‘The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.
A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence.
Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.’
The interesting thing about this book, that strikes you as soon as you delve into the pages, is the strange way it is structured. The story of Roderick Macrae, a young man who brutally murdered three people in the Scottish Highlands, is told in seven distinct parts: a preface, statements by residents of Culduie, the account of Roderick Macrae, medical reports, an extract from the book Travels in the border-Lands of Lunacy by J. Bruce Thomson, the trial and an epilogue. It is not written in a normal narrative style and in fact is designed to resemble a collection of sources from the time that, when the reader pieces them together, would then give an overall view of the events described.
Reading this book wasn’t altogether that easy for me. I lost a lot of interest quite quickly and I found that the critical events of Lachlan’s war on the Macrae’s didn’t do much to rouse my interest. For a few days I barely picked the book up and it wasn’t until the end of Roderick’s account when he reveals the identities of all three of his victims that I really found myself being drawn in again. In fact, I think I found the final 130 pages dealing with the actual murder and the handling of the case far more interesting than the back story Roderick supplied us with. Of course I can see that it was entirely necessary to tell the story and I really do commend the skill with which the writer structured and told this story but I really did flounder for a while and if it hadn’t been for my own insistence that I always finish a book once I start it I may have given up entirely.
Although, I don’t think that’s entirely the writer’s’ fault. I had the distinct feeling while reading this novel that I had somehow read it before even though I was sure I hadn’t. I would probably put most of my boredom and loss of interest down to the feeling of deja-vu I had and the deep disturbance I felt after what I interpreted as a rape scene between Lachlan and Jetta. Perhaps the problem was in the way Roderick told the story, or just that Lachlan Broad seemed to me to be a weak villain. For someone who had power over the villagers that he used to his advantage, he was in fact considered by those with money and power to be little better than them. He was also being unjust to the Macrae’s in such a way as to make their lives worse and to target them but also never did it for his own gains. One could argue that it made him a better villain because he did it for his own vindictive pleasure but I have to be honest and say there didn’t seem to be much drama in it. He treated them unfairly yes, but he wasn’t the stereotypical villain anymore than Roderick was a hero. The lack of antithesis blurred the lines between good and bad and although clever made it hard for me to engage.
My main problem at the end of the book was that I didn’t care. I could see Sinclair did and I could understand why but I wasn’t disappointed with Roddy’s fate anymore than I was glad to see the Mackenzie’s. I was happy Lachlan got his comeuppance but the fates of Flora and Donald meant nothing to me. It’s a clever book, brilliantly written but I guess my main issue was that I found it interesting not emotive. It interested me whether Roddy killed them to revenge himself on Lachlan or Flora but either way it didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t care about any of the characters or their fates, and I felt no satisfaction or disappointment at the end of the book. It could be that this reaction was because of the more clinical approach to storytelling, presenting evidence for you to make your mind up about rather than telling the story of a hero driven to the brink. At any rate, the intriguing structure of this story will far outlive the characters and their stories in my memory.