In 1869, Roderick Macrae is arrested for a brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community. He is seventeen years old. Roderick Macrae is unquestionably guilty of these murders, but why did he kill these people? Will he hang as a consequence?
This novel takes the form of a series of documents, discovered by the author when researching his family history. Can it be fact, or is it fiction?
The novel opens with a number of police statements taken from the villagers of Culdie in Ross-Shire. There are a range of different views offered about Roderick Macrae: which is accurate? Was he a wicked child, or was he the gentle, quiet child recalled by one of the villagers? These differing views make it difficult to get a clear image of Roderick. Different people, differing views. But these papers also contain Roderick Macrae’s own memoirs, and in them he outlines the events leading up to the murders. Graeme Macrae Burnet adds other dimensions to the narrative by including other documents, such as medical reports, psychological assessments of Roderick Macrae, and a court transcript of the trial.
In the face of fact and assertion, and with Roderick Macrae’s memoir providing some insights into his actions, I thought I understood why he committed one of the murders. I certainly understood how (even though I needed the glossary to understand what a flaughter is). But the other two murders? We know, from the memoir, why he thought them necessary. It’s ironic that there was another person present, but unable to witness.
What do I make of this novel? It’s brilliantly constructed. Graeme Macrae Burnet makes the crofting community real, with his descriptions of the hard work, the hierarchy, the weather. Lachlan Mackenzie, the elected local constable, makes the lives of Roderick and his family utterly miserable. There is no redress for them, no way to be heard. They are utterly powerless. Was murder the only way Roderick Macrae could hope to obtain a form of justice?
This novel made me think from beginning to end. About the lives of the crofters and their choices. About Roderick Macrae. About disadvantage. And about different perspectives and how truth can be obscured.