*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

****Fateful Mornings

police car

photo: Highway Patrol Images, creative commons license

By Tom Bouman – Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the wood for new barns designed by his best friend, word-working genius Ed Brennan.

In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry, who narrates most chapters. In Henry and several other principal characters in this rural noir novel, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals. Henry also plays fiddle in a roots music trio, for example.

These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.

But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair has lost custody of their infant daughter. Though they want her back, they aren’t on a road that can lead to that outcome.

The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with nearby departments that have many more resources than he does in Wild Thyme. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see real cooperation.

Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.

Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell.

A longer version of this review appeared recently on CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night

photo: Mitchell Diatz, creative commons license

By Kent Haruf – My book club selected this short novel, 192 pages, a gentle story about aging and that difficult transition between when parents think they know what’s best for their children (and usually tell them so) and children come to think they know what’s best for their parents (and do tell them so).

Addie, a widow, and Louis, a widower, are neighbors in small-town Holt, Colorado, in the eastern, high plains portion of the state. In the book’s first chapter, Addie pays a call on Louis and proposes that he visit her at night, lie in bed with her, and have a companionable conversation. Sex isn’t exactly off the agenda, but it’s not at the top and rather beside the point. This unusual arrangement begins, and before long the whole town knows about it. Soon thereafter word spreads to Addie and Louis’s far-flung and scandalized children, who want it to stop.

The conversations between Addie and Louis are low-key and unsentimental. They talk about their marriages and the deaths of their spouses, about their children, about many things. Author Haruf’s unadorned writing style (not even decorated with quotation marks) gives their interactions a deceptive simplicity. For example In speaking about Addie’s son Gene, who is losing his store and has to start a new career, Louis asks:

What is it he wants to do?

He’s always been in sales of some kind.

That doesn’t seem to fit him, as I remember him.

No. He’s not the salesman type. I think he’s afraid now. He won’t say so.

But this could be a chance for him to break out. Break the pattern. Like his mother has. Like you’ve done.

He won’t, though. He’s got his life all screwed down tight.

Both of them find in their late-night conversations a closeness, a connection they never achieved with their spouses. Addie asks, “Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all.” Except these lucky two, who at least know what they want. Says Louis, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.”

This restrained style works perfectly well in a novel about the places and people that are Haruf’s subjects, in this book and his others. It is a lean diet, stripped of fat and garnish. Yet the meat of Our Souls, the struggle against pettiness and small-mindedness, is worthy of consumption.

People seem to like this book. All seven copies in the Mercer County Library System were out, so I had to snag the large-print version. I’ve since learned this was Haruf’s last book, the sixth in a series set in Holt, finished a few days before he died in 2014.