I am writing this at the behest of my advocate,
Mr Andrew Sinclair, who since my incarceration
here in Inverness has treated me with a degree
of civility I in no way deserve.
On a seemingly normal morning in 1869, a brutal triple murder rocks the remote highland village of Culduie. There is no doubt that the perpetrator is local teenager, Roderick Macrae, who freely and openly admits to carrying out the bloody crime.
All that's left in question is his motive, and his sanity.
All that's left in question is his motive, and his sanity.
Of the six books shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize (and indeed the longlist too), this is the one that really caught my eye. Murder, death and moral ambiguity, all within an historical setting? Sign me up. To read it. Not live it. No real life murder, thanks.
This novel masquerades as non-fiction, consisting of a series of historical documents the author "found" concerning the trial of Roderick Macrae for the murders at Culduie. The story is made up of three main sections, a memoir of the events leading up to the murders apparently written by Roderick himself while awaiting trial, an extract from a book written by a contemporary expert in the criminal mind who was a witness for the defense, and an account of the trial itself as reported by the newspapers, with smaller snippets of police witness statements and medical examiner reports slotted between them. It all comes together to create a really very cohesive whole, each new source of information filling in holes we didn't even know were there, building up a complete picture of what happened layer by layer.
Roderick Macrae, also known as Roddy Black, is a quite fascinating character, the central focus of the story and the voice we are hearing a good chunk of the narrative from, but we never really get to know him, he gives us an account of what happened but never lets us in beyond the surface of himself. It is very easy to feel a great deal of sympathy for his plight, an intelligent boy in an impoverished state with no prospect of a brighter future, condemned to a life of physical labour and hardship when he could have so much more. It's not even hard to understand why he would want to rid the world of Lachlan Broad, the local constable who abuses his power and uses it to pursue a vindictive campaign against Roddy's family, he's certainly not a character who would be overly mourned.
But Roderick is an incredibly unrealiable narrator, a confessed and unremorseful triple murderer presenting his version of events, subtly swaying our perception by getting his case in first with the reader having no way of verifying the veracity or completeness of his account. Despite the sympathy his tale evokes there is a small but ever present feeling that there is something not quite right about Roderick, he's slightly unnerving and just a bit creepy, he reacts very oddly, almost unnaturally to some things, and his account of the murders is strikingly cold and detached. As a reader you just know that there is more to it than he is telling us, something worse than triple murder that he wants to stay secret.
Of course this feeling grows as the other threads of the story start to be woven in, as we hear from other people and are presented with physical evidence. There are hugely important revelations tossed in in a blink and you'll miss it moment during postmortem medical examinations, something that instantly changes your perception of what happened and maybe why, throwing everything we thought we knew into disarray and doubt, an expertly placed nugget of information that would be easy to miss but proves vital. It all builds up to the final crescendo of the trial, the most absorbing part for me, as the defence and prosecution batter each other's arguments, each side trying to prove Roddy's sanity or lack thereof.
Of course the question of sanity is hugely important here, using some of the theories that were prevalent at the time it is examined on several levels, both by the characters and by the reader, whether these were the acts of just a cold blooded killer or a raving lunatic, if a readiness to confess just shows an insensibility of the reality of the crimes or something more sinister. Ideas of social class are very prominent too, questioning whether Roddy was doomed to criminality by his origins, but also taking a look at the wider nature of the relationship between the poor crofters and those in authority over them, the church, the constable, the Factor, and the Laird, whether they are parasitic or symbiotic, abusive or just doing it for the greater good.
There is a real feeling of authenticity here, though the eloquence of Roderick's memoir requires a pinch of salt, the bleak Scottish Highlands are beautifully rendered, the dreary drudgery of the insular, isolated existence of the crofters of Culduie brought so vividly to life that you can start to forget that this is fiction. You can almost feel the hardship of the endless struggle to eek out the merest of existences, the people seemingly resigned to their lot in life, even any solace to be found in religion dampened by being told their suffering is all of their own doing. This is a pretty bleak story, not surprising considering its subject matter, but there are some welcome moments of humour, from the buffoonery of certain characters or the extravagant drama of the media.
This was definitely an interesting read, something a bit different for the Booker as this is far more of a genre story than they usually go for, although this still leans heavily towards the literary. I very much enjoyed this, reading it in a single day, drawn in completely by this rather macabre tale. Complex, fascinating and somewhat enthralling in its cold morbidity, this is well worth a read for anyone who doesn't mind a bit of murder with their literary fiction.
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Murder, blood, sexual assault, death of animals, suicide