The Quaker – Liam McIlvanney (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the more intriguing turn-ups in literary awards in 2018 came via the McIlvanney Prize given each year to the best Scottish Crime novel. In 2016 this award was renamed in honour of the writer known as “The Godfather Of Tartan Noir”, William McIlvanney who died in 2015. The previous winners since the rebranding had been Chris Brookmyre and Denise Mina and in 2018 the Prize went to Liam McIlvanney, William’s son for “The Quaker”.

There’s certainly no nepotism at work here as this is a very strong slab of crime fiction which fulfils the criteria perfectly and beat off the other shortlisted new titles by previous winners Brookmyre and Charles Cumming together with Lin Anderson.

This is Liam McIlvanney’s sixth publication which includes three fiction (a two parts of the way through trilogy begun in 2009) and three non-fiction works, two of these in conjunction with Ray Ryan. This novel is, hopefully the first in a new series, set in late 1960s Glasgow featuring DI Duncan McCormack, a member of the Flying Squad team who is seconded to an ongoing murder investigation to produce a report as to why a triple killer known as “The Quaker” has remained undetected. His interest in the case turns into a personal obsession whilst those above him want the investigation scaled down.

I like the feel of the period, clearly illustrated as a time when “the polis” operated with different standards. McCormack is a closeted gay officer at a time when homosexuality in Scotland still equalled a prison sentence and career ruin and this adds a fascinating dimension which stands this character out from the norm of crime fiction detectives.

The victims are also allowed to express their viewpoint in first person narrative sections, another thing which here is done well and adds to rather than impedes the flow of the piece.

I found this very readable and highly entertaining. I very much liked McCormack who is an outsider here in more than one sense and I would be very keen to read more novels featuring him.

McIlvanney currently works and lives in New Zealand but has convincingly conveyed the feel of Sixties Glasgow. There’s political incorrectness a-plenty with the nickname of a killer known to make biblical references a case in point. The novel was actually loosely based upon a real like killing spree by an individual known as Bible John, an undetected serial killer from the same time and location. Those who like their crime gripping and hovering around the edge of darkness should seek this out. I have limited experience of Scottish crime but this has certainly whetted my appetite to read more.
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The Quaker was published in hardback in June 2018 and in paperback by Harper Collins in Feb 2019. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

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The Way Of All Flesh – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This Edinburgh set Victorian crime novel (not to be confused with the classic novel by Samuel Butler with the same title which was very much a reaction against Victorianism) is the first collaboration between husband and wife anaesthesia expert Marisa Haetzman and crime novelist Chris Brookmyre, (he has some 23 novels to date none of which I have read) written under the pen name Ambrose Parry. 

Chris has never before written a novel set in the past but with Marisa’s knowledge of the history of medicine and especially the development of anaesthetics which has a significant part to play in this they have produced a thoroughly entertaining joint effort, a good slab of historical crime fiction, the first in a proposed new series.

 There are two very good main characters here.  Will Raven has a background from the tougher parts of Edinburgh Old Town and the night before he begins an apprenticeship with esteemed childbirth specialist Dr Simpson he encounters a corpse and is beaten and badly cut up giving him both a disreputable appearance and rendering him a marked man in his new environment of the respectable New Town.  Simpson’s housemaid Sarah, fascinated by the medical goings on in the house is held back because of Victorian society’s view of women and the two are forced by circumstances to come together to investigate agonising deaths of young women from both sides of town.

 Alongside the involving plot we have the growth of the use of ether in routine procedures and the search for more effective and safer methods to sedate patients.  The medical history aspect is inserted seamlessly into the plot and adds much to the enjoyment of the novel.

 I felt that the Edinburgh location with its split personality of the poverty- stricken Old Town and the comparative grandeur of the New is very effective, especially with childbirth happening in both areas causing the medical men to adapt to all kinds of patient.  Plot-wise I thought I had worked out what was going on but I hadn’t. The twists did surprise me.   I would certainly be on the lookout for future collaborations as well as digging into the sizeable Brookmyre back catalogue.

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The Way Of All Flesh was published by Canongate in August 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Wildest Of All – P K Lynch (Legend Press 2017)

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Scottish author PK Lynch has followed up an award-winning debut “Armadillos” (2016) with this thoughtful, family novel.  It commences with the death of family lynchpin Peter Donnelly and the effects this has on those left behind.

Main character Sissy is 17 and adores her Dad.  The suddenness of his demise has deprived her of the chance to say goodbye and her attempts to do this her own way are thwarted by her staunch Catholic grandmother, Anne.  Sissy’s mother Jude is crumbling without her partner and the rest of the family seem not to know what to do about this.

The first half of this novel carefully and precisely examines the effects of bereavement on the family and it is grandmother Anne, befuddled by the death of the son she idolised, with her own secrets about her marriage and frustration at Jude’s inability to function as well as her need to control potentially wayward teenager Sissy, who comes across as the strongest drawn and most rounded character.  The dynamics between the three are strong, felt authentic and kept me involved.

Circumstances take Sissy away from Glasgow and the novel shifts to become a young-girl-surviving-in- London tale which loses some of the depths of the novel as the characters here are not so well-drawn.  Sissy, herself, is not terribly likeable and becomes less so once she moves down South.  Anne and Jude take more of a back seat and this change of emphasis alters the balance of the novel from something potentially excellent to following along more predictable lines.

Those interested in novels which focus on family and friendship at times of duress would find much to become involved with but I felt a little disappointed that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening chapters.

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Wildest Of All was published in September 2017 by Legend Press.  Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (2016)- A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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“To put to death an individual with the sensibility and intelligence to produce an extended literary work, would I strongly aver, be a cruel and uncivilised act.”

As far as I am concerned one of the best things about Book Awards is when they introduce me to something that I would never have otherwise discovered.  This is how I feel about “His Bloody Project”.  Emanating from Scottish independent publishers, Saraband,  this is Burnet’ s second novel.  Subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”, Burnet takes us to the crofting community of the Scottish highlands in 1869 where 17 year old Macrae commits three murders.  Macrae kept a prison journal and this forms the basis of these documents together with transcripts from the trial, witness statements and reports from contemporary experts in criminal psychology.  If this reads like true crime masquerading as fiction then it is testament as to how spot on Burnet’s recreation of Macrae and his environment is.

This is impressive, superbly researched historical fiction with the author bringing in a couple of real life characters in the form of Macrae’s solicitor and the psychologist employed to assess the killer’s sanity.  Were Macrae’s actions a result of insanity or was he pushed to act because of a campaign of harassment against his family?  Macrae, deemed to be very bright by those who taught him but unable to escape his circumstances is not a totally reliable narrator.  There are a couple of very relevant points he omits from his journal which we discover during  the trial.

Compared to true crime accounts such as Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” the fictional approach obviously allows for added depth in the documentation which makes this a very rich and rewarding read.  This is a book which will be strongly competing for my Book Of The Year and will hopefully win over the Man Booker judges much in the same way as it has won me over.  There is a potential large audience for this book as it will satisfy historical and crime writing fans and there’s also lots for reading groups to discuss.

Update – Sept 13th –  Huge Congratulations to Graeme McRae Burnet  for making the shortlist.

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His Bloody Project was published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband in November 2015.