The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney – 2022

1975 – a fire rages through a tenement building, killing a woman, her child, and two men. A man is tortured to death and his body dumped in the city. A bomb blast disintegrates a pub and shatters its surroundings. The Glasgow Serious Crime Squad is tasked with discovering who lit the fire, who killed the man, who bombed the pub. DI Duncan McCormack, recently returned from six years in the Met in London, heads up the squad.

Reading The Heretic, you smell the stench of uncollected rubbish, feel the fear of those who worry about retribution from the Maitland gang, “Walter Maitland ruled the whole city”. You sense the heat of the fire, the horror of the bomb blast. You read about a society that is misogynist and cruel, one that doesn’t get to display its homophobia, as gay relationships are scrupulously hidden, but you know it is there. There’s an atmosphere of unfinished business. McCormack has returned to Glasgow where he solved the case of the serial killer nicknamed the Quaker. Although, as he stands by the grave of a woman whose body does not belong to the name on the gravestone, he knows that case still has loose ends.

McCormack has returned at the encouragement of DCI Flett, but Flett has had a heart attack, so McCormack is reporting to DCI Alan Haddow. Haddow hates McCormack because in bringing down the men behind the Quaker, he brought down Peter Levein, a high ranking cop to whom many had hitched their careers, Haddow included. McCormack has broken the promise of backing up your colleagues, “how’s anyone supposed to trust you now?” McCormack’s new team is made up of DC Liz Nicol, who had a good start in the force, before the ‘integration’ of women officers ruined it for her and other women. DC Iain Shand is on the team, a prickly obnoxious officer who is oddly keen – McCormack doesn’t trust him one bit. And DS Derek Goldie. Goldie was McCormack’s partner on the Quaker case, so his career options have plummeted and he bears much resentment.

The Heretic describes hierarchies, the echelons of sex workers, gangsters, police officers, politicians – with members always wanting to rise up, or being forced down, their respective caste system. It is easy to see the big picture, the turf wars, the endless jockeying for position. But Nicol and McCormack know it is often personal grievances behind atrocities. Nicol sees prostitutes as people with information, not “hoors” or “slappers” – Shand’s words – and she gets some valuable intel. Many of the characters were either in ‘care’ as children, or they had connections with children’s homes, one in particular: Auldpark.

The characters in The Heretic are vividly drawn. Nicol with her tragic backstory, determined to succeed in her career. Christopher Kidd, a young man with ambitions, motivations, and a load of guilt. Alex Kerr, one of Maitland’s henchmen, making a brief but memorable appearance as a man with a colourful history who is on the cusp of death. Maitland’s feisty young son: “There’s more than one way to kill a family.” Eileen Elliot, daughter of Gavin Elliot, the man who had been tortured in a very specific way before being killed. She is an intriguing woman who neither the reader nor McCormack takes at face value. And then there is McCormack …

We first met McCormack in The Quaker, and we learn more about him in The Heretic. He’s a Highlander, a Catholic, and he’s gay. He lives in a time-slip of a flat he inherited from his gran. He draws the line at the polis being in the pockets of gangsters, but he is not above trashing a pub to get a point across. He has kept a pile of unopened letters from a single person, and he doesn’t take or return tearful phone calls. When his lover arrives from London, he lives with a tense mix of love and constant fear. He copes with the hostility of his fellow officers, and has a tolerable working relationship with Goldie. He gets on well with Nicol, apart from the occasional spat, and they have a banter that shows McCormack’s sense of humour.   

The atmosphere of The Heretic is like around-the-fire-storytelling, the narrative coming at you as the dark closes in, and you really want to hear how the clan’s hero conquers all evil. But it is never that simple. One character remembers serving in Belfast: “It’s as if a war is happening in a different dimension to everyday life” – that is the feeling the reader gets, that there are parallel realities in Glasgow, and maybe the polis are operating on the wrong plane. There is another sequence of letters in the writing, these the only first person narrative in the book, they are unsent and provide yet another sad dimension to this profound novel.

The three mysteries are complex, with many characters and no obvious connection between many of them. But McCormack and Nicol keep at it, they question all their assumptions, and eventually the connections fall into place, and the mysteries are solved. But that doesn’t make anything better, “This is Glasgow … We don’t do uplifting.” The Heretic is dark, tragic, but compelling reading – you want to keep reading, you want good things to happen, because you care about McCormack – hopefully we will meet him again in further mysteries. Highly recommended.

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