Graeme Macrae Burnet. His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae. Large print. USA: Thorndike Press, 2015.
Fiction ... it's fiction ... but so skillfully presented as historical truth that it made the Man Booker short list last year. Burnet allegedly uncovered the 1869 story when researching his ancestors in Wester Ross, Scotland, and it's written in nineteenth century style. Teenager Roddy Macrae murdered three people in his little village; he calmly admits to it. Waiting in jail for his trial, he pens his memoir of events as suggested by his lawyer, Sinclair — giving a full picture of life in a Highland village. Or is it full? Other documents relating to the tragedy and the trial indicate discrepancies or omissions in Roddy's account. His more than adequate literacy contrasts with his being verbally inarticulate, for example his awkward, mute feelings for neighbour Flora. It is puzzling to me that he says he is "close" to his sister yet oblivious to changes in her life.
One can easily understand how the hard circumstances of that time and place, as described by the boy, drove him to such an extreme. Yet the judges do not allow Roddy's memoir into evidence at the trial. Whether his family was maliciously persecuted by local authorities, Constable Mackenzie in particular, is viewed subjectively and differently by those involved. But there seems little doubt about the sour pall of inflexible, humourless Presbyterianism permeating Roddy's father and his home; equally palpable is the condescension of the "educated class." Opposing arguments about moral insanity by precursors of modern psychology bring the trial to a climax. No question, the book is a tour de force.
One-liners (from Roddy's memoir):
Archibald Ross replied that for folk like us there was no other ship but the hard ship. (95)
Ever since I was a child I have found it hard to dissemble. (165)
It was written in an elegant hand and headed with the words, underlined, "Notice of Eviction." (246)
One-liners (from others):
He sometimes seemed like he was in a world of his own. (359)
A pattern emerged whereby the Crown sought to establish rational motives for the murders, while Mr Sinclair attempted, with varying degrees of success, to portray the accused as not being in his right mind. (362)
"In summation, I would say without hesitation that the prisoner is derived from substandard physical stock." (432)
The parish minister:
I fear the wicked deeds lately committed in this parish only represent a bubbling to the surface of the natural state of savagism of the inhabitants of this place, a savagism that the Church has of late been successful in repressing. The history of these parts, it has been said, is stained with black and bloody crimes, and its people exhibit a certain wildness and indulgence. Such traits cannot be bred out in a matter of generations, and while the teachings of the Presbytery are a civilising influence, it is inevitable that now and again the old instincts come to the fore. (22-3)
Mr Gillies put down his pen and asked me what my plans were. It was not a question which a person from our parts would ask. Making plans was an offence against providence. I said nothing. Mr Gillies took off his little glasses.
"What I mean," he said, "is what do you intend to do when you finish school?"
"Only what is meant for me," I said.
Mr Gillies frowned. "And what do you think is meant for you?"
"I cannot say," I replied.
"Roddy, despite your best efforts to conceal them, God has granted you some uncommon gifts. It would be sinful not to make use of them."
I was surprised to hear Mr Gillies couch his argument in these terms as he was not generally given to religious talk. As I made no reply, he took a more direct approach.
"Have you thought of continuing your education? I have no doubt that you have the necessary ability to become a teacher or a minister or anything you choose."
Of course, I had considered no such thing, and said so.
"Perhaps you should discuss it with your parents," he said. "You may tell them that I believe you have the necessary potential."
"But I am required for the croft," I said. (50-1)
"Crofts are not divided up this way. Each family works their portion of land and it passes from one generation to the next."
"I see. So Mr Mackenzie's action was unprecedented?"
"It was vindictive."
"Ah!" said Mr. Gifford, as if he had finally succeeded in reaching the nub of the matter. "'Vindictive' is a strong word, Mr. Murchison. So rather than using his powers for the general good, Mr Mackenzie was perceived to be pursuing some kind of vendetta against Mr Macrae?"
C.J. Tudor. The Chalk Man. "Advance reader's edition." USA: Crown Publishing/Penguin Random House, 2018.
A first-novel freebie from Bouchercon, what a find! It even involves kids and I don't mind! The story told by narrator Eddie flashes back and forth from adulthood to the days of five close childhood friends. In the carefree time of youth they invented their own code of chalk drawings to signal each other. The kids are portrayed as so natural that we are willingly captured. Yet secrets lurked in their families, in their own consciences then. A boy died; a girl died; a man died; and Eddie is still asking questions about the unsolved crimes thirty years later. His friends Hoppo and Gav live nearby; Nicky and Mickey have moved away.
Nowadays a strange but likeable young woman called Chloe is renting a room in Eddie's home. Then pieces of the past begin to manifest in disturbing ways. Issues of trust and honesty are paramount as Eddie tries to unwind old and new tangles. One of his old friends dies. The story is full of mysteries and becomes more complicated with each page. Parents ― the father endlessly seeking freelance writing jobs, the mother who runs an abortion clinic, the rigidly fundamentalist minister, the sad cleaning lady, and so on ― we can't be sure who is hiding what. The plot and characters move along so smoothly it's a master lesson in how to build suspense. C.J. Tudor ... more please!
There was a streak running through him that was as cold and ugly as the braces that ran around his mouth. (7)
Often, what comes with age is not wisdom but intolerance. (21)
There's nothing like dealing with another drunk to put you off the idea of getting wasted yourself. (122)
Despite my insomnia and sleepwalking, I am not a night creature, not really. (262)
Mickey seeks truth:
I stare at him. Then I shake my head. "No."
