The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney

The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney is a crime fiction novel in the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre.  It gives added interest, as Liam’s father, the late William McIlvanney is credited with inventing the ‘Tartan Noir’ with the Laidlaw Trilogy.  William was a distinguished and brilliant writer who described the Glasgow of the late 70s in piercing and iconic terms.  And The Heretic is a crime novel that is also based in Glasgow in the 1970s.  Therefore, it is impossible not to draw comparisons between both writers.  This must frustrate Liam, continually being compared to his father.  However, his writing, plot development, and prose are of comparable stature which is compliment enough.  Liam’s turns of phrase that describe the Glaswegian crime world and the peoples’ psyche are there too, albeit not with his father’s brevity and cutting genius.  But that is to nit-pick, in what was an intricate tale of DI Duncan McCormack, returning after his first outing in The Quaker.

          The book concerns a fire outbreak in a run-down tenement where four people die.  It becomes a murder case when it is confirmed that the blaze was started deliberately.  DI Duncan McCormack has just returned to the Glasgow City Police after six years in the Met. to lead the Serious Crime Squad at Temple Street Station.  His team comprises DS Derek Goldie, recently divorced DC Elizabeth Nicol, and the ambitious DS Iain Shand.  The team is investigating the crime boss Walter Maitland and soon discovers he is involved in the murders.  Separately, a body, presumed to be a tramp, is found amongst the mountains of rubbish of a ‘bin’ strike.  However, the body is that of ex-MP and local Tory councillor Sir Gavin Elliot, 69, a wealthy businessman tortured before his death.  The narrative intertwines the many threads, including a brother, Chris Kidd, searching for his sister, Isobel.  McCormack starts to make connections to solve the crimes despite a car bomb, which is feared to be planted by the IRA. 

            McIlvanney conjures up the real Glasgow of the seventies, the dirt, the strikes, the rough gangland that dominates, and sectarianism.   The underworld is exposed, not the ‘ad’ campaign proclaiming ‘Glasgow’s miles better.’  Within this backdrop, McIlvanney weaves a story of mystery and surprise that keeps the reader turning the page.  The author’s writing is evocative and shows through dialogue and action, not just description.  He uses other literary techniques, such as letters, to extend the story and flashbacks, which reveal more nuance and background as the evidence emerges.  McIlvanney’s characterisation is vital, particularly that of DI Duncan McCormack, whom the police establishment dislikes after he arrests and jails a ‘bent copper,’ which is covered in the first novel in the series, The Quaker.  McCormack is a gay man in the police and is riddled with fear of detection.  McIlvanney handles the atmosphere surrounding his private life with emotional sensitivity and captures the clandestine nature of such an existence.

Similarly, he captures the misogyny and prejudice that DC Elizabeth Nicol endures.  Most importantly, McIlvanney depicts the other side of Glasgow, the wealth and privilege, with the description of the buildings and facades reflecting the stark differences in life chances in Glasgow in the seventies.  And this is where his turn of phrase and description, like his father William, captures the mood and moment vividly.  Those that lived through that time are transported back to this age, and those that weren’t alive, are entertained with a gritty, realistic view of the time.

            This is a fantastic crime novel, full of twists and turns that keep the reader guessing.  The prose immerses the reader in Glasgow.  McIlvanney has managed to develop the character of DI Duncan McCormack and will have readers waiting for the next instalment.  There is no doubt that Liam can stand shoulder to shoulder with his father, as he proves with The Heretic that this is a masterpiece of crime fiction.

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