It’s 1869 and Roderick Macrae, a young man from the Scottish highland village of Culduie, is being held in jail after a gruesome murder. He’s a smart young man, shy and insightful, and he never denies committing the act. The question is what drove him to do it.
This is a novel composed of found footage, essentially. First we’re shown police statements taken from the residents of Culduie, some praising Roderick as a wonderful kid and others calling him a animal-abusing lunatic. The story ends with a transcript of the trial and various other documents, such as his medical assessment. The largest section of this book is comprised of Roderick’s written account of his life in the village and the events leading up to the murder. He’s a genius, held back from his scholarly potential by his depressed and aggressive father, and it’s a detailed and eloquent retelling.
This was very well-written and gripping from start to finish. I really enjoyed the story, and I loved the historical setting of 19th century Scotland, particularly on audio. We get a glimpse into the early days of using psychological assessment in law, as well as the now, thankfully, outdated use of physiognomy. I’ve seen the book criticized in how unrealistically intelligent and level-headed Roderick Macrae appeared to be, but I thought that added an even greater sense of eeriness to the story. His somewhat detached retelling of what happened is reminiscent of The Stranger, where his personal morality, however at odds with society’s, left him confident that his actions were justified. He’s the narrator of his story and has a very sincere tone, so the reader is left wondering how reliable that narration truly is, and whether anything was omitted or altered. The trial at the end manages to be suspenseful, even when knowing the outcome going in. It brilliantly sheds light on Roderick’s memoir in subtle and surprising ways, presenting certain revelations and leaving them for the reader to interpret.
This was on last year’s shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, which some people did not like at all. Not because it’s a bad book, but because they felt it fell outside of the literary fiction genre. This could be seen as crime fiction, and some people argued that the purpose of the Man Booker Prize is to expose contemporary literary fiction to a wider audience, and that it was a disservice to include a novel outside of that genre. I can see the reasoning, but I think a large part of the problem is that the genre of literary fiction is just so vague. I love reading it, but I think it needs a new name and a reworded definition.
Literary fiction is described as having ‘literary merit’, which is a term I just hate. How anyone can argue that the involvement of a detective or a castle or a spaceship can somehow wipe a story clean of any realistic emotional complexity or its ability to comment on the human condition is beyond me. I can understand not enjoying certain settings, but to write off those books in that way seems so snobbish and unimaginative to me. I personally don’t see a problem with including a vaguely crime-centric novel in the prize nominations, but as someone who reads across most genres, I guess I just don’t care as much about those divides as someone who limits themselves to just literary fiction.
Anyhoo, it made it to the shortlist. I can’t say whether it was well-deserved or not, having not read the other longlisted novels, but I found it to be an engrossing read. Graeme Macrae Burnet wrote another book a few years prior to this, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, and I’ll definitely pick up a copy of that when I come across it.