Let us first get something out of the way, the book is not a thriller. It is a work of fiction in which the author has gone to great lengths to create a setting so realistic that you’re compelled to believe everything in it. The author succeeds in the job. It is a realistic portrayal of an ordinary murder case. Let us get one more thing out of the way – there is no suspense as such. Everyone knows that Roderick Macrae did the killings and even the boy does not deny it. There is ample evidence against him. Evidence that is repeated over and over again – first in a section where he writes his journal, then when the criminal anthropologist studies him and later again in the courtroom.
The author pretends to be the assembler of documents and nothing more and therein lies the beauty of the book. But what about the story?
The story is of a boy who murders the village constable and is under trial for the same. He also has the hots for the constable’s daughter. The initial part seems to vindicate him and the constable seems to be an evil man but later on, it turns out that the murder may have not been a completely noble act. Instead, it may have been a hate crime.
To tell this story, the number of words required were very few and yet the author manages to stretch it to 280 pages. Of course, there is a lot of repetition and it is all justified by the use of a formal documentary-like tone.
The book is a good tool to get a hang of the society back then. Descriptions of abject poverty in the Scottish hills would have attracted the Booker attention but, the characters seemed a bit cardboard-like and even the protagonist could have been developed further. Lack of any major sub-plots is also one major drawback of the book.
The book redeems itself through its language and setting. Should be read quickly in one or two sittings. The criminal anthropology bit is fascinating.