It’s the right time to talk about His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. The weather has turned to a more predictable damp and leafless gloom and a harsher season is on the way, making it that much easier for our imaginations to travel to the remote Highland village of Culduie, in Ross-shire, Scotland, where Burnet’s second novel is set.
I came across His Bloody Project a few months ago, in The Guardian, when it was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
When asked about the surprising nomination of his book, Burnet responded:
“There is a certain Scottish way of preparing yourself for disappointment in advance, a coping strategy born out of many years of watching our football team.”
Some of this very same unadorned realism and laconic humour can be found in His Bloody Project; that, and so much more. [The Man Booker prize was, in fact, awarded to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, just last week.]
Set in 1869, His Bloody Project is often referred to as a historical thriller or just plain thriller, but I wouldn’t describe it that way. Though it presents a fascinating study of the grinding and grim existence of nine tenant farmers and their families in remote nineteenth-century Scotland, the novel is more like a Columbo mystery because from the outset, the reader knows that Roderick Macrae, the seventeen-year-old son of a forlorn and dour widower and crofter, has committed three profoundly disturbing and gruesome murders. What remains to discover is what brought him to such horrific acts.
The book is thus not so much a crime novel as it is a novel about the making of a criminal.
Burnet intentionally blurs the line between fiction and reality by structuring his novel in the form of a collection of primary source material. It’s full title is in fact His Bloody Projects, Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, and its contents include convincing—if faux-authentic—documents with titles such as Statements by Residents of Culduie; Map of Culduie and the Surrounding Area; The Account of Roderick Macrae; as well as a glossary of local terms and medical reports of the murder; a brilliantly conceived extract from Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy, by J. Bruce Thomson, the real-life criminologist and psychiatrist brought into the novel to brilliant effect; an account of the trial proceedings and an epilogue.
When we first glimpse Roddy Macrae, he’s covered in the blood of his victims and has calmly admitted his guilt.
What’s left to us is to read through the fascinating documents until a harsh and distressing picture emerges of a poor family undone by the death of Una Macrae, the wife of Roddy’s father, John, and a mother of four, as well as the compounding effects of a community’s isolation, of one man’s obdurate and joyless Calvinist fatalism, another’s relentless malice, and the structural injustice of a system of tenant farming on ungenerous soil that must certainly have broken the backs of several generations of farmers before them.
Though Roddy Macrae is the avowed murderer, the real villain of this story is Roddy’s ultimate victim, Lachlan Mackenzie (Lachlan Broad to the locals), the recently elected local constable, who for reasons we’re never made privy to, uses his newfound power to push the Macraes to the breaking point.
Two documents dominate the novel. The first of these is Roddy’s account of the events that led him to murder Lachlan Broad and two of his children in cold blood. It’s a fascinating read because Roddy, contrary to both appearances and circumstances, is a clever boy, excellent student and excellent narrator.
His descriptions of the Macrae family’s slow unraveling since Una’s death are painful and ominous and yet, even though I was terribly bothered by the egregious injustices suffered by the Macraes—Lachlan Broad’s spite is far reaching—I never warmed up to Roddy.
I owe this distance to Burnet’s strangely effective writing. Roddy relates his harrowing coming of age in dated and careful language. But though he diligently provides lots of factual details in his recounting of his father’s harshness, of his long and lonely days doing backbreaking work to help pay off his father’s debts, of his sister Jetta’s slow ruination, of his own infatuation with Lachlan Broad’s daughter Flora, of his gradual acceptance of the fact that he will never leave Culduie, and of his fateful decision to murder Lachlan Broad, Roddy’s narrative voice is that of a dispassionate boy who no longer believes…in anything.
The weight of the world has broken something inside Roddy, and because of this, it’s impossible to see the entire picture.
Another major document presented in the novel is the (fictional) excerpt from Dr. J. Bruce Thomson’s Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy, which, especially because it’s a genuinely accurate example of the prejudices of the scientific minds of the time, is at once completely outrageous, shameful and also wickedly funny.
Thomson proves to be the wild card at Roderick Macrae’s trial that swings the jury’s decision. Will Roddy hang or will he be judged criminally insane?
There are many mysteries in the novel, but the most intriguing of all may very well be how, despite the fact that the murderer is identified on the first page, its author succeeded in crafting a plot that is more and more compelling.
I thought this bleak tale of a family’s doom would be a hard slog: instead, it turned out to be a terrific page-turner.