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It is the 1700s in religious, moralistic Edinburgh, Scotland. “Deacon” Brodie (so called because he is the head of a cabinetmakers’ guild) is a respectable gentleman. He hails from a well-known Edinburgh family, dresses fashionably, and sits on the City Council. And by night, he is a gambling addict and a burglar.
In fact, Brodie is what we would now call an adrenaline junkie. As he remarks in Chapter 3, “Walking the razor’s edge, that’s the draw.”
When the novel opens, Brodie has long been bored with the class, trade, and wealth into which he was born. He has a secret common-law wife whom he must hide from his relatives. He spends his nights feeding his addiction to gambling on cards, dice, and cockfights. This sort of double life he has already been living for years. But before the book’s prologue is over, Brodie has taken his risk-taking to a new level and begun robbing his fellow City Councilmen. He uses his locksmith business to obtain copies of their keys (and sometimes sells the victims a better lock in the days following the break-in).
Will Brodie is living two lives. Will he be able to maintain both? Take a guess from your own experience, or buy and read the book to see exactly how one life wins out over the other.
One question that I did not ask myself until I had finished the book: Hmm, could this novel be a whitewash? Answer: probably. The author is clearly in sympathy with Brodie and seems to admire the Councilman for his many heists. We are never shown any person being financially ruined by a theft of Brodie’s. All we are shown is comical righteous indignation on the part of easily hateable stuffed-shirt characters. Hutchison seems to feel that the Deacon is a bit of a Robin Hood, even though the profits from the crimes are going to pay Brodie’s gambling debts, not to help the poor.
The idea that the book might be a whitewash was confirmed by a quick Internet search. In the book, Brodie is devoted to his secret common-law wife, Jean, and his seven-year-old daughter by her. In real life, apparently, he had two mistresses (who did not know about each other) and five children between them. So from a feminist perspective at least, the real Brodie was no saint. However, like many great criminals of literature, Brodie has a lot of style, panache and gumption. It’s hard not to be charmed by him, even as we smack our foreheads over the stupid decisions he makes.
Despite its being a whitewash, I give this novel three out of four stars for the way it transports us to sixteenth-century Edinburgh, with its “lads” and “lasses,” its “tenements” and “closes,” its wigs and waistcoats, its bright blue skies, chill mists and steep hills.
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