Heart of Darkness: A Review Of Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker…
The city of Glasgow has a complex relationship with real crime, one which probably explains the popularity of crime fiction not only in the city, but about the city. There are few places who aggrandise and almost celebrate its violent reputation, and those who are responsible for it, in the manner Glasgow appears to. Sicily and Chicago are two others which spring to mind.
As those who live in or visit the city will know, Glasgow is (with well-known and notable exceptions) a generally friendly and supportive community, large enough for many diverse people and opinions, but small enough for most of the populace to find some sort of connection with less than six degrees of separation. However, a braggadocious attitude to the brutal is never too far away, perhaps best summed up by folk hero and baggage handler, John ‘Smeato’ Smeaton, who, after kicking a burning man in the ‘nads, warned any other potential terrorists that, “This is Glasgow; we’ll set aboot ye”.
Many Glaswegian gangsters have become celebrities, if not exactly celebrated, and there is a penchant for giving those involved in crime nicknames – The Godfather, Blind Jonah, Fat Boy, Babyface, The Licensee. One of the city’s most notorious serial killers was known as Bible John, due to his use of quotations from the Scriptures, and he became a bogeyman like figure to Glaswegians in the late-’60s and the ’70s – his police composite drawing peering eerily down from walls and out of phone boxes. To this day the legend endures, not least because he was never caught, and the case remains unsolved. It’s a classic example of the blurring of lines between fiction and fact when it comes to Glasgow and crime.
And that is why the Bible John story makes the perfect inspiration for Liam McIlvanney’s latest novel The Quaker. Taking those infamous murders as his starting point, McIlvanney explores just how crime, particularly violent crime, can affect a community. Gangsters, by their nature, rule by fear, but they also purport to have some twisted form of code-of-honour. When a criminal doesn’t follow any rules then that’s when real fear takes hold, and in McIlvanney’s book his titular Quaker seems to choose his victims with no clear or easily understood pattern, and his ultra-violent methods point towards a psychopath.
The problem for the police is that it is difficult to catch such a person unless they leave clear clues, and the Quaker is too thorough for that. Initial mistakes have been made by investigating officers, which has led to outsider DI McCormack being assigned to discover the extent of the blunders and their consequences. Having to, and failing to, win over a sceptical squad room, he soon becomes obsessed with the case, despite many attempts to warn him off. What follows is a genuinely tense unfolding of one man’s fight to prove that the right result should always override other considerations, even when they are potentially personally beneficial. The truth may not be pretty, and The Quaker is grim and gritty, as you would expect a Clydeside crime novel to be, but it is also much more.
If you didn’t know that McIlvanney was a Professor of literature as well as a writer of crime then you can find clues throughout. The Quaker’s opening quotations are from Pulitzer prize-winning poet Charles Simic and T.S Eliot. Later he has McCormack referring to Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and there is also mention of Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, historian John Prebble, and further quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and King Lear. These literary references add another layer to The Quaker and although not knowing them will in no way affect a reader’s enjoyment of the book, it definitely gives a greater understanding of McIlvanney the writer and how he approaches his fiction.
If you know David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven, or 2007’s Zodiac for that matter, then you have some idea as to the tone of The Quaker. It is tough, dark, violent, and chilling, but also cerebral, thoughtful and clever. It also has more twists than a Chubby Checker convention – just when you think you have it solved McIlvanney pulls the rug from under you. The Quaker is fiction of the highest order no matter the genre. Of course comparisons will be made, and rightly so, to Denise Mina, Karen Campbell and Ian Rankin, but I am reminded of Frederic Lindsay’s Brond, or even Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street, a book which also took real crime as its starting point. Tense, terrifying and tremendous, The Quaker is exemplary modern crime fiction which deserves to be read far and wide.