Book Review: Case Study

case study

“This was what people did. They sat in pubs drinking beer and gin and listening to each other talk. They pretended to be interested and then took their own turn at talking. It was difficult to see the point of any of it.”

If you enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, then you are going to love Case Study. Set in the 1960s it explores what Shakespeare expressed so well:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

In the preface, the author explains that the tale he is about to tell came about when he was offered a series of notebooks written by a young woman whose supposedly successful sister, Veronica, died of suicide. The woman blames a notorious psychotherapist her sister had been seeing, without the family’s knowledge, for Veronica’s unexpected action and sets out to gather evidence. The author had written about this man, Collins Braithwaite, in a blog post and the current owner of the notebooks believed they would be of interest.

The story is then structured as a variety of entries written in appropriate literary styles and compositions. The contents of the notebooks are reproduced along with key pages from books written by Braithwaite. There are also chapters that tell the man’s life story.

The young woman starts her quest by making an appointment with Braithwaite under an assumed name, Rebecca Smyth. She does not wish to reveal that she is Veronica’s sister. Having little knowledge of mental health issues, she assumes that Braithwaite’s clients must be ‘nuts’. This assumption injects humour into the narrative as she gives herself leave to behave in ways her carefully controlled and repressed normal self would never countenance. As Rebecca, she will flirt with a handsome admirer and become inebriated. She also finds herself talking freely to Braithwaite about her past, something that surprises her and makes her think this is why people pay a therapist for their time. Braithwaite states of her:

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you”

Braithwaite was a contemporary of R. D. Laing and railed against how the mentally ill were being treated at the time – drugged and electrocuted more than listened to. Despite agreeing on many issues, the two men were not interested in collaboration. Each thought their own work deserved the greater recognition, along with the wider respect this would garner.

Braithwaite gained fame through notoriety. He took on clients to earn money and provide cases he could write about in his books. Veronica appears in one of these under the name Dorothy. When her sister reads the account given of Dorothy’s relationship with her family she dismisses it. This was not the Veronica she had known and often derided. She could not accept that her sister may have differed from her assumptions.

As the story progresses, Rebecca Smyth and Collins Braithwaite emerge as fully formed characters, their thoughts and behaviours being at least as ‘nuts’ as those imagined people Rebecca initially tried to emulate. Perhaps if one looks closely enough at the life decisions made by any supposedly sane person, societal behaviours and constraints make little sense in terms of seeking contentment.

The author writes with skill and verve from the points of view of both men and women. There is only the one jarring inclusion. The narrator in the notebooks writes of her time at a girls’ school where sex was discussed but remained mysterious:

“At St Paul’s there was frequently exciting talk about The Penis, this chiefly concerned its dimensions”

Personally, I have never known any girls or women discuss the size of a man’s penis, although plenty of males have expressed interest in the subject. In the author’s favour, he avoids bizarre mentions of women’s breasts in descriptions of sexual encounters.

There are cringeworthy moments when Rebecca is out drinking with her admirer, Tom. These add flavour to her acknowledged difficulty in making conversation. Mostly the story builds on the emotional repression those at the time lived under, and how some strained and suffered at the behavioural shackles placed on them. Braithwaite may have pushed at the boundaries but even he could not fully escape what had shaped him as a youngster.

The young woman lives with her widowed father and has no particular wish to change this situation. She foresees for herself a future looking after him. When he encourages her to find a job, he then takes on a housekeeper his daughter soon grows jealous of. It is only when she invents Rebecca that she starts to question how she would choose to behave if freed from the constraints ingrained by her late mother.

There is much name dropping as real people coexist alongside those invented by the author. Rebecca relates many tall tales of encounters with the famous that Tom laps up. This adds to the sense that the young woman behind this mask is not as content with her lot as she has convinced herself.

The various strands come together effectively, leaving the reader questioning the fictions we create about ourselves and others. Even within close families people are unlikely to be understood, thereby building resentment, often unacknowledged. Social interactions are indeed a performance. Personas evolve but always around the foundation of upbringing.

A wise and witty portrayal of attitudes towards non conformists – how they appal but are also envied. This is impressively addictive storytelling, with breadth and depth, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Saraband.

Book Review: The Accident on the A35

“The smaller the town, the more inward-looking its residents.”

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, returns the reader to the small French border town of Saint-Louis where the author’s debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, was set. Now being described as a series, this latest work focuses on an investigation being carried out by Chief Inspector Georges Gorski, the head of the town’s police force. An eminent and austere lawyer, Bertrand Barthelme, is found dead in his car following what looks like a road traffic accident. His attractive widow, Lucette, asks Gorski to look into why her husband had been driving in a location that made no sense given where he had told her he would be that evening. Lucette had understood that he dined at a club every Tuesday after work, and had done so for as long as she could remember.

The story is told from two points of view: Gorski, and the lawyer’s teenage son, Raymond. At seventeen the boy is trying to establish his desired persona. He carries with him books he believes will impress his peers. He discusses Sartre and experiences a frisson of excitement when considering self-harm – the drawing of blood to shock and rebel.

Gorski is still coming to terms with his wife leaving him. He enjoys the freedom he now has to drink heavily whenever he chooses but misses her company despite their mutual irritations. Attracted to Barthelme’s widow, he agrees to look into her husband’s whereabouts on the evening of the lawyer’s death. He uncovers a potential link to a murder investigation in Strasbourg.

Raymond, meanwhile, finds a scrap of paper containing a scribbled address in a desk drawer in his father’s study. He sets out to uncover who lives there and if his father visited the night he died. Distracted by a girl, Raymond allows himself to act in ways he has never before dared. He is pleased with the change in himself despite antipathy triggered.

