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Murder most Scottish [Dec. 1st, 2016|10:38 pm]
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I recently read two books which were burning a hole in my To Be Read pile. I read them end to end because they seemed to fit together: both quite new, both set in Scotland, and both novels about the crime of murder - and this post has been on the back burner so long that Mark Lawson has got in ahead of me, and included them both in his best crime books of the year. I liked the symmetry of bringing together that most literary of literary things, a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a crime novel with the impeccable genre credentials of the seventh mystery featuring a series detective as seen on TV. But such a very literary novel of a crime novel, and such a gore-spattered yarn of a Booker contender.

The literary novel is Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, and I'd like it on the record that I bought it before it was Booker shortlisted, because I was intrigued by the Guardian review, and pleased that a small press publication should have made it onto the Booker longlist. The crime novel is Ann Cleeves' Cold Earth, with the usual disclaimer: Ann is a client and a friend, and I wouldn't be writing about her book if I didn't like it. Warning: may (will) contain spoilers for earlier books in the series.

His Bloody Project is presented as a series of documents related to murders committed by Roderick Macrae in the village of Culduie, Ross-shire, in 1869. This is alleged to have confused some early reviewers, but the book is unmistakably a novel, and what's more, it is a mystery: the question is not the identity of the murderer, but his state of mind. The bulk of the narrative consists of three documents: the "memoir" written by Roderick Macrae at the instigation of his lawyer, who hopes it will demonstrate that he is insane and therefore not guilty; an extract from the published memoirs of the eminent doctor whose expertise was called on to establish whether this is in fact the case; and finally an account of the trial compiled from contemporary press reports. The village is real, and so, it seems, was the doctor. Roddy's "memoir" is an extraordinary document to have been composed by a young man who, however promising at school, has left his schooldays behind him to labour on his father's croft (and with his schooldays, presumably, the English language). But we have the author's assertion (in a Guardian feature in which the shortlisted authors come this close to telling us where they get their ideas from) that it was the existence of just such unlikely documents which sparked the novel in the first place. Accept this, and the device by which the narrative is compiled from a sequence of documents is as plausible as any first person narrative - with the possible exception of the account of the trial, in which the voice of the supposed editor is audible, quoting now one contemporary journalist, now another, occasionally showing details of the conduct of the journalists themselves which they surely cannot have published, and so revealed to their employers.

The shifting viewpoint is a gift to the historical novelist: Roderick Macrae's apparently artless account sets out one event after another, listing without comment the privations and restrictions of the crofters' daily life; the doctor, whose diagnosis of madness or sanity relies heavily on environmental factors, visits the village and gives an outsider's view of both its appalling poverty and its extraordinary beauty; finally, exchanges at the trial give the modern reader a contemporary context in which to place both of these aspects. In depicting external reality, the multiple viewpoints combine to give a three-dimensional image.

But in exploring the interior of Roderick's mind, they cancel each other out. Roderick's "memoir" is the narrative of an intelligent and sympathetic young man who, from the first, is liable to unpredictable and sometimes savage actions. He is not a reliable narrator, but if he is mad, it is a very lucid madness. On the other hand, is he really sufficiently calculating to have shaped his confession deliberately to suggest an insanity which he apparently denies? In any case, can the man who has committed these extremely brutal murders be described as sane? The eminent doctor Thomson is little help in resolving these questions to the satisfaction of a modern reader, because his theory of criminal insanity relies on heredity and environment. Asked his opinion of his son's state of mind, John Macrae, after some deliberation, asserts that "One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone." Macrae's own mind is stonier than most, and he does not usually represent the viewpoint of his author. Nonetheless, if there is a key to the mind of Roderick Macrae, I did not find it. He remains a mystery, a fascinating but also a frustrating one.

Having read my literary novel as if it were a detective story, sifting the text for clues, I relaxed into Cold Earth with no desire to outpace the story and identify the murderer before the final reveal. Ann Cleeves fulfills her contract, and always provides a satisfactory solution, but her books are not primarily puzzles to be solved. She uses the murder as a tool to break open a place and a society, and write a novel about the people who live there.

Shetland is more than a scenic backdrop, it is almost a character in itself. Cold Earth opens at a funeral, with a view across the scattering of farms and houses and out to the coast, all seen through the persistent rain of a Shetland winter. The ground is so sodden that the hillside slips silently away, revealing a body not in the cemetery but in the little croft beyond. It's a dramatic opening, and a neat reversal of expectation. There's a touch of local folklore: the dead man's family came, once upon a time, from Foula, and his relatives have elected to carry the coffin on two oars, as is traditional on that island; but the local colour is tempered by the knowledge that those relatives have themselves, like so many, left the islands and moved south.

There's a lot packed into that opening paragraph, but there's more, for the book has the depth of six previous volumes behind it. Many readers are already familiar not only with detective Jimmy Perez, but also with Magnus Tait, the old man whose funeral it is, and who was a suspect in the first Shetland novel, Raven Black. That story was initially intended to stand alone: how many murders could Shetland credibly supply? Then, when it was unexpectedly successful, winning the CWA Dagger for best novel, it became the first of a quartet, one set in each of the four seasons. A second quartet invokes water, air, earth - and Ann has said that Wildfire, the next book in the series, will be the last. Already Cold Earth seems to be closing the circle. Both books begin with Magnus Tait, lonely in his croft hoping for first footers at New Year, or in the nearby cemetery. Raven Black was set in a snowy winter, the dead girl's red scarf shocking against the white snow; winter in Cold Earth is all rain and darkness, but the dead woman's red dress is shocking against the black earth. Literary games are being played here, alongside the puzzle-solving games of the genre.

Except that what is going on is more than a game: returning the action to Ravenswick, where the series began, is a reminder how much things have changed since then. At the opening of Raven Black, Jimmy had not yet met Fran; now he lives in her house and takes care of her daughter. One of the charms of that first book was the delicate relationship between the Shetland police officer and the senior officer sent from the Scottish mainland to take charge of the case. Now he has a completely different relationship with Willow Reeves. Each novel is a self-contained mystery, but the series format allows the detectives to live at their own pace: slow-thinking sidekick Sandy Wilson gradually finds his feet, and the tentative romance of Jimmy and Willow takes its time to realise itself.

Intellectually, I understand the desire to end the series: it's probably time for Shetland's murder rate to slow down, and there are other novels to be written. But I'll miss these visits to the islands, and I'll be sorry to say goodbye to Jimmy and Willow.