“Undoubtedly interesting and well written” – Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

IMG_20Oct2021at131004It’s fair to say that Graeme Macrae Burnet has been on my mental radar for a couple of years now, since his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project in fact (which is on my bookcase but which I haven’t got round to reading yet). Had lots of people say very positive things – and that is also true of his new book, Case Study (in point of fact, it was the volume of very positive things about the new book that tipped me over the edge: this is one I’m going to read now, I thought).

What we have here is the old book within a book – or should that be several notebooks within a book, each of which are linked by interstitial biographical detail about Collins Braithwaite, a (fictional) wild man of British psychology in the vein of RD Laing (who appears within the novel as the nemesis of the aforementioned CB). Graeme Macrae Burnet himself opens and closes the book. He was interested in writing about Braithwaite before he was offered the notebooks in question and they were the things that led to what we hold in our hands.

The notebooks themselves are written by a young woman in the 1960s whose sister Vanessa was a patient of Braithwaite’s up until the moment she killed herself. Our narrator wishes to discover if Braithwaite was responsible for pushing her sister over the edge. Creating a persona for herself (Rebecca Smyth), she sets up an appointment for herself and scrupulously attempts to manage both how she is seen and what she chooses to reveal. It’s fair to say, pretty much from the outset, our narrator is a strange fish, closeted and cosseted, given to suspicions in regard to the insectile nature of park benches and fond memories of harnesses she was made to wear as a small child.

When we are not in her company, we are treated to the life of times of Mr Collins Braithwaite, taking in his childhood, his education, his strange fascination to women, his fallouts with colleagues, friends, girlfriends and other academics and authors and eventually his celebrity. As you read, you wonder where Burnet is taking you. Will these stories converge? Will “Rebecca” find out what has happened to her sister? Is Braithwaite just a charlatan (as Laing calls him) with a line in fancy patter or is there something more malevolent going on?

Whilst Case Study is well written and interesting and maintains its grip on the reader all the way to the end, I think this reader wanted the character study to resolve itself into a mystery and it doesn’t really do that. What we have here are two types of biography sitting side by side – the ostensible case study that appears within the notebooks and the story of Braithwaite that provides context to it all. I came away ever so slightly wanting more than I got (in that, I wanted “Rebecca” to discover something about the relationship between her sister and the good doctor). Instead, Case Study is a novel that is interested in echoes – Vanessa is presented as someone else within Braithwaite’s book, “Rebecca” is a persona that gradually grows the proverbial arms and legs, another patient (Miss Kepler) turns out to be someone else, there are discussions on Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ etc. We’re in the land of the double, and it’s undeniably clever and well researched but I was reminded of three other books, each of which demonstrate in their own way where Burnet’s book falls short.

First, you have The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. A mystery in the Wilkie Collins’ mode. I was quietly waiting for Case Study to become a book in that tradition but it doesn’t.

Second, you have Will Self’s psychiatrist, Zach Busner, who appears in the short story collections The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area and Dr. Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, as well as in the novels Great Apes, The Book of Dave, Umbrella and Shark. Whilst it’s fair to say that Self is not to all tastes, you need to have something up your sleeve in the way of fireworks (rather than, say, a failing magician’s flowers) if you’re going to compete.

Third, and perhaps most appositely, you have Jake Arnott, whose audacious novel The Devil’s Paintbrush features Aleister Crowley, and does interesting things (a la Alan Moore) with real historical characters. I was reminded of The Devil’s Paintbrush throughout Case Study and I came away feeling that one of them was the better book.

Any Cop?: Undoubtedly interesting and well written, I’m not quite in agreement with all of the people who are gushing about this novel. It’s good and it’s well researched but does it work hard enough? We’re not quite sure it does…

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