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  1. Wow. I mean, seriously, Wow! His Bloody Project masquerades as a plot driven historical crime novel, but is in fact a character driven exploration of a 19th century Scottish crofting community were a small number of people are forced to live in close proximity despite not liking one another. You know, right from the outset, that this is going to be a bit special when there are a series of contradictory statements from the Culduie residents about the murder of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie and the prime suspect, Roddy Macrae. Every statement was written in a distinctive voice, but all steeped in the lilting West Highland diction of native Gaelic speakers. The novel then broadens into three main sections: a narrative account leading up to the murder, written by Roderick Macrae from his cell in Inverness gaol; a chapter from a book on the criminal mind by an arrogant academic from Edinburgh; and a journalistic account of the trial. Each of the three sections is distinctive and, although they cover some common ground, they each serve quite different purposes. They drip with authenticity - referencing real cases and real people - to the point that the reader wonders whether this is a fictionalisation of a true crime (it isn't). Culduie is a real place, though, which in 1869 comprised 9 crofting cottages. It is stuck in the tracks beyond Applecross which, itself, is cut off from the rest of Scotland by a 19 mile winding pass. The residents were trapped both by geography and by their tenancy to their crofts. They were effectively property of the Laird, who dealt with them only through the Factor who, in turn, dealt directly only with the constable appointed by the villagers. The community had no privacy and personal grievances were to be avoided at all costs as you couldn't hide from those you disliked. So, in this context, we see that there are problems between the Macraes and the Mackenzies. The grievances are real and as each family contains strong personalities, this is a problem for the whole community. It is known from the outset that Roddy killed Lachlan Broad, so the question for the reader is (a) how this situation came about and (b ) whether the bad guys were the Macraes or the Mackenzies. Depending how the narratives are read, either conclusion can be drawn. But to draw the conclusions is simplistic. The issue really is that of people being trapped by poverty. Roddy, with whom the reader is invited to sympathise, is at best a klutz (to coin a neologism). And in a subsistence farming community, there is really no place for a klutz. But the reader is also challenged to consider whether Lachlan Broad, portrayed by Roddy as a self-serving bully, is in fact a bad man or perhaps something of a visionary. It's complex and never quote resolved. There is also a considerable, and evenly handed, consideration of the nature of social class. To what extent is the laird a leech who profits from his crofters' misery and to what extent is he actually the social security safety net, holding the community together by subsidy. When we meet him, briefly, he is a grotesque and his factor is despised. Yet when the factor gives an account of himself at the trial, he comes across as plausible. Then, there are the inbetweeners. In particular, we meet Archibald Ross, an assistant to the laird's ghillie who fancies himself as part of the aristocratic retinue. This is a well paced novel that avoids shocking twists but still keeps the reader guessing for most of the journey. The characters are rich and the evocation of the place and period are spot on. If there is one criticism, it is that there is a particular part in the trial sequence at which everything pretty much crystallises, but the author then carries on for some pages afterwards. This may add verisimilitude as a Victorian novel, but where Victorian novels have multiple storylines to tie up, this feels like lingering on the same single line. It weakens the impact of what had been very taut up to that point. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent text. Long listed for the Booker, this deserves to go further. But perhaps the subject matter is too similar to The Luminaries to let it win. *****
  2. The third book by the Man Booker shortlisted author Graeme Macrae Burnet, a follow up to his first book The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and second in a proposed trilogy about the detective Georges Gorski. This book is very well written and researched and it is compelling to the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it, however it seemed to be lacking the 'je ne sais quoi' element that made GMB outstanding in his field. There are long descriptions about what people were wearing which I found tiresome after a while - I did not think it necessary to describe every item of clothing that the deceased's wife had on every single time she was interviewed by Gorski for example. That said the characters were well drawn, the setting believable and so was the plot. Set in a time before much in the way of forensics and certainly before mobile phones the policing had to be done the old fashioned way and it was indeed very well done. There is a slight twist in the end but not what you think it's going to be. This is a very good book and I'd recommend it, but don't be surprised by the lack of .............................. I don't know, 'specialness' that was present in the previous two books by Burnet.
  3. This is the first novel by the Booker nominated Scottish writer: I had borrowed my colleague's signed copy, as GMB is his friend's best friend, so I kind of had to read it. But it was no hardship. Like His Bloody Project, it is styled as found writing, in this case a translation of the source book for a classic French art house film. It concerns Manfred Baumann, a lonely bank manager who lives a dispiriting life in a provincial town in Alsace, until the waitress in his local bistro goes missing and the police think he knows something. A parallel narrative concerns the equally dispiriting life of Gorski, the detective assigned to investigating the disappearance. It plays with and subverts a lot of clichés of the crime genre, like the gifted detective who can see connections between cases. I liked the quiet humour and the sense of place. GMB has done his homework: my friend lives in Strasbourg, and her street was mentioned in the book as the location for the police station when Gorski gets the chance to go to the city. She lives across the road from the (now former) police station. A minor point, but it pleased me, and there was definitely a sense of authenticity about the setting which let him get away with the translation idea. Even the language had that slightly stilted, vaguely unidiomatic thing which let you believe you were reading a translation of a French classic, rather than something dreamt up by a Glaswegian. Well worth a look.
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