Liam McIlvanney, The Quaker (HarperCollins NZ) This is Liam McIlvanney’s third crime novel (in his day job he has written extensively on Celtic writing, both Irish and Scottish), though there’s a gap where the Trilogy’s third book ought to be. Gerry Conway was the main actor of both All the Colours of the Town (2011) and Where the Dead Men Go (2013). The fight is about corruption in public life: reporters, policemen, as Conway moves back and forth between Celtic nations. The Quaker has been a long time coming. It is well worth the wait.
DCI George Cochrane runs the Quaker squad at the Marine Police Station in Glasgow. It is the late sixties, the City is being demolished and rebuilt. Duncan McCormack is sent from his home station west to try to wind up the search for the Quaker now, before he kills again. But he has killed nobody for months, and it is over a year since he started murdering young women. He may have left Glasgow. He might be dead. There is a parallel plot with a group who plan to steal a lot of money and jewelry from a local auction house. One of the gang looks a bit like a drawing the police have put together.
This is a man’s world, in which the women are mostly victims (the Magdalene Laundries have a walk-on part), and where there are few signs of any swinging in any part of early sixties Scotland. The doom-laden Presbyterianism of Scottish church-going still casts its long shadow, but cannot know its reign is coming to the end. The road to Satan is the foxtrot at the dance hall, so important to solving the question, Why these women? This is much in the Rebus mold (Rebus, however, doesn’t speak Gaelic), but full of the prejudices of various tribes: McCormack comes from a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking family, and has other burdens to bear. The twist count is excellent, and the pacing pitch perfect. When pennies drop one has to be alert and remember earlier signals that were missed or forgotten. As with Rankin’s Big Ger Cafferty, Glasgow, too, has its own top dog, one who reveals himself to be a great deal more twisted than Cafferty.
Most of the novel is seen through McCormack’s eyes, as he tries to reorient the long months of retracing the detectives’ work until he can find a pattern. Which he does, several times over. McCormack’s sense of place, his internal gyroscope for orienteering, and his willingness to test ideas with ‘Unless’ make him one of those maverick cops who so often rise above the ordinary. McIlvanney’s descriptions of the city, of the dance hall, the dancers, the snatches of old songs from the Gaeltacht, the cars (brands I’d long since forgotten), and the closed shop of detectives hoarding what they’ve earned while hating the knowledge that McCormack has been sent to shut them down are all part of the police procedural that ties events together. The parallel to McCormack is Paton, he of the heist at the auctioneer’s. McCormack in the city, and Paton in the mountains touch those generic features that move both men. The descriptions of natural beauty judder beside the townscape of demolitions and the fight to be allocated a Council House.
This is a beautifully-written book, and one has to navigate while wondering what and how much needs to be stored in memory: what—say—might the reason for a second pair of 9 1/2 boots. Or why Mary Queen of Scots seems to keep appearing in the city’s street names. Or how, until the very end, McCormack failed to notice that he was being tailed and photographed. Crime fiction endings tend to the hugger mugger, of which the plot turns out to have rich pickings. But it would be a mistake for me to say why.
Peter Lovesey, Beau Death (Soho Press) The title points the way: in the eighteenth century Beau Brummell climbed the slippery slope and ran Bath society. He is remembered as a master of fashion, of good manners, and gallantry. So when in the course of demolition for renovation in Bath the builders uncover a corpse mummified and desiccated with time—a long time—in a rickety attic, the police are summoned. The corpse is dressed in eighteenth-century clothes, but there is no evidence of his identity. Might it possibly be Beau himself? Thus the novel begins with Peter Diamond going up in a cherry-picker to get a look at the body before the whole house crumbles, to the amusement of his fellow officers and the general public. Diamond is not amused, since he takes every victim with the seriousness he always has for a cadaver (as long as the cadaver’s post-mortem doesn’t involve Diamond being there to watch).
Peter Lovesey writes at a consistently high level of crime fiction that never ceases to please and astonish, and he’s obviously done a lot of research for this episode in his Bath series (he thanks the Beau Nash Society for their advice, and lists the books he found useful while writing his own). Of the many things that make him an author apart, he manages to create a whole palate of convincing characters, with a degree of both sympathy and understanding for the living. He allows his characters to think and speak from their own points of view, which is not every writer’s forte. He is particularly convincing about his female characters, from his partner, Paloma, who is a historical costume specialist, by way of his boss, Georgina, one of the regular butts of his satire (see, y-fronts, passim). This is one of those books that starts with an unidentified victim, doesn’t go where you think it’s going, and is all the better for that.