“In Saint-Louis, it is frowned upon to have good posture, or to walk purposefully along the street as if one is in control of one’s own destiny. If asked how one’s business is doing, the customary response is: ‘Could be worse,’ or ‘Just about surviving.’ Anything more upbeat is reckoned insufferable boasting.”

The evocation of small town life includes the suggestion of casual racism and homophobia – an acknowledgement that such prejudices exist within groups and are generally overlooked or accepted by acquaintances. The attitudes of the police are affected by an individual’s demeanour and social standing. There is a desire for admiration, especially from those regarded as superior.

The writing is taut and accomplished with character studies a key feature. Although somewhat heavy on description, the plot moves along at an engaging pace. Certain male habits, true to life and serving a purpose in the narrative, were distasteful to read. The men are drawn more vividly than the women, whose supporting role is largely based around sexual attraction.

Readers who enjoyed Adèle Bedeau will likely relish this sequel. I enjoyed it to an extent but with reservations. While welcoming the original take on crime fiction and the frequent dark humour, I couldn’t get past my dislike of prurient detail. However well formed the characters, there are certain personal habits I prefer not to consider.

The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Set in the small French border town of Saint-Louis, where many of the residents have lived all their lives, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of Manfred Baumann – a socially awkward loner – and his dealings with local detective, Georges Gorski. Manfred is a creature of habit who, most lunchtimes and evenings, frequents the Restaurant de la Cloche near the town marketplace. Here he observes the staff and clientele while enjoying predictable meals and glasses of wine. When a young waitress at the establishment fails to show up for work, the detective questions each of the regulars. Not wishing to be drawn into the investigation, Manfred is economical with the truths he tells. Georges needs to work out if the information withheld is of any importance.

Both of Manfred’s parents died when he was a child leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. He lost the one great love of his life while still a teenager. Now a bank manager in his thirties, Manfred has found ways of coping with his needs. The habits he has formed provide daily structure but rarely happiness.

Georges decision to join the police force went against the plans his parents had worked towards. The job is a niggling source of annoyance for his wife. Haunted by a murder case from his early career, Georges is determined to uncover Adèle’s fate. With few leads the case is at risk of going cold.

The story opens with a scene set in the Restaurant de la Cloche that introduces the reader to many of the key characters. It then follows Manfred through a typical weekend during which he is shown to have several distasteful habits. While the descriptions provide useful background I considered some repugnant.

After Adèle’s disappearance the pace of plot development picks up. Chapters looking back at Manfred’s childhood are also of increasing interest. The varying timelines have crossover characters, often not explicitly stated. The effects of parochial life, prejudice and gossip are well evoked.

The initial narrative and somewhat slow to start action had me wondering why the book came so highly recommended. These concerns quickly dissipated once details of such things as bodily emissions were subsumed by the dark undercurrents of unexplained hours. Manford’s view of himself is shown to be at odds with the casual opinions of acquaintances, whose own standing amongst their peers proves delusional.

Not a typical crime thriller, the strengths of this story are in character depth and development. What starts as exposition grows into a much more subtle discourse. The denouement is deft if poignant with a trademark afterword by the author. Worth sticking with for a tale that will linger.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is published by Contraband.

Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.

   

   

 

Book Review: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. A young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested and stands trial for the crimes. He readily admits that he carried out the attacks but shows no remorse. All that stands between him and the gallows is the question of his sanity.

The unusual structure of the book is inspired. In the preface the author talks of discovering documents from the case while researching his own family history. He then reproduces witness statements from those who had known Roddy throughout his life, taken soon after the killings. There follows an account written by the accused at the behest of his advocate, a sympathetic and forward thinking man who, unlike many at the time, does not appear to regard the Highlanders as a lesser species.

Roddy was born and raised in the township of Culchie, a settlement of nine dwellings in the far north west of Scotland, whose occupants eked out a living working the crofts adjacent to their homes. As a child he attended church and school at neighbouring Camusterrach. Further along the road was Applecross where an Inn and Big House provided for Lord Middleton who owned the land. These and the surrounding hills were as far as Roddy had ever travelled.

The nine dwellings in Culchie varied in style and comfort. Roddy’s was crudely built and housed animals as well as the family. His mother had died in childbirth a year previously and this had badly affected those remaining. Despite his academic ability, Roddy was required to leave school and work on the land as soon as was allowed. His elder sister took their mother’s place at home, including caring for the younger siblings. Their father believed that all transgressions could be dealt with by viciously beating the offender.

Roddy’s account details his upbringing and events that lead to his decision to kill. The family’s life is hard, made moreso by a neighbour who harbours a grudge. When a member of this family is granted a position of authority by those tasked with managing Lord Middleton’s estate, they use it to undermine what little autonomy the Macrae’s have retained.

Following Roddy’s account there are short medical reports written by doctors who examine the young man while he is incarcerated at Inverness Gaol. Although there are scientific truths in many of their observations, they highlight the low opinion held at the time of those who lived in poverty, especially those who turned to crime. The doctors believe themselves not just superior but born that way. They view the harsh living conditions of the Highlanders as all they deserve.

The account of the trial makes up the remainder of the book. As with all good trials, this throws some doubt into the narrative that has thus far been built. Detail is added as to how Roddy was viewed locally. Incidents recounted by witnesses introduce uncertainty as to his motivations.

The epilogue is short but shows how reporting of heinous crimes has always been sensationalised with little regard for the truth. The story is a tragedy, but for more than just the murders.

It is a rare treat to come across a book that is so intriguing and compelling. It explores complex issues yet is entirely accessible. There is much to ponder around how difficult it is to puncture individual and societal preconceptions. A riveting story that I recommend you read.

His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband.