“I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair, who since my incarceration here in Inverness, has treated me with a degree of civility I in no way deserve.”
GOOD writing is like singing, you hit a tone, a note and stick with it. The brogue, the history, the croft all sing as do the swiftly drawn characters and the setting of 1869 Culduie, Rothshire. We don’t get enough of this kind of semi journalistic history which delves into the fiction or faction of our own past and evokes the lives of ordinary people before us in a believable way. The cottages at the centre of this murder are still there and available for rent.
It calls itself a novel but this is also a Macrae writing about a Macrae. We are not bodice-ripping our way around political palaces, but have our hands in the peat bog. The issues are contemporary, as if they never went away and still haunt us. Roddy is a quiet boy in class who lets his sister speak for him but as it turns out he is a bright boy who does not want to show his classmates up…and as Macrae says in the introduction if he wrote this account himself then it was a feat itself, which is a part of the mystery.
The writing is economical, slightly period and elegant without too much flurry or flounce. “It was rather that he was better adapted to unhappiness”. It moves forward with actions and events and a minimum of exposition. We know from early on that we are being played with, drawn into a story of…well perhaps that is the rub. Sane or insane?
Burnet is quietly researching his grandfather’s family history, when he discovers a murderer in the family. “If my judgements in this seem questionable, I can only direct the reader to consult the manuscript which remains in the archive at Inverness,” he confesses. You will want an old armchair, a dram and a Janet MacPherson (for those old enough to remember Dr Finlay) to bring a tray of shortbread biscuits out to sustain you here.
The organisation is clever. The preface tells of the family quest. This is followed by statements from the scene. And then the main part is in the prison cell. Finally we are in court for the discovery. Throughout Burnet manages to maintain a sense of the present tense as he reassess the guilt or otherwise of his forebear, his involvement providing a gimlet into the heart of the wound and also asking inevitably how we might respond now.
Ideas are played with. What are your plans for the future? Only what is meant for me, I replied. Providence or fatalism hang in the air of the croft politic. Also a sense of the supernatural visually represented by a very different crow to that which features in Max Porters Grief. Eventually both collude. The background scenery is shifted around the great bullying themes of the time, class declensions, pious Presbyterianism, the Highlands, this after all is only a decade or so after the Irish famines, although here it is more bannocks than potatoes. We are also at the infancy of criminal madness…It is listed for the ManBooker Prize later this month.