Author Post | Liam McIlvanney on The Quaker

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To someone growing up in the West of Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, the words ‘Bible John’ had a special resonance. You might overhear your parents saying the name in guarded voices, or bigger kids in the playground discussing the murders, how three women got killed in the big bad city on the other side of the Fenwick Moor.

The Bible John murders took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969. There were three killings. In each case, the victim was picked up at the Barrowland Ballroom in the East End of the city, and then raped, strangled and dumped within a few hundred yards of her home. The three victims lived in different parts of the city: Battlefield on the South Side; out east in Bridgeton; Scotstoun in the West End.

There was no direct connection between the victims, though they did have much in common. They shared a physical type – petite and dark-haired. They all had young children. Two of them were separated or divorced from their husbands, and the third had a husband with the services in Germany. There was a queasy Presbyterian moralism in some of the commentary around these killings: what were these women doing out gallivanting when they had kiddies at home? As if there was some grim Calvinist karma at work in their deaths.

The killer was never caught, though the police knew a great deal about him, since the sister of the third victim spent an evening in his company. Bible John was tall, with fair or reddish hair worn unfashionably short. Well-spoken, he dressed in a brown, three-button suit with a chalkstripe and incongruous suede boots. He was scrupulously polite. He wore a regimental tie, a wristwatch with a thick leather strap. He had overlapping teeth. He ranted about ‘dens of iniquity’ and ‘women taken in adultery’. His cousin had recently scored a hole in one at golf.

The police blitzed these clues in the biggest investigation in the history of Scottish policing. They got nowhere. The man they sought had vanished, though he lived on as a legend, a bogey man, a ghost. I remember how the pictures of Bible John would surface from time to time in the Daily Record, like the sulky, blonde mugshot of Myra Hindley.

There was the identikit picture of a smart, half-smiling young man with thin lips and nice short hair, like a face on a Panini football sticker. And there was the quarter-profile artist’s impression of a man with kindly eyes and clean-shaven jaw, who looked like one of Mormons who sometimes came to our door in pairs.

Why was the Bible John case so resonant? Partly it was the fact that he was never caught. But it was also the idea that almost anyone could be Bible John. The guy standing next to you at the bar could be Bible John, the man who came to read your meter. This was also the period of large-scale redevelopment in Glasgow, when the slum tenements were coming down and people were being decanted to peripheral estates. In the tenements everyone knew everyone else. In the new schemes you had an indoor toilet and a washing machine but you didn’t know who your neighbor was. Your neighbour could be anyone. Your neighbour could be Bible John.

All this was part of the Bible John mythos, but what I remember most is just the name, how those two innocuous words chimed through my childhood. I was haunted by the name. How could a man with such a name be so bad? How could a name so blandly innocent carry such a charge of darkness?

When I got older and started writing crime novels I always knew I would come back to Bible John. Other people had written books that touched on the murders – notably Andrew O’Hagan in The Missing and Ian Rankin in Black and Blue – but I wanted to write a proper true-crime novel in the style of Gordon Burn or Eoin McNamee or David Peace.

I was conscious, however, that the children of the victims were still alive, and I felt uneasy about using their families’ suffering for a crime novel. My breakthrough came when I was pondering the trio of murders and realized that I could invent a fictional fourth killing and focus my story on that. In this way, I could draw on the cultural resonance of the first three murders without dwelling too pruriently on the details.

Then I thought: why stop there? Why not go further? Why not change the names of the victims, and even that of the killer? And so, Bible John became the Quaker. Anyone familiar with the history would recognise that the novel was based on the Bible John case, but I would be free to invent my own version of the story and solve the case in my own way. So that’s what I did. I also invented a cop, DI Duncan McCormack, whose own background – Highland, Catholic, gay – sets him at a tangent to many of his colleagues.

But there was one other ethical dilemma that confronted me. In my previous two novels, the murder victims were male. In this one, I had the familiar, problematical crime fiction scenario in which the passive, violated female body is avenged by the active agency of the male detective.

