27 September 2023

The Heretic

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Liam McIlvanney, Harper Collins, $35.

Liam McIlvanney’s first Duncan McCormack book The Quaker won the 2018 Scottish Crime Book of the Year. In The Heretic McIlvanney brings McCormack back to the mean streets of 1970s Glasgow, six years after the events of The Quaker. So that while this is a sequel and some of the action ties back to The Quaker, no knowledge of that first book is required to enjoy The Heretic as a great standalone crime novel.

It is 1975, and after spending time working for the Met in London, Duncan McCormack has returned to Glasgow to take up his old job. But his ghosts still haunt him. Despite being lauded for solving the Quaker case back in 1969, McCormack is still hated by much of the Glasgow police as that investigation brought down a senior officer on corruption charges that also implicated plenty of other officers. So much so that his current commanding officer, Chief Inspector Haddow wants to see him gone. McCormack wants to bring down a local crime lord called Walter Maitland but Haddow assigns McCormack and his team to a seemingly unrelated murder. Despite trying to sideline McCormack, the victim turns out to be well connected, including to the Maitlands. Things are soon also complicated further by links to a warehouse fire that killed people in the tenement next door and a suspected IRA bombing of one of the Maitland’s pubs.

Glasgow in the 1970s seems to be a fertile place for crime narratives. Alan Parks’ Harry McCoy books (starting with Bloody January and now stretching to four books) are set in the same era in Glasgow. Like Parks, McIlvanney delivers a deep sense of time and place – of the march of development in the city running over its ancient roots, of the corruption that flourishes in that environment and of influence of the surrounding political turmoil fuelled out of Ireland. McIlvanney does so with a suitably tormented but effective investigator with skeletons in his closet and the weight of the force against him but supported by a team of outsiders. All driven an engaging mystery which also manages to tie up some questions left hanging from The Quaker.

The Heretic is a great follow up to the The Quaker. By jumping forward a few years McIlvanney gets to dig in to the longer term consequences of that investigation but also to present McCormack in a different place personally and in a slightly different Glasgow. But most importantly, he delivers a strong mystery and a great procedural to tie it all together. This is definitely not the last we will be seeing of McCormack and it is exciting to consider what McIlvanney might do with him next.

Over 750 more reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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