In 1869 a 17 year old boy called Roderick Macrae killed three people and surrendered tamely. He was upfront about owning to the murder. Something about the stoic, taciturn boy appeals to the lawyer chosen to defend him, Andrew Sinclair.
Sinclair asks Roddy (Roderick) to write out in detail the events leading up to the murder of Lachlan McKenzie and his kin. In addition, he sets about getting Roddy examined by a criminal psychiatrist (though he is not called thus in those times) about the possibility of Roddy being insane at the time of the murder. This is the only thing that will acquit him.
Through Roddy's memoirs we learn how the events came about. Roddy feels the bad things started happening when his mother died, or when the two Iains died, both his uncles. He was left alone at home with his older sister Jetta and younger twins who were very little. And his father, of course, John Macrae.
They were a family of Crofters in the remote place called Culduie near Applecross Village in Scotland. They were very poor, renting a small farm to croft to get along. Things got worse for them when a neighbour called Lachlan McKenzie became the Constable in their little village. He was not well disposed towards the Macraes and harassed them at every given opportunity.
Roddy's memoirs consist a part of the book and serves to give us a look at all the events that led to the murders. After that comes cherry on top of the cake for the readers. We get a magnificent look at how the case was conducted in the court of Lord Justice-Clerk, Jury, Prosecutor Gifford and Defending lawyer Sinclair. Witnesses are examined, evidence is produced, the lawyers argue their versions, the people in the gallery are entertained and the reporter Philby of Times sends out lovely dispatches.
We are treated to how the Law maintains its solemnity despite the circus around it. The author who speaks in a very different, rather droning voice when Roddy's memoirs are being recounted, becomes different, more energetic, descriptive, when giving us the court scenes.
At no point does the reader feel manipulated into liking the cold-blooded murderer. We are merely shown the reason why he picked up arms. The extreme poverty, the pathetic life of the Crofters in 19th Century Scotland is shown vividly to us. Historical dramas usually talk about nobility - the well heeled aristocracy who saunter about the countryside not heeding the poor men to whom they owe their wealth. Here we get to see the men who tipped their hats at the aristocrats in the usual historical novels, and their beggarly lives.
It is a fabulous novel which deserves to be read. It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. It may or not win. That is immaterial. It is a wonderful Crime/Courtroom drama which lovers of the genre should not miss.