Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders.
Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down.
This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity.
The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting.
The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John.
The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading.
We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom.
So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released.
The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket…
Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves.
There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab.
One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him.
Does he get there in the end?
The Red Road is a police procedural murder story. It's Tartan Noir. I hadn't realised when I began reading that this is the fourth outing for DCI Alex Morrow and so I might have missed some of the backstory, but the book still stood up in its own right.
As so often in these Scottish detective pieces, the lead detective is an outsider with regard to office politics and has personal connections with the story that start to generate conflicts of interest. The plot itself is a little far fetched and relies on one big event that is revealed late in the piece - but seemed to be pretty obvious right from the first few chapters. The surprises as they come tend not to be surprising. The cast seems too large; everyone seems to be involved in some shape or form (I can't remember any red herrings) and seems to involve a lot of frenetic activity for fairly opaque reasons.
The depiction of the Red Road flats is evocative, if somewhat fleeting to have given the book its title. There are also atmospheric scenes on the Isle of Mull, and some of the grander houses in and around Glasgow. The characterisation is also better than average, particularly a hippy in a castle and an aristocratic defence counsel. The structure also works, with plenty of cliffhangers ending chapters to keep the pages turning quickly. But overall it is just a bit meh; you feel you've read books like it before and will read books like it again. It is too convoluted, too clever-clever and when it reaches its denouement it just feels a little bit too late.
I sincerely hope that none of our Glaswegian members or their families/friends were involved in this tragedy and that everybody is safe and well.
Just woke up to the news that a helicopter crashed onto the roof of the Clutha Bar situated on the banks of the Clyde but nevertheless central to Glasgow. I know exactly where it is and it surprises me not that my fellow Glaswegians ran towards this as soon as it happened and not away from it. All my very best wishes to those involved.