I came across this title on the 2016 Man Booker longlist issued recently.
The story is about a triple murder committed in 1869 on the west coast of Scotland. The narrative is presented as a collection of documents: statements to police; medical reports, including that of J. Bruce Thomson, a criminal anthropologist; the suspect’s account, written at the behest of his legal advocate; and an account of the trial, compiled from contemporary newspaper coverage.
There is never any doubt that Roddy Macrae killed Lachlan Mackenzie and two of his family members. Roddy confesses to the murders, offers no resistance to his arrest, and repeatedly states his willingness to accept punishment. What is in doubt are his motivation and his state of mind at the time of the killings: at the trial, Roddy’s advocate states, “What is at issue here are not the bare facts of the case, but the contents of a man’s mind.” Roddy gives his reason for his actions but it seems rather weak, and there is doubt as to his sanity at the time.
At the trial, statements are made that verify what Roddy claims in his account of what transpired, but there are also statements that contradict Roddy’s version. These latter statements call into question Roddy’s reliability as a narrator: Is he telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? The reader’s sympathies shift as conflicting information is offered. In the end, the reader is left to reach his/her own verdict.
The book asks whether it is possible to actually know another person’s mind. Roddy’s father states, “’One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’” The criminal anthropologist agrees: “And I wondered if there might have been some inadvertent truth in the crofter’s remark about the difficulty to determining the contents of another man’s mind.” There are even suggestions that Roddy does not fully know himself. And the statements of others, like those of the criminal anthropologist, are supposed to be objective, but we can see that some of his observations are very subjective, relying on his own biases.
In the end, not only is it uncertain whether the verdict is fair and just, there are behaviours that are not satisfactorily examined, behaviours which might have a bearing on the case. Roddy’s relationship with his sister Jetta could use more attention, and Roddy’s nocturnal activities as described by a neighbour seem relevant.
At first this book struck me as an unusual choice for the Man Booker longlist, but by the end I was convinced that it belonged there. It is a book that begs re-reading. Are there clues that were missed on first reading that might clarify what exactly Roddy was thinking/feeling at the time of the murders? Does he sometimes unintentionally reveal things about himself? Is Thomson’s theory correct, especially when one notes the few times Roddy becomes agitated? A book that leaves the reader thinking for a long time after the book is finished is a good book indeed.