To some extent, this was enforced by the nature of the real-life material, but it still made me uncomfortable. So I did what Alice Sebold does in The Lovely Bones, Rosetta Allan in Purgatory, and Scott Blackwood in See How Small: I introduced the perspective of the murdered women. Each of the Quaker’s victims narrates a chapter of the novel.

The Quaker is the story I’ve wanted to write since I was a boy growing up in Ayrshire; I hope you enjoy reading it.

-Liam McIlvanney

 

The Quaker is out now in paperback. 

Feel the Fear and Write It Anyway – guest post by Cass Green

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FEEL THE FEAR AND WRITE IT ANYWAY

Cass Green on why she draws on her own worst fears to evoke terror in her readers, the brilliant authors who inspire her, and what she’s just too afraid to write about…

 

In my new book, Don’t You Cry, my character Nina is on a miserable blind date with – frankly – a bit of an idiot. She is just plotting her escape when she pops an olive into her mouth and that is the moment her date clumsily propositions her.

Here’s what happens next:

A surge of hysterical laughter rises in my throat. I inhale sharply and the olive shoots backwards, covering my windpipe. I try to cough it away but my throat just spasms uselessly, silently, failing to budge it. The olive is a solid mass. There’s a split second of disbelief before I accept that I’m choking. My pulse thunders in my head and there’s a whooshing in my ears.

I can’t breathe . . .

I can’t breathe.’

When I wrote this, I got so hot and clammy I had to stand up and walk around a bit. Because you see, choking like this is one of my biggest fears. I once got a fish bone stuck in my throat (thank you, M&S goujon) and I swear I saw my life passing in front of me for the moments it took for me to hook it out again with a shaking finger.

In my last book, In a Cottage in a Wood, my character Neve has to let herself into a horrible creepy cottage in the middle of nowhere. In the dead of night, the lights fail, and she realises someone or something is in the room with her…

And there is another one of my more fundamental terrors, right there: the night-time intruder.

I have previous form for this sort of thing too, having started out writing YA and covering both a haunted fairground (roller-coasters and ghosts – check) and drowning (yep).

So why the hell do I keep writing about things that scare the bejaysus out of me? Maybe by forcing myself to imagine every second of that choking scene, for example, it will offer some sort of mental buffer if it ever happened in real life?

(Spoiler: it won’t.)

Perhaps it is more that I genuinely want to cause my readers to have clammy hands and thundering hearts when they read my books, and the best way I can replicate that is to dig deep into my own fears?

I’m not alone in taking this approach, it seems. Shirley Jackson, author of, among other things, the brilliant spine-tingler The Haunting of Hill House, once said, ‘I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.’

Master of the chills himself, Stephen King is not above roping in some of his own private horrors too. He has said in an interview, ‘There’s a scene in the book where they find this dumping ground where there are all these discarded appliances, and there’s a refrigerator… And one of the things I remember is we were all told: If you’re playing and you see a discarded refrigerator, don’t go in that, because kids can get in there and get locked in there and die. So I put a discarded refrigerator in the book and when one of the kids opens the door of it, it’s full of these leeches that come out… And that scared me…’

I’ll probably continue to explore the things that scare me in my writing, even if it does make me uncomfortable while I’m doing it. But if you are ever hoping for a book that features giant spiders, I’m telling you now that there are some places I’m just not prepared to go.

Don’t You Cry is out now!

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – guest post by Christi Daugherty

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An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

I was a university student when I decided what I wanted to do for a living. It came to me at two in the morning. I watched All The President’s Men on the tiny TV in my Texas dormitory, and saw my future on the screen. I would be a newspaper reporter.

During my last month at university I applied to 40 newspapers in the southern US for a job as a journalist. One, the Morning News, in Savannah, Georgia, hired me over the phone.

