Graeme Macrae Burnet has written a remarkable account of three murders in the Highlands of Wester Ross in the second half of the nineteenth century. The problem is not to work out what happened, or who did what. That is not in dispute. The problem is to establish why it happened, and that is left very much to us as readers to draw our own conclusions. This leaves the reader in the position of the trial jury, having to make up its mind about the verdict.
The first question that you have to decide is this: Did these murders actually happen? I have no idea. I suspect from the details given that they did. But all the detail proves is that the book has been well-researched and well-constructed. Burnet has clearly been using his imagination – the question is, to what extent? A search of the archives in Inverness or Edinburgh will answer that question for you, but it does not matter. Knowing the answer adds nothing to the enjoyment of the book. What matters is that the author has a fertile imagination and a command of language that puts his imagination to good use.
There is no question about who committed the murders, or about the horrible nature of the killings. This is revealed in the first few pages. So it does not spoil the plot to reveal that Roderick John Macrae is that the murderer nor that, having done the deed, he is covered from head to foot in blood. The crux of the book is why he did it, and whether or not he was in his right mind at the time. And I have to admit that I still have no idea about the latter. That is part of the strength of the writing. You are not led in any direction. You are left to make up your own mind and as I was not in the jury room (as I have been on too many occasions, even though the crimes were nothing as serious as this) I decided that I would not do so.
The book is divided into sections: the statements from the witnesses, Roderick Macrae’s own account of what happened, the medical reports, the psychiatrist’s report and the various reports of the trial. You will find that you like some of the characters and that you dislike others. The psychiatrist is, in my view, a pompous and arrogant academic inclined to make assertions that have no basis in fact, and who resents being challenged by people who, in his view, are not his intellectual equals. That inclined me to believe that he is wrong, but that is my particular prejudice about certain kinds of academic. It is not necessarily correct.
Roderick Macrae’s story is one of a family feud between his father and the murder victim that spilled over into violence, like a smaller-scale version of the Massacre of Glencoe. Macrae presents himself as a kind of David Balfour figure reacting to the malevolence of those around him What the reader has to decide is whether or not this is true. Graeme Macrae Burnet presents a picture of male brutality visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons (made worse by that brutality being a father feeling that he has to do such things to discipline his son) and how that brutality inevitably and inexorably leads to tragedy. Male pride is very much the motor of this story, and it is not the kind of pride that we can rejoice in.
This is a salutary story. It shows people being propelled to their fate because they do not want to think of the consequences, because they have no concern for anything other than their own ego, because they cannot draw back. The women have little, if any, control over what happens to them. They are very much pawns in the battles between their menfolk. Graeme Macrae Burnet presents a grim story of crofter life at this time. I do not know if it is accurate, but it is certainly convincing. This is a story that will have you gripped to the very last page.