EVERYTHING is familiar. The setting is Glasgow, the genre is crime, and the name on the cover is McIlvanney.

Yet nothing is as it seems.

When he’s at home, 12,000 miles away, his name is not only unrecognisable, it’s unpronounceable. When he’s back in Scotland, however, things are very different for author Liam McIlvanney.

“I quite enjoy the anonymity of living there,” says the New Zealand exile, a week after returning home to write and live in the motherland where the shadow of his late father still looms large.

“I suppose that whole ‘I kent his faither’ thing is literally true in my case, because everyone did know my father. So it’s quite nice to be away from that.”

His father, of course, was William, the country’s pre-eminent crime fiction writer, dubbed "the father of Tartan Noir", and whose Laidlaw series is considered the first of the genre.

“I like living in a country where nobody can spell or pronounce your damn name let alone know its significance,” Ayrshire-raised McIlvanney says when we meet in Glasgow’s city centre, the other side of the world from his family home in Dunedin, to discuss his new novel The Quaker.

If his family name is familiar then so, too, is the inspiration for his story, which sees a murderer preying on women around the dance halls of 1960s Glasgow. Bodies are found in back court lanes, the killer’s twisted calling cards echoing those of the country’s most elusive spectre. A nickname is ascribed, sprung from the pages of the local papers, resting uneasily on the city’s lips.

But this isn’t the story of Bible John.

“I started off doing a true-life novel about the Bible John murders, then decided it was probably better to fictionalise the whole thing,” says McIlvanney.

“Part of what gave me pause was dubiety over writing about something that was still a source of hurt to people, the relatives of the victims. But following the facts of the story with utter faithfulness constrained what I wanted to do. As a writer your duty is to the story rather than the facts as they happened.

“So I thought it was easier if I base it loosely on the Bible John story, then fictionalise it. It gives you leeway to take care of the trajectory of the story, rather than be focussed on the fidelity of the case.” To illustrate the point: Bible John had three victims; Liam McIlvanney doesn’t stop there.

The Quaker is McIlvanney’s third novel, following All The Colours of The Town and Where Dead Men Go. But where the central character in those was a journalist working in contemporary Glasgow, his new work follows Duncan McCormack, a gay, shinty-playing cop from Ballachuillish, determined to catch The Quaker.

On a previous visit to Scotland, McIlvanney visited locations where victims were found. Was he lured by the temptation to "solve" the Bible John case?

“Not really,” he says. “I think it will never be resolved. It may well be that Bible John is Peter Tobin, but that doesn’t really interest me to be honest, and I think the DNA has degraded to such an extent that they couldn’t discern whether that was the case. But it wasn’t a way to tie up the loose ends of this ongoing mystery, absolutely not.”

Rather, it was a way to circumvent the logistical limitations of writing about a city in the northern hemisphere while sat at a desk in the southern.

“It was becoming more difficult to write about a place I haven’t lived for 10 years. My knowledge of contemporary Scotland, contemporary Glasgow, was becoming ever more attenuated the longer I spent in New Zealand.

“Writing a historical novel appealed to me, because Glasgow 1969 is something we’re all equally distant from. The past is another country. It was partly that, and the fascination with the Bible John story. That mythology was almost part of the furniture growing up in the west of Scotland.”

A cousin who worked as a firearms instructor with Strathclyde Police proved useful in research, connecting him to former City of Glasgow police officers active during Bible John’s era.

When it came to researching the life of a gay man in 1960s Glasgow – a character he hopes to develop over a series of stories – he drew unlikely guidance from biographical accounts of the life of one of the country’s best-loved writers.

“He’s on the margins. He’s a cop in Glasgow from the Highlands, he’s Catholic, he’s gay. It’s good to have your characters sitting at a tangent to the workplace or situation they are in,” says McIlvanney. “I didn’t want to make that big a deal of his sexuality, I just wanted him to be a character who happened to be gay. But at the same time I was conscious that being gay in 1969 in Scotland was illegal. So this character, whose duty is to uphold the law, is, by virtue of who he is, breaking the law at the same time.

“I had Edwin Morgan in mind as a figure from that period as a similar character, in that he had a job where he couldn’t acknowledge his sexuality and was familiar with different aspects of the city,” he says.

McIlvanney Senior, whose marriage to his first wife ended when his son was a child, died in 2015. Was there ever a longing to speak to him while writing the first novel?

“For better or worse I decided early on when writing fiction not to seek his advice,” he says. “I never showed him a word of it. It might have been short-sighted in retrospect, but I wanted to see if I could do this off my own back. I might have been able to do it better, or quicker, if I had, but that was the decision I made.”

McIlvanney’s day job is Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago. His first book was a critical study on another notorious figure from Scottish history, Robert Burns. That work, Burns The Radical, won a Saltire prize in 2002. He has, perhaps unsurprisingly, never compared himself to his father as a writer.

“I haven’t thought about it too much,” he says. “It might be quite debilitating if you were to compare yourself to your old man at every turn, so I try not to. I just try to improve upon what I did last time.”

That said, he did learn something from his father’s life spent wrangling with words. “I saw it was a hard job if you didn’t have a salary behind you,” he says. “It’s an uncertain, lonely way to make a living and I consciously decided to pursue my academic career in conjunction with my writing. I suppose I learned from the pitfalls and hazards of some of my old man’s experiences.”

McIlvanney will spend the next six months working on the follow-up to The Quaker, provisionally entitled The Civilian, while living in Ayrshire with his wife Valerie and their four sons, before returning south, where nobody kent his faither.

“I tend to be referred to as ‘Scottish born’ there, as if I’m not Scottish any more,” he says, laughing. “I’ve had my New Zealand citizenship accepted, so I need to go through a ceremony when I get back. It has been my home for 10 years, and my kids are growing up happily there. I’m becoming a New Zealander, of all things. But I’m professor of Scottish Studies in the Edinburgh of the south. I’m not going to lose touch with Scotland in that gig, put it that way.”


LIAM McIlvanney has spoken of New Zealand's "bewilderment" over Brexit.

The author, Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, has lived in Dunedin for 10 years.

He said: "A lot of people in New Zealand are bewildered why Britain is putting itself through this. There's an irony from a New Zealand perspective, in that when the UK went into the EEC in 1973 there was trauma for New Zealand which was forced to find new markets for its goods overnight.

"That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it became more independent and oriented itself towards Asia. So there's a bit of an irony, there, the thought that Britain might be crawling back for a trade deal."