I’m not sure how to categorise this book. There is a grisly murder, a trial and a life story yet none of these seem to adequately explain what this book is about. This story is presented as an account of a bloody triple murder in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. The author begins by describing how he came across a document relating to the murders when he was researching his family history. The first part of the book is a transcript of this document which is written by Roderick MacRae, the young man who committed the murders. It is the story of his life and upbringing in a small Highland village and the circumstances that lead him to commit the murders. The cast of characters is small and eccentric – his father is a remote, stoic figure who beats his son and shows no affection to any of his children, even after the death of their mother; his sister who assumes the duties of housekeeper and seems to have a gift of second sight and prophecy; his neighbours including the Murchison’s who are kindly towards him and the Mackenzie’s whose daughter he loves and whose father treats him and his family poorly.
Interspersed in this account is the time Roddy spends in prison awaiting his trial. He converses with his solicitor, Mr Sinclair, who gets him to write the account of his life, and is visited by doctors whose job it is to decide on his sanity. Roddy takes everything in his stride and comes across as a most detached young man.
The next sections of the book concern the medical reports, including the descriptions of the bodies. A lengthy treatise on criminal insanity explains the Victorian attitude to crime and criminal responsibility and this is alluded to again in the next section which covers the trial.
The whole book reads like a series of first hand accounts and historical documents and from this point of view it is fascinating. However, all is not as it seems. This is a work of fiction inspired by several murders of the period, one in Scotland and one in France but there was no triple murder in the area and Roderick MacRae is not an historical figure. From this point of view this book is brilliantly constructed. At no point did I feel as if the documents were anything other than authentic, the phrasing and vocabulary feel right and the attention to historical detail is outstanding, especially with regard to the Victorian attitudes to poverty, mental health and criminal responsibility. These feel odd to a modern reader but are handled with great aplomb by the author.
I was immediately drawn into the story and found the characters engaging and realistic. Although their stories differ, making them unreliable narrators, I enjoyed following their versions of events and spotting the inconsistencies. I found Roddy to be a most sympathetic character, even though some of the things he did were most unsavoury. He is a product of his background and upbringing, has few opportunities in life and is thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. His reactions to these are rather extreme and I wasn’t wholly convinced by his explanation of the murders but then that is the point; these killings seem random and meaningless and yet they tear a community apart.
I read this book in two sittings, pausing only to sleep and I was hooked throughout, desperate to reach the end and find out what happened to Roddy. I will certainly look out for Graeme MacRae Burnet’s other novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. If it’s in anyway as good as this one I’m in for a terrific read.