His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!    

26 thoughts on “His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve just finished reading this one too and thoroughly enjoyed it – although it is sad. Jack read it just before me and he loved it too, but we’ve had some differences of opinion on various aspects of the story. I can’t wait to see what Burnet’s next book will be about – if there is another book.

  2. FictionFan says:

    This one is on my wishlist and I really want to read it, so I’m very glad you rate it highly! Actually I don’t think I’ve seen a single negative review of it and it seems to be being read much more that the book that actually won the Booker! I like the idea that it’s up to the reader to decide… 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I love books that leave things open to interpretation rather than wrapping everything up neatly for the reader. I hope you get a chance to read it soon – I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it!

  3. Anbolyn says:

    It sounds like this is very much “there are two sides to every story”. I like that it includes documents as well as the accused’s account of what happened. Is it very violent or gory?

    • Helen says:

      There are a few gory parts, mainly the descriptions of the actual murders and the post-mortem reports, but I wouldn’t say it was an excessively violent book. More of a psychological thriller, really.

  4. Sandra says:

    This was a book I had little interest in reading – not that I really knew what it was about. For some reason I’d made up my mind against it, I suspect the title put me off. Having read your review, Helen, I’m intrigued. Thanks for redressing the balance.

  5. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I hadn’t any intention of reading this as I’d been told it was incredibly dark and violent – would you have described it as such? It doesn’t seem so from your review.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a very dark book, yes, but only violent in a few places, restricted mainly to the pages describing the actual murders and the medical reports. It depends on your threshold for violence, I suppose – it’s probably not a book for everyone.

    • Helen says:

      This book wasn’t quite what I’d expected, so I think it could be worth trying it even if you weren’t initially drawn to it. I hope you enjoy it if you do read it.

  6. Laurie @ RelevantObscurity says:

    How interesting. I liked your set up of the book that Burnet discovered this story while doing research for something else. What a wonderful moment for an author. I am going to put this on my list for the Reading All Around the World Challenge for Scotland! So thanks for that 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t find it dry, but I can see how it might sound as if it would be. And yes, it’s a very immersive book – I learned a lot about life in the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century.

  7. jazzfeathers says:

    It sounds like an incredible book. The idea of the organisation of the narration simply blew my mind. I really really like the idea. thanks so vary much for sharing, or I might hav enever come across this book.
    (Visiting from teh Historical Fiction Reading Challenge)

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad I’ve brought this book to your attention and that you like the idea of it! The organisation and structure of the book is perfect, making the reader constantly have to change their mind and question everything they’ve read before. I hope you have an opportunity to read it. 🙂

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