Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

dscf1140The Man Booker Prize is a literary award which needs no introduction.  With many wonderfully written and enriching books being celebrated every year, the release of the longlist is eagerly awaited each year. In my eyes, this is definitely the Oscars of the literary world.

One of the books which immediately caught my attention was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. With an invitingly gruesome cover, suggestive of a rich historical novel, this book seemed to encapsulate many things I love. I have not read Burnet’s first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, but I can honestly say that it has now been placed straight on my Want to Read List.

An historical novel and thriller, this book revolves around events which take place within the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Roderick Macrae, a seventeen year old crofter’s son, commits three brutal murders within the small, close knit community of Culduie. We know for certain that Roderick is guilty of these terrible crimes, and the novel works to explain the why and the hows surrounding such a murder, as opposed to the suspected guilt of the criminal. The novel is presented as a realistic account, a true history of these fictionalised events. A large portion of the novel is written in the murderers own voice, presented as an account he has written whilst awaiting trial in the goal at Inverness Castle. Alongside this, we are given witness statements, medical post-mortem accounts, passages from criminal psychologists, and the events of the three day trial as perceived by journalists.

I found the structure of the novel, and the way Burnet has attempted to give this a realistic air, incredibly authentic. Upon starting this book, I knew very little about the plot apart from what the blurb states, and as such the preface in particular really threw me. In the preface, the author tells us how he ventured to Scotland looking for information regarding his grandfather, who was born near Culduie, and that whilst doing this he stumbled across newspaper clippings describing events surrounding Roderick Macrae. For a moment, I had to actually close the book and reflect on what I had just read. Was this, then, an account of true life events, or was this all a grand literary framing device to create the suggestion that this is historically accurate, when in truth it is entirely fictional? A quick moment of internet researching assured me that this was in fact the later account, and I resumed my reading extremely awed by the effect that Burnet’s writing had already successfully created.

The preface is followed by various interview statements collected by a member of the police force, describing both Roderick Macrae and the events both before and after the triple murder. I found the differing voices of the characters to be amazingly put across, with the reader able to gather a clear picture of what each interviewed individual is like from an extremely short passage. Likewise, this section sets the novel up very much as a true life account, with attention to detail such as dates, names and places all contributing to the feeling of realism. This is followed by a ‘Map of Culduie and the Surrounding Area’, which I found very helpful in establishing the movements of the accused, and yet again made me momentarily forget the fabricated nature of this novel.

A large portion of the novel is dedicated to the first person account which Roderick is supposed to have written whilst incarcerated.  This does not necessarily focus primarily on the murders themselves (although it does take us up to, and include, the murders), but details Roddy’s childhood and growth within the community of Culduie. I absolutely loved this section of the novel, and found it highly reminiscent of another favourite Scottish novel, Sunset Song. His descriptions of the township in which he grew, his family life, and interactions with his fellow members of the community all created a very detailed picture which seemed highly at odds with the murders we know Roddy will go on to commit.  We are given an insight into the typical workings of Highlanders within the nineteenth century, and whilst I cannot comment on the accuracy of what we are told, it certainly flowed and seemed entirely plausible. Whilst perhaps not as heavily agricultural as Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Roderick gets across the reliance which existed upon the Scottish land, and how family life is often dictated by this.

What is very interesting is the degree of sympathy, and the favourable image which we gather of this young man. The hardships and grief of his family life, the complexity of his relationship with his father (a mixture of love and resentment), and the way we watch as Roderick makes new experiences as he comes of age, all made the novel feel very much like a family saga or drama. At times I had to remind myself that this boy would actually come to produce such horrific acts. One moment I found especially poignant was when Roderick is explaining his school life, and the high hopes his teacher, Mr Gillies, had for young Roddy. Whilst Mr Gillies is highly optimistic that Roderick will be continue his studies, leaving the largely uneducated Culdie to live a life open to exciting possibilities, Roderick tells us that ‘Mr Gillies was mistaken in supposing that such a thing was possible for a son of Culduie’(p. 25). This one sentence speaks volumes about the social and class ideologies which existed to contain and hold back young men like Roderick. His description of himself as a ‘son of Culduie’, with the  possessive tone imparted upon his village, emphasise the hold that keeps Roderick belonging to his homeland.

Another part of the novel which strikes a vivid remembrance in my mind, is Roderick’s tender care of fledging animals, and his mercy killing of a sheep in tremendous pain. Roderick sates that ‘I have always shrunk from killing so much as a hen, and do not understand why educated men regard the killing of living creatures as sport’ (p. 33). This is such a completely contradictory image of Roderick from the one we are immediately aware of at the novel’s start, and produces added layers to a story which is far from focused solely upon the killings.

Something which must be remembered, is that this account is suppose to have come first hand from Roddy himself, and as such should be treated with caution and with the potential of being biased. This was something else which I experienced when the novel changes to the perspective of J. Bruce Thompson, an expert in Criminal Anthropology and Psychology.  Thompson is extremely prejudiced in his thoughts surrounding the lower members of the community, and the idea of how these ‘degenerate’ members of society are often synonymous with the criminal class, outcomes of both their hereditary breeding and environment. Whilst his opinions did often rile me, they are very stereotypical of the popular ideas in the nineteenth century. When examining Roderick fully, he places great emphasis on his physical appearance, using means such as physiognomy to place Roderick in context.

Whilst some of the means he uses would not be regarded as proper today, both Thompson’s account, and indeed the account of the trial itself, provided a great insight into the psychology and the possible insanity of criminals. Roderick is taken from someone who is held at an intimate distance, to someone removed and used as a case study. The courtroom scenes are stimultaneously entertaining, engaging, and insightful. We are given a fuller picture of the details of the murder, but what takes precedent is the very reasons why Roderick would commit such an act, and do these reasons thus equate to him being insane. It is an extremely interesting look at what makes someone a criminal and likewise what and how we dictate if someone is also innocent because of any aspects of insanity. Additionally, this part of the novel provides a rich and engaging account of the state of the legal system in the Scottish Highlands, and any discrepancies which were potentially unethical.

If I have taken anything from this novel, it is the certainty that Graeme Macrae Burnet is a highly skilled and eloquent writer. He is able to sustain a novel studded with historical integrity, as well as a novel which evokes conflicting, complicated emotions from his readers. Roderick Macