Author Post | Liam McIlvanney on The Quaker

Category: Uncategorized

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. 

Extract | Don’t Turn Around by Amanda Brooke

Category: Extract

 

To celebrate the publication of Amanda Brooke’s page-turning thriller, Don’t Turn Around, here is an exclusive sneak peek at the opening chapter!

 

Prologue

The Confession

The rhythmic slap of my ballet shoes against the linoleum-covered steps echoes down the stairwell. As my pace slows, my head droops and my gaze falls onto the worn and familiar treads that lead to the seventh floor and home. I know each and every scuff mark, every chip of paint, and even the crumpled tissues and sweet wrappers discarded by my thoughtless neighbours are familiar to me. Unlike my apartment block’s gleaming city-centre exterior, its spine has an air of abandonment. The stairwell is rarely used and less frequently cleaned, and there have been times when I’ve taken it upon myself to return with rubber gloves and a bin bag, but no more. Believe me, I’ve tried, but nothing I do ever makes a difference.

My legs are trembling by the time I reach my floor and I take a moment to catch my breath. Drawn to the window with its view of the Liverpool waterfront, I follow the line of docks until they’re rudely interrupted by the modern edifice of a thirteen-storey office block that sits awkwardly between Canning Dock and the Pier Head. This is Mann Island, and although it hasn’t been an island for centuries, the place where I work certainly looks stranded next to the iconic outlines of the Port of Liverpool, Cunard and Liver Buildings. The Three Graces had been basking in the afterglow of a crisp autumn day when I’d set off on the short trek home along the Strand, but the world has darkened since, and the Graces have been reduced to silhouettes, pockmarked with yellow, fluorescent lights. As I step back from the window, my eyes refocus and I catch my reflection.

The apparition floating beyond the sheet of glass is weighed down by the heavy houndstooth woollen jacket hanging off her shoulders. Her round face is framed by straggly mouse-brown hair and a severe fringe that’s become frayed from her exertions. Her complexion is pale against the starless night and there’s no spark in her eyes. The fight has left her.

I don’t recognise this woman captured by the failing light, or perhaps I do. There’s something about her that reminds me of Meg. My cousin’s hair was a similar shade although you would describe hers as golden, and she never hid behind a fringe. Meg was bold, and yet the hopelessness in the face that stares back at me immediately brings her to mind.

I retreat to the exit door only to stop when I hear a noise. The soft squeak of a rubber sole on linoleum came from the floor above, or I think it did. The world falls silent again and I’m about to dismiss the crawling sensation that I’m being watched when—

‘Hello, Jen.’

Instinctively, I grab the safety bar but I don’t open the door because I’ve already recognised the deep voice that sent a jolt of terror down my spine. The fact that he’s here shouldn’t surprise me, and I know it won’t matter if I run away, or stand and fight. He’s already won.

I turn my head slowly but he stops me.

‘Don’t turn around.’

Keeping my head to the side, I stare at the window with its mirror image of the landing behind me. No figure appears from the shadows, no hand reaches out to wrap around my neck.

‘What is this? Don’t you have the guts to face me?’ I ask, my voice surprisingly calm.

There’s a pause and when he replies, he sounds closer. ‘If I thought it was going to be easy, we would have had this conversation ten years ago.’

‘This conversation?’ I ask. ‘If it’s a confession you’re planning, I’m not the one you should be talking to. It’s Meg’s parents who deserve answers.’

‘Ruth and Geoff don’t need to hear what I have to say.’

‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve been protecting them all these years.’

‘Not only them.’

My laugh catches in my dry throat. ‘Oh, I see. You’ve been protecting me too.’

‘If Meg had wanted you to know everything, she’d have told you everything.’

‘Maybe she tried,’ I reply as I picture a torn scrap of yellow lined paper. Meg’s suicide note, or at least a remnant of it.

‘No, she didn’t,’ he says with finality. ‘Christ, Jen, didn’t you know her at all?’

