review: the duncan mccormack series by liam mcIlvanney

I think I just found my newest crime-thriller fixation. Liam McIlvanney’s Duncan McCormack is the series I’ve most thoroughly enjoyed this year so far. I dove into it headlong, reading The Quaker and its sequel, The Heretic, back-to-back as if they contained the only oxygen in the room. The third installment literally cannot be published fast enough. I NEED MY NEXT FIX ASAP.

The Quaker, the first book of the Duncan McCormack series, was my introduction to McIlvanney’s work and I was quickly drawn to his style of storytelling. McIlvanney has a galvanic way of writing suspense, action, and peril that makes it impossible for you to let your eyes wander past the perimeter of the page. I was utterly compelled by the mystery, by the rich and vivid vision of late 1960’ and early 1970’ Glasgow, by the sharp currents of the plot, and the inscrutable and bitingly likeable protagonist who is caught in them.

The series begins in 1969 Glasgow and follows the story of detective Duncan McCormack as he is first dispatched to the Marine Police Station and tasked with observing and reporting on the ongoing investigation into a serial killer terrorizing Glaswegians (The Quaker), and seven years later, as he returns to the city as its lauded hero and the new lead detective in the investigation into a series of seemingly unconnected murders (The Heretic).

This summary does not pretend to do the series full justice, but I don't want to surrender too many details about the plot because I went into these books knowing very little about them and my experience was definitely all the better for it. I will say though that however compelling the plot is, the series' most rewarding experience for me lies with its eponymous hero, Duncan McCormack.

McCormack is as compelling a protagonist as it has ever been, and McIlvanney yields very little about him; the rest he makes you work for.

There’s something unknowable from the outset about our protagonist, something just a tiny bit inscrutable about the turning of his thoughts—an acute sense that there is much more being said than what is encountered on the page. In the hands of another author, this might have had the undesirable effect of lessening the reader’s connection to the protagonist. But in McIlvanney’s hands, all this guarded control only enhances it.

To me, this is McIlvanney’s greatest narrative effect: every hint of McCormack’s private self must be earned. The author’s character work is not an exercise in showing or telling, but rather in excavating. Put differently, the narrative teaches you how to break open the words for hidden meanings, how to look for the unspoken dimensions. Reading then becomes, in turn, an exercise in patience, attention, and compassion: you learn to store away the pieces of McCormack’s life, to patiently wait to receive another piece, and then put them together like the tiles of a puzzle game.

Indeed, throughout the series, vignettes of McCormack’s inner life light up and go out swiftly, like matches. In these moments of intense vulnerability, you get the sense of a man who is raw and guarded and lonely in some horribly deep way, all his longings and desires and failings sealed in him. Someone who is deeply wounded and only held together with willpower, sheer stubbornness, and drawing pins. I hungered for the sincerity of these rare moments and felt strangely humbled by them. Vulnerability, this series reminded me, must be earned, and McIlvanney makes gifts of trust with each new revelation, with each layer newly and painfully peeled.

We learn to read McCormack’s evasions and silences as the language of survival, the language of a man caught between two worlds which he has long held separate from each other. The sharpness of McCormack’s loneliness, the viciousness of his secrecy, the way he seems to have made a habit of hiding, will be familiar to anyone who is queer and is forced/has been forced to hide it in plain sight. I felt a visceral sympathy for McCormack, and an almost painful resonance in his experiences.

In this series, McIlvanney takes a private reality that’s very difficult to articulate and articulates it—in tone, language, and feeling. McIlvanney turns the imposed invisibleness of being in the closet into something so concrete no one can look away from. Queerness in the text is both a present absence and an absent presence: it’s undeniably there but it can’t always be spoken—not directly anyway, only in hints and allusions and references. Like a ghost, it haunts the pages, waiting to be acknowledged. This speaks so profoundly to the essence of being in the closet: a life lived in suspension by necessity, saturated with so many silences and absences that transmute into habit and memory and become difficult to unlearn. The narrative makes it clear this is not about shame. McCormack is not ashamed of who he is, but he knew that for someone like him “being gay, being queer, being bent: it wasn’t a team sport. You were in this thing alone.”

There’s something that hurts so much in all of this—in McCormack’s attempts to make peace with a contentment he knows will never be true joy, in the constant oppression of fear McCormack has to live with, and his reckless clamoring for any kind of solitude that might anesthetize it. This is all stuff that cuts to the bone, but it’s important to know that this is not a series without hope, forgiveness, or joy.

The Heretic is, in many ways, the beginning of an ongoing project in outgrowing the painful, intimate realities that have defined McCormack up until this point. Somewhere after The Quaker and before The Heretic (in an unwritten sequel that I would give up just about anything to read), McCormack finds the catalyst for this beginning, the possibility that he might not have to be “in this thing alone” after all. I don’t want to surrender any more in the way of spoilers, but just know that I am on fire with anticipation for the third book just for more glimpses of raw tenderness between McCormack and—I’m just gonna shut up now.

In short, you do not want to miss this series.

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