"Just hear me out."
"I'm not interested. I don't need to drag it all up again."
"But I do." He throws back the bottle. "Look, for years I've tried not to think about what happened. I've been avoiding it. Shutting it away. Well, I've decided it's time to look at all that fear and guilt in the eye and deal with it."
Personally, I have found it is much better to take your fears, lock them up in a nice, tightly shut box and shove them into the deepest, darkest corners of your mind. But each to their own.
"And what about the rest of us? Have you thought about whether we want to face our fears, go back over everything that happened?" (60-1)
A milestone of passage:
Death happened to other people, not kids like us, not people we knew. Death was abstract and distant. Sean Cooper's funeral was probably the first time I understood that death is only ever a cool, sour breath away. His greatest trick is making you think he isn't there. And death has a lot of tricks up his cold, dark sleeve. (106)
She stares into her glass. "Friends, eh? More trouble than they're worth. Although not as bad as family."
"I suppose," I say cautiously.
"Oh, trust me. Friends, you can cut loose. Family, you never lose. They're always there, in the background, screwing with your mind."She throws back the gin and pours another. (121)
Losing your mind:
My own dad didn't used to get people confused. But sometimes he would resort to calling me "son," as if I wouldn't notice that he had forgotten my name again.
Gwen settles back in her chair, staring at the TV, lost once more in her own world, or maybe some other world. Thin, I think, that fabric between realities. Maybe minds aren't lost. Maybe they just slip through and find a different place to wander.
Hoppo offers me a brief, bleak smile. "Why don't we go into the kitchen?"
"Sure," I say.
If he'd suggested swimming with sharks I would have agreed just to get out of that hot, stinking living room. (173-4)
John Lescroart. The Suspect. USA: New American Library/Penguin, 2007.
Lawyer Gina Roake is recovering from the death of her soul-mate David, undertaking her first murder defence case. The accused is writer Stuart Gorman, whose surgeon wife Caryn drowned in a hot tub ‒ while he was elsewhere, he insists. Naturally, police are looking at all the suspicious details. The dissection of Stuart's failed marriage reveals much more about Caryn's high-powered activities; they were parents who more or less ignored their bipolar daughter's problems. When Caryn's medical lab technician is found dead a few days later, the police call it suicide. Gung-ho police detective Devin Juhle seems to have tunnel vision, focusing only on Stuart.
Gina's biggest personal challenge is the pre-trial hearing where the legal standard is probable cause; she needs an alternative theory credible enough to convince the judge to release her client. This is vintage Lescroart in his fictional San Francisco world (somehow I missed it in the publishing order). Court room tactics and scenes are a must. No matter which character leads the case/story, token appearances by the other familiar figures are always pleasing to us fans, here e.g. Wes Farrell, Dismas Hardy, investigator Wyatt Hunt. Gina does manage to unravel the truth at some cost of injury to both her and Gorman. Lescroart always weaves a good tale, always satisfying.
And suddenly, as she stared through the prisms of her engagement ring, she felt her shoulders relax as though relieved of a great load. (14)
"Now, Gina," he began with the voice of God, "how may I help you?" (285)
But why, she wondered, was it always these guys with a kind of slippery morality who got drawn to high level politics? (312)
In front of them, unmarked as well as black-and-white police cars and taxicabs were double-parked in the street all the way up to the front steps of the Hall. Someone had chained a large Doberman to one of the handrails in the middle of the wide and shallow stairs, and his barking competed with the Jamaican in dreads who was exhorting all and sundry to embrace Rasta as their salvation and Haile Selassie as the one true God. A homeless man wrapped in newspaper slept just beyond the hedge that bounded the steps. A full dozen attorney types stood talking with clients or cops in the bright sunshine while regular citizens kept up a stream in and out of the glass doors. "Can you believe? I think I've actually missed the place," Roake said. (39)
Who's out of line?
Hunt tapped idly at the keyboard. "Has somebody we know impeded an investigation?"
"Briefing a suspect's lawyer on the progress of an official investigation might even fall under aiding and abetting."
Hunt stopped with the keyboard, turned around. More impatient than angry, he laid it out straight. "Give it a rest, Dev. You know I work for Gina's firm, you knew she was representing Stuart. If you chose not to put that together, that's your problem, my friend, not mine. I never admitted nor denied anything about my involvement or lack thereof with Gina when we talked the other night, and you never asked, so what's the issue?" Juhle started to say something but Hunt held up a finger, stopping him. "And you didn't give me any information I wouldn't have known by the next day, anyway. None of which, I might add, convicts Gorman of anything." (192)
Cynicism or realism?
Perhaps this was what Wes had been warning her about all along. You don't get involved with people you believe to be innocent, because the fundamental function of the law wasn't to dispense justice. She'd said it herself not long ago: It was about conflict resolution.You say he's guilty, I say he's not. Let's decide this case and get on to the next one before lunch, because we've got five more of them this afternoon. Justice was nice. Something everyone hoped for and even usually attained. But it was fundamentally a by-product of a system designed effectively to settle disputes short of clan warfare. If a conflict could be resolved by a conviction, and that was apparently the case here, then a warm body who could be convicted was all the system demanded. And once those wheels were set in motion, they inexorably rolled on. (362-3)