‘She was my best friend. Of course I knew her!’ I tell him, raising my voice to camouflage the doubt.

‘Not like I did,’ he says in a whisper.

A door swings open three flights down and shrieks of laughter ricochet off the walls as a group of raucous, and possibly drunken friends race to the ground floor. Their giddiness reminds me of times lost, but I can’t trust my memories. How many of Meg’s smiles were a disguise for unfathomable pain?

When another door slams shut and stillness returns, I hear the whisper of stealthy footfalls. I scan the reflection of the empty landing and glimpse movement on the small section of the stairs that are visible to me. I spy a pair of black boots and legs clad in dark jeans. I twist my body towards him.

‘I said, don’t turn around.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I can’t . . .’ He curses under his breath. ‘I won’t do this if you’re looking at me.’

 

Don’t Turn Around is out now in paperback! Continue reading here

Extract | While You Sleep by Stephanie Merritt

Category: Extract

While You Sleep

 

Prologue

 

It begins, they say, with a woman screaming.

You can’t tell at first if it’s pleasure or pain, or that tricky place where the two meet; you’re almost embarrassed to hear it, but if you listen closer it comes to sound more like anguish, a lament torn from the heart: like an animal cry of loss, or defiance, or fury, carried across the cove from cliff to cliff on the salt wind.

If you stand on the beach with your back to the sea, they’ll tell you, looking up at the McBride house, you might catch, behind tall windows on the first floor, the fleetest shift of a shadow. All the rooms dark through glass; not even the flicker of a candle, only the shape that shivers at that same window and vanishes, quick as breath, under the broken reflections of clouds and moon. They’ll say the woman’s keening grows louder as the gale seeks unprotected corners of the house, swirls around the pointed gables, shakes the weathervane on the turret and rattles the attic windows in their frames. But listen again; when the wind drops, there is nothing but the wild sea, and the occasional drawn-out moans of the seals beyond the headland.

Only on certain nights, the islanders will tell incomers; when the moon is high and the air whipped up like the white-peaked waves in the bay. Be patient and you might hear her. Plenty will swear to it.

 

The two boys crouch by a ridge of rocks at the foot of the cliff, watching the house. It is still half a ruin; naked beams poke into the moonlit sky like the ribs of some great flayed beast. They hesitate, each waiting for the other to move. They have come this far to test the old stories, they can’t lose face now. The summer night is mild and clear; too balmy for ghosts. They are girding themselves when the screaming starts. They turn to one another in astonishment; fear makes them giggle.

‘Let’s go,’ whispers the nimble, ginger boy. He has his phone in his hand, ready to capture it on film.

But his companion has frozen to the spot, stricken, his eyes stretched wide and fixed on the house.

‘Come on, we’ll miss it.’

The heavier boy retreats a few paces, shaking his head.

The ginger one hesitates, his lip curling with scorn. ‘Pussy.’

He sets off over the sand and marram grass to the half-open door, his phone held out at arm’s length. Left behind on the beach, his friend watches him disappear into the shadows.

The waves break and retreat, over and over, dragging layers of shingle into the restless water. A new scream echoes across the beach, a child’s cry this time. The last traces of light ebb from the sky and behind the windows of the McBride house there is nothing but solid darkness.

***

 

On a remote Scottish island, the McBride house stands guard over its secrets. A century ago, a young widow and her son died mysteriously there; just last year a local boy, visiting for a dare, disappeared without a trace.

For Zoe Adams, newly arrived from America, the house offers a refuge from her failing marriage. But her peaceful retreat is disrupted by strange and disturbing events: night-time intrusions; unknown voices; a constant sense of being watched.

The locals want her to believe that these incidents are echoes of the McBrides’ dark past. Zoe is convinced the danger is closer at hand, and all too real – but can she uncover the truth before she is silenced?

 

This Halloween read the chilling, unputdownable thriller that will send shivers up your spine! OUT NOW and only £2.99 in eBook.