I love a good historical thriller, so I was delighted to see this book by Graeme Macrae Burnet on the Booker longlist. It was, after all, the Booker longlist that finally got me to read Sarah Waters. Might Burnet be as good as Waters? Okay, that’s too much to hope for perhaps, but something along the lines of Michael Cox would be perfectly fine. And there is a great deal about this book to enjoy.
Burnet frames the story as something he came across when doing research into the life of his grandfather. The book itself is a collection of documents, the bulk of which is the memoir by 17-year-old Roderick Macrae from the tiny Scottish village of Culduie. Roddy wrote the memoir in 1869 while in jail awaiting trial for a brutal triple murders. He admits to committing the crime, but the memoir provides some background into why and how he did it.
This memoir, on its own, is frequently ridiculous, and I rolled my eyes at a lot of it. A murderer with a heart of gold? Please. Give me Henry Drax of The North Water any day over that. But it is Roddy telling the story, and one of the first anecdotes he shares, involving the loss of his future victim’s sheep, reveals an essential aspect of his character that is crucial to keep in mind when reading the memoir.
Aside from Roddy himself being ridiculous, his story is a sad one, involving poverty and deprivation, often at the hands of Lachlan Broad, the man he eventually kills. A lot of it is predictable, in the way that so many stories of poverty are. Every attempt the family makes to better themselves is blocked. Roddy’s father is consumed with anger, seemingly believing that their misfortune is a judgment from God. It’s an engaging story, but on its own, it doesn’t amount to much.
It’s the documents that come after that make the memoir interesting. First, there’s a grisly description of the bodies of Roddy’s victims. Then, there’s an excerpt of a memoir by a criminal anthropologist who examined Roddy. And finally, there’s a lengthy account of Roddy’s trial.
These items are essential for showing Roddy’s memoir in the proper light. Without them, there’d be no way to know whether the ridiculousness of Roddy’s memoir was intentional or whether Burnet is a hackneyed writer trafficking entirely in cliche. However, I wish they’d been shorter. The trial account in particular was too long, especially when it went over many of the same points as in Roddy’s memoir without much deviation. And one particular event in the trial regarding the single witness for the defense was ridiculous enough that I began to doubt the author again.
Roddy’s defense hinges on the question of his sanity, and the documents that make up this novel raise a lot of interesting questions about what sanity looks like. To what degree, for example, is it defined by social class, with the more privileged deciding that those who live differently cannot be quite right? And could someone who kills in the way Roddy does possibly be considered sane? Can a person be driven to kill by circumstances? I think all of these points could have been pursued in a satisfying way without going over the same ground repeatedly, and the book might have packed more of a punch with less material after the shocking passage on the condition of the bodies.
I don’t know if this will make my Booker shortlist. I certainly found it entertaining, and I’m not one to discount that as an indicator of quality. But I’m also aware of the ways it falls short of what it could have been, which is very different from recognizing the skill behind a book but not really liking it much, which has been a common occurrence with this list.