It is a peculiar fact, but each of the recent books I have read on the Longlist so far have at their heart of the story a crime or crimes committed by the protagonist/s.
My previous post dealt with Hystopia, which was about a Vietnam veteran on the rampage in Michigan; His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is about a massacre in a small Scottish village and Work Like Any Other is about a man convicted of unintentional manslaughter and larceny and is by Virginia Reeves.
This novel has its genesis in a project started in 2014, when the author was researching his grandfather’s background and history, but along the way was diverted on to a series of documents concerning a brutal killing by another Macrae.
In a way very similar to Hystopia, the novel begins with testamentary evidence given by neighbours who witnessed the perpetrator on the day of the killings, both before and after he had killed the people in the house of Lachlan Mackenzie.
Also in a similar way to Hystopia, much of the narrative is in the first person and contains an account of the killings, justification – not quite convincing; this is followed by a report on the states of lunacy pertinent to the case; the trial itself and the outcome. Unlike the previous novel, Hystopia though, there is a level of sanity or rational thought, so although what happened seems insane, the reasons can be seen refracted through different lenses depending on where you stand in the historical perspective.
It is a great deal easier to read, though whether one could actually describe it as enjoyable is doubtful. Gripping – certainly; intriguing – absolutely; suspenseful – in every sense of the word: for Roderick Macrae is guilty of the deed, but will he hang?
This is a second novel, an interesting and clever voice and better yet, a small imprint – Contraband – which is always a welcome sight on the longlist shelf.
Another novel, another look at crime. This time from America, which makes three American authors so far and I have only read four from the list, maybe it is just how they piled up randomly and there are no more…I have not checked.
Work Like Any Other is set in Alabama in the 1920s. It is a work in two parts, the first part is what takes Roscoe T Martin to Kilby Gaol and the second part is after his release.
Virginia Reeves has created a world on the cusp of modernity, electricity has reached the cities with all its magic and wonder, but as yet rural communities have not had the benefit. Roscoe however is an electrician by profession, understands its wonder and its power and decides to wire up his wife’s farm illicitly, with the assistance of Wilson the farm worker, he rigs up power to the house, the farm and the thresher. From penury to profitability, the farm prospers for two years, but then the Sheriff arrives to arrest him.
This is an extraordinarily powerful book. A story that includes human error, frailty and greed; it contains within its pages all the woeful mischances that can occur to sour a marriage and all the compassion that serves to build an abiding and strong one and in its exploration of both we arrive at a place of generous and overwhelming forgiveness.
This is also the story of the State of Alabama penal service, the strange inadequacies of the people in charge, the brutality of the guards and the grinding down of the personalities of the inmates, even before the arrival of the electric chair – which became a tool of execution in the State right at the starting point of possibility.
Although Virginia Reeves has previously had work published, this is her first novel. A tour-de-force, full of direct and beautiful language and a power of description that takes you to the heart of the land.