Written by Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson — This remarkable faux true crime thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers ancestor Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and as you listen to this audiobook you must weigh it along with the court. You may even come to feel like an imaginary juror, as you hear the testimony of the various witnesses, their hesitations and prejudices apparent.
After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam with Roddy’s written confession. Opinion at the time was that it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life. But Roddy is an engaging storyteller.
In addition to the confession, there are statements by Roddy’s neighbours, by the physicians who have examined him, by a psychiatrist specialising in the criminal mind, by his hard-working attorney Andrew Sinclair, by the police, and by the medical authorities who examined the deceased. Finally, there are court transcripts and reports of the trial from the journalists who carefully followed the proceedings for their avid readerships.
Roddy, age 17, freely admits he committed the murders. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who punctiliously enforces the policies of Lord Middleton’s estate – or possibly makes the rules up on the spot – and seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.
In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir describes a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Roddy claims he carried out the murders “with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations he has lately suffered.” Killing Flora and Danny was necessitated so they did not raise the alarm and foil the plan to kill their father. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, the picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends inspires compassion.
When you get to the medical reports, and some of the details of the crimes that emerge in the trial before the High Court of Justiciary, a second appraisal of the facts is warranted, although the testimony the court receives is incomplete. In Scots law at that time, accused persons were not formally allowed to testify on their own behalf; thus, Roddy’s confession is presented only indirectly, and the episodes and injustices it recounts (and not all of them, either) presented to the jurors only through the questioning of other witnesses.
Andrew Sinclair mounts a vigorous defense, based on a not-guilty plea by reason of insanity. What’s especially fascinating about the courtroom scenes is hearing how the witnesses, lawyers, and judge attempt come to grips with the then relatively new questions of mental capacity and guilt. Suffice it to say, many potential jurors then (and possibly now) are uncertain how to interpret the insanity defense or whether they should give it any credence at all.
Was Roddy’s free admission of the crime evidence that he was not in his right mind? Was the savagery of the murders such evidence? Were the squalid circumstances of his family’s living conditions sufficient to promote derangement and lunacy? Was his compromised genetic endowment the cause? The jury eventually arrives at a decision, but, having heard the evidence, you might weigh it differently.
The US version of the audiobook from Audible.com, which this review covers, is narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts. The UK audiobook, which we link to below, has several narrators.
The dossier-like format of this book make it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the approach used in the dossier books by Dennis Whateley. Fans of historical crime fiction will find it a rich portrayal of a certain kind of rural life, and those whose interest is strong courtroom dramas, like Neil White’s recent From the Shadows, will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.
CFL Rating: 5 stars