become important. Esoteric discoveries like the role of Mary Queen of Scots and her four women in waiting seem to be important, leading McCormack to brush up on his history through renowned historian Antonia Fraser’s biography. Evidence hidden in abandoned tenements abound, Scottish poetry, and a series of songs sung to McCormack by his grandmother when he was a child. Another interesting touch is how McIlvanney gives the murder victims their own voice as he has them recount their own murders from their perspective – very eerie!
As the noir focuses on the serial murders, McIlvanney introduces a second story line which at first centers around the planning and conducting of a robbery of the Glendinning Auction House. The robbers are led by Stephen Dalziei who brings in an outside safecracker from London, Alex Paton. The robbery is a success until Paton is arrested for the fourth murder as he was hiding in a tenement in which the body was found. There are certain elements of the police force that are desperate for a conclusion and charge him as the serial killer even though the evidence is rather incomplete – the question is why.
Once McCormack completes his report he wants to return to fight organized crime but refuses to let go. Higher ups are angry because of his tenacity which becomes the deepest mystery of all. Why do they want to convict an innocent man and who is the Quaker?
McIlvanney has structured an at times frustrating scenario. First, and foremost he lays out the crimes, the investigation, the re-investigation, and the fake scenario of an alternative murderer to cover for the real Quaker. Second, was the Quaker arranging a set up for Alex Paton who was innocent of murder to be found guilty even after a fourth murder takes place. For McCormack what was really happening and what could he do to solve the crime against the wishes of others.
My only suggestion for the author is to develop the personal lives of his main characters more. There is a hint of the private lives of McCormack, Goldie, Cochrane, Flett, Levein, apart from the Quaker which could have enhanced the story line and drawn the reader closer to the characters. Despite this slight drawback, the author knows how to capture the reader’s attention and create a nail bitter that has a powerful ending. Further, the noir concept can at times be formulaic, but in the author’s hands he reminds us of what an enduring approach to murder mysteries it is. McIlvanney’s first effort produced a number of awards and I look forward to reading his latest just released, THE HERETIC.