Longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize, the second novel from Graeme Macrae Burnet was based on ‘found’ documents. A historical, psychological thriller in a unique format, the novel reads as if it is relating a true crime and recounts the story of young crofter Roderick Macrae (yes, the same name as the author) who is standing trial for three brutal murders.
Its sub-heading is “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” and these include Macrae’s own confessional memoir written in Inverness jail while awaiting trial; an account by the psychiatrist sent to evaluate his mental state; and a compilation of newspaper reports of the trial itself.
Set in the 1860’s in the impoverished village of Culduie in Scotland, we encounter a divided community where religion and hierarchy are pitted against the poverty of tenant farmers in the Highlands.
Roddy has already told us that he is guilty of the triple murder, but the question we (the reader) want answered is why didn’t he defend himself or try to cover up the crime?
We had been told that he was an intelligent boy but had been denied the chance of further education. His teacher could see his potential and came to his cottage to try and convince Roddy’s father to let him pursue something more than farming. One of the witnesses, Carmina Smoke, describes Roddy as a ‘pleasant child’ who became ‘a courteous and obliging young man’, but who then goes on to recount what she sees as his ‘Peeping-Tom’ and exhibitionist behaviour. Reverend James Galbraith states that he displays ‘easily discernible wickedness’. So, just as we think that we understand what had occurred, new interpretations appear in the form of character statements.
Using these clever devices, Burnet leaves us to come to our own conclusion, drawing on what we have been told. The problem is who is telling the truth! Was the result a sentence of grotesque injustice? As Burnet said himself, it is “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel”.
The tension of the trial was palpable and kept the reader on tenterhooks as we waited for new testimonies to be delivered that would change the final outcome. What would we have done in Roddy’s position? Did the jury finally reach the right decision? We will never know.
Cleverly written using the dialect that would have been spoken in a small Scottish hamlet, the book is a well-crafted story that covers social, political and personal themes including the effects of poverty, injustice, oppression, class and religion within 19th century communities. The question could be asked… has much changed in the 21st century?
Book Group Rating: 4 Stars