I’d never been to Georgia in my life, but I couldn’t wait to get started. I was hired as the crime reporter. I had little idea what that would entail, but it sounded like something Woodward and Bernstein would have done when they were my age.

My first day, a body was found floating in the Savannah River. I was sent to cover it. I wore the clothes my mother had bought for me – white ankle trousers, a floaty pink top, little heels.

In that outfit, I had to hike a quarter mile through spiked weeds on uneven ground down an earthen levee to the distant point where the police had gathered at the water’s edge.

By the time I reached them, I was sweating, my always uncontrollable hair a dark cloud. My pink top had caught on a thorny plant and torn. My little heels were filthy.

Two detectives stood alongside a cluster of uniformed officers and two divers in wetsuits. Every single one of them was male. Hell, even the corpse was male.

I could hear the cops laughing before I reached the muddy shore.

‘Can I help you?’ the detective asked, fighting a grin as I approached.

‘I’m the new reporter at the Morning News,’ I explained, trying not to look flustered.

‘Well,’ he said, glancing at the men around him. ‘This is our lucky day.’

They all openly checked me out. My figure. My face. My clothes. The uniformed cops snickered behind their hands and whispered comments I couldn’t quite hear.

The whole time, the body lay behind them. Very obviously and horribly dead. It was a hot summer afternoon. The smell was absolutely overwhelming.

In that instant, I wanted to run back up that levee and keep running until I got back to Texas. Back to my mother’s house. Back where I belonged.

But I stood my ground. I sensed, through some preternatural journalistic instinct, that a lot hung on that moment.

What I didn’t know at the time, was that the detective making fun of me was the head of the homicide squad. If I impressed him, my entire job was made.

Win over the lead detective and he’ll tell you things no one else will. Slip you information that can help you beat the competition. Make your editors happier. Make your job safer. Get you a raise.

I didn’t know any of that, at the time. To me, he was some paunchy, old man with bad glasses in a cheap suit making fun of me on my first day.

And yet. For some reason, I didn’t run. I got out my notepad, summoned all the dignity I could muster, and said, ‘What can you tell me about the body?’

Grinning broadly, the detective stepped aside, gesturing at the bloated corpse and replied, ‘Well he’s right there. What can you tell me about the body?’

Clearly, he’d noticed I’d been doing my level best not to look. My stomach was churning.

Still. I looked.

Rigor mortis had set in while the man was face down in the water. They’d rested him on his back. His arms reached up stiffly as if he wanted a hug. Dark green river weed dangled from his fingertips.

‘He’s a middle-aged black man, in a striped, short-sleeved shirt and khaki slacks,’ I said, writing as I talked. ‘His shoes are missing.’

I didn’t need to write it down – I would never forget it – but it gave me an excuse not to look for a second. When I didn’t look, I could breathe.

‘Shoes always fall off,’ the detective informed me. ‘Probably lost them when he hit the water. Tell me, something. You think he fell in there today?’

‘No. I think he’s been in there a while,’ I said. ‘But don’t ask me how long.’

‘I won’t ask you,’ he said, pointing up the levee. ‘I’ll ask them.’

I turned to see a forensic team hotfooting it towards us, carrying bags of equipment.

The detective walked past me to greet the medical team. At the last second, though, he stopped.

‘What’s your name?’ he said.

‘Christi Daugherty,’ I told him.

‘Welcome to town. You’ll do fine.’ And he handed me his card.

It was only a cheap business card with his name and the main police phone number on it. But to me it was gold dust.

I’d passed a test.

Now I understood what I was up against. The job would be hard. It would challenge me.

And I could handle it.

I was a journalist for a decade before writing my first novel. When people ask me why I write about women doing jobs that have been, in the past, traditionally male; or why I so often write about women who learn to be stronger than they think they are; or why my characters fight against odds that seem insurmountable – I think about that day.

They say you should write what you know.

Well, I don’t know any women who don’t fight against the odds.

 

The Echo Killing by Christi Daugherty is out now!