Otago professor Liam McIlvanney talks to Craig Sisterson about giving a voice to crime victims and using a novel to explore the West of Scotland equivalent of the Kennedy assassination.

Black lines carve a stark image, an impassive face staring from newsprint. Fair-headed, perhaps red, they say; a neat side parting, hair shorter than the fashions in the late 1960s. There's something mesmerising about the hand-drawn portrait - or maybe that's more to do with the story that goes with it.

For the first time, the Scottish press has been given the identikit of a murder suspect: the likeness of the man police think has killed three women after nights out at a local dance hall. The nondescript face of a man whose deeds have terrorised Glasgow's populace. A serial killer with a religious nickname, coined from hazy observations of a victim's sister.

"The Bible John murders were a kind of West of Scotland equivalent of the Kennedy assassination," says Dunedin author Liam McIlvanney, who was born just outside of Glasgow at the time of the investigation. "They seemed to crystallise something about that time and place."

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McIlvanney, who's been Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago for nearly a decade, says he always knew he wanted to write about the Bible John case, ever since he was a boy growing up in Ayrshire.

"Ian Rankin touches on the subject in his 1997 novel, Black and Blue, which is one of the truly great Scottish crime novels," he says. "But Black and Blue is set in the 1990s, not in the 1960s, and in some ways, too, I felt that it wasn't Rankin's story to tell. This was our story, it was a West of Scotland story and it needed someone who grew up in that part of the country to tell it from the inside, as it were. It was a story that haunted the conversation of adults around us, a story that we talked about in the playground."

Originally, McIlvanney was planning to write a "factual novel" of the kind pioneered in the UK by writers like Gordon Burn, David Peace and Eoin McNamee. But that didn't quite sit right.

"I began to have misgivings about ethics of using a real-life case while the children of the victims were still alive," he says. "To get around this, I decided to invent a fictional fourth Bible John murder, so that I could draw on the resonance of the first three murders while focusing my narrative on the invented fourth killing. Then I thought, why stop there? Why not fictionalise the whole thing, change the names, free yourself from the tyranny of fact?"

The result is The Quaker, an atmospheric leap into the past, textured with an array of intriguing characters, tough issues and some nuanced interplay between them. McIlvanney's first crime novel in five years sees DI Duncan McCormack tasked with sorting out the stalled investigation into the murders of three women.

He's parachuted into the "Quaker" team from the elite Flying Squad, with instructions to establish why the killer hasn't been caught.

It's a test for the copper-on-the-rise from the Highlands, and a poisoned chalice. His new colleagues are frustrated, exhausted and hate him on sight; his bosses seem more concerned with politics and PR and McCormack is harbouring career-ending secrets of his own. Then another woman dies.

In an atypical choice for the genre, McIlvanney includes the ghost-like voices of those victims.

"It is indeed quite a risky, perhaps foolhardy, device to use," he admits. "The tradition in crime fiction is that everything should be explicable, amenable to reason. It's also true, however, that the border between crime fiction and the Gothic has been pretty permeable, particularly in the Scottish tradition (think of Hogg, Stevenson, Conan Doyle) and I was trying to walk the same line in The Quaker. My main rationale was a desire to give voice to the murdered women - to let them appear, not simply as plot points and victims, but as full-blooded human beings who enjoyed a vivid inner life before they became names in a newspaper headline."

McIlvanney won the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for his previous novel, Where the Dead Men Go, the second in a planned trilogy about contemporary Glasgow journalist Gerry Conway. Shortly after our interview, The Quaker was longlisted for the Scottish crime-writing award, the McIlvanney Prize (named for Liam's father William, a novelist who wrote the Laidlaw books and is widely considered the "godfather of Tartan Noir").

Straddling the Kiwi and Scottish crime-writing communities, McIlvanney's insider-outsider perspective was one reason he decided the time was right for his Bible John-inspired book.

"I was getting increasingly uneasy at the prospect of continuing to write topical thrillers set in a country I haven't lived in for the best part of a decade," he says. "In that context, continuing to write topical novels about Scotland seemed a bit of a stretch. The past, however, is a foreign country. We are all equally distant from 1960s Scotland."

McIlvanney says he enjoyed revisiting the "old, dark Glasgow" in The Quaker, the place that existed before the city rebranded itself as a cool city of culture in the late 1980s and 1990s.

"One of the tangible manifestations of Glasgow's renaissance was the sandblasting of the old soot-encrusted tenements and public buildings in the 1980s," he recalls. "All those forbidding black buildings were suddenly restored to their original blonde and red sandstone. It was like the city moved from black-and-white into technicolour.

"I remember old 'noir' Glasgow from my early childhood and this book was an attempt to bring that Glasgow back to life."

Lowdown

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins, $35)