Two Works of Historical Crime Fiction Play Out Against Dramatic Landscapes

Two Works of Historical Crime Fiction Play Out Against Dramatic Landscapes

“I sense I might not be the most popular person in that village,” says Graeme Macrae Burnet of Culduie, the Ross-shire village which he has turned into a historical murder scene for the purposes of his second novel, His Bloody Project. Then there’s the provincial French town of Saint-Louis, where he located the central mystery of his first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. “I’m even less popular there.”

Swedish author Cecilia Ekbäck, appearing alongside Burnet at the Book Festival, has avoided rousing the ire of a real community by simply inventing the location that serves her first two novels: the doomy mountain Blackasan. Not that this rendered the writing of In the Month of the Midnight Sun, which follows her acclaimed debut Wolf Winter, any easier. “The first one is just a labour of love,” sighed Ekbäck. “The second one - you know it’s going to be a book. I found it very hard. It was like pulling teeth, all the way to the end.”

The effort of that difficult second novel can pay off in spades, however. Burnet’s His Bloody Project was a surprise longlisting for the Man Booker Prize, prompting a scrabble for copies among London critics who hadn’t bothered to review it upon its publication by small Scottish imprint Saraband. Even keen punters may face a struggle in tracking it down, however. Burnet warned with his work ambiguously pitched between Crime and Fiction, and his double surname creating additional confusion, “it’s really hard to find my books!” In his opinion, his new novel is “a novel about a crime, rather than a crime novel” – in part because “I just give away everything at the beginning of the book…!”

Not so much a whodunit, then, as a whydunit, the book declares the facts of the case – that in 1869, seventeen-year-old Culduie crofter Roddy Macrae murdered three of his fellow villagers – before exploring, through documents of the case and Roddy’s own prison memoir, what led him to this act. The isolation of such communities at that time was part of the draw. “The state was quite remote,” Burnet says. “The nearest police station would have been in Dingwall, and that would have been a couple of days’ journey at that time.” But Burnet wanted to humanise his characters as well as emphasising their isolation. “I wanted them to have recognisable modern emotions.”

For Ekbäck, the effect of location on psychology was also key. “I’m very interested in place and setting, and the impact it has on character,” she said. “How much do we inherit and how much does the place we grow up in affect us?” Also significant in her story was the unique atmosphere created by the midnight sun of the far north. “When it starts you feel exuberant, but soon this eerie feeling sets in - it gives this eerie quality to life. As soon as I set it in the midnight sun, it turned into a very different book.” The oddness of light nights suits a story of three characters, all members of changed and changing social groups. “All of them are lost, and in many ways this is a book about maps. Different people have different maps to navigate the same territory – and what do you do when your maps suddenly become obsolete?”

Not that either writer wishes to be overly directive to their readers. “I’m investigating as much as the reader is,” said Burnet. “I want to make up my own mind about the events in a novel, and not be given solid answers.”

More articles