Slippery truths

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Less than a year ago, Graeme Macrae Burnet was a relatively unknown novelist signed to an obscure independent publisher. Then his book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Shane Gilchrist discusses cause and effect with the Dunedin-bound Scottish author.

An historical thriller exploring a triple murder in the 19th-century western Highlands of Scotland, Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project offers plenty of questions but few concrete answers.

And that was entirely the point, the Scottish author says of his psychological thriller which, based on a collection of ''found'' documents, masquerades as a depiction of a real crime.

''The construction of the book through its various competing voices encourages the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what has happened or what the motivations of the characters are,'' Burnet explains via email from Adelaide this week, before his speaking engagement in Dunedin on Tuesday, March 14, organised by the University of Otago's Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies (in conjunction with the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, to be held in May).

''The book does not offer any definitive truth about what happened. It's important to me that readers make up their own minds.''

Following his 2014 debut novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau (which won a New Writer's Award from the Scottish Book Trust), His Bloody Project has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the furthest a Scottish writer published by a Scottish publisher has advanced in the prestigious competition.

Previously, His Bloody Project had won the Saltire Society Literary Award, described as ''the premier prize for writing by Scots or about Scotland''. However, Scottish literature's formidable history notwithstanding, the Booker is on another shelf.

Burnet knows this intimately.

''The Man Booker shortlisting transformed both the fortunes of the book and of myself. Previous to the shortlisting, we'd sold about 1200 copies in the United Kingdom. We've now sold upwards of 120,000.

''We've also had interest in publishing the book from all over the world,'' he says, referring to his relatively tiny publisher, Contraband, the crime imprint of the Glasgow-based press Saraband.

''It's also very nice to be in demand to appear at festivals and other events,'' Burnet says.

The Booker nomination has been ''life-changing'', Burnet says. ''If there's a downside, it's only that it's become a bit harder to find time and head-space to actually do what I'm supposed to be doing, writing!''

In the novel's first major review, following its initial Booker longlisting earlier last year, The Guardian's Justine Jordan praised Burnet's work as a ''fiendishly readable tale that richly deserves the wider attention the Booker has brought it''.

A portrait of a remote crofting community in the 19th century, His Bloody Project was actually inspired by a case involving a French peasant, Pierre Riviere, who killed three members of his own family in 1835 and then wrote an eloquent memoir about why he had committed the murders.

''The volume in which Riviere's memoir is collected also contains various witness statements about the accused. From this, the idea for a novel in 'found documents' was born, although it evolved a lot in the writing process,'' Burnet explains.

Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, Burnet's novel includes the memoirs of the teenage protagonist, penned circa 1869 as the crofter awaits trial in Inverness for three murders. Apparently unearthed by the author while he sought information on his own roots, the papers spark fierce debate among the Edinburgh literati, some of whom question how a semi-literate peasant could produce such forceful prose.

Add to this conflicting witness statements, journalistic and medical reports - including a psychological evaluation of young Roddy by a real-life prison doctor - and the stage is set for a multifaceted, swirling treat that is based in truth yet isn't true.

Burnet says he enjoys getting his hands dirty in the rich soil of historic research.

''The novel is set in Wester Ross in Scotland because my mother's side of the family is from there. I've spent a fair bit of time there and know a little bit about the culture of the place, something I drew heavily on for some of the details of the book.

''I was formerly a researcher for television documentaries. I did three or four months' research into the history and social conditions of the crofters before I started writing, then further research into the really fascinating thinking on criminal anthropology of the time.

''Coming across the real life character of James Bruce Thomson, who was at that time in charge of Scotland's criminally insane, was a real gift.

''Finally, I spent some time in the National Archive of Scotland looking at 19th-century criminal cases, psychological reports and post-mortems. I love that kind of stuff. Every time you get a bundle of yellowed documents, you feel like you have a potential novel in your hands.

''My research informed the shape of the narrative to a very great extent.''

For example, most of the indignities that [landholder] Lachlan Mackenzie inflicts on Roddy Macrae's family were directly inspired by a list of regulations - the terms of tenancy - from an estate in Skye in 1881.

''Similarly, the contemporary ideas about criminal insanity and hereditary criminality that I read about determined how the trial was conducted.

''But I don't plan out the narrative too much in advance. I want the characters to drive where it goes.''

The talk
An Evening with Graeme Macrae Burnet

Hear the award-winning Scottish crime writer discuss his Man Booker-shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, Dunningham Suite, Dunedin City Library, Tuesday, March 14, 6pm-7.30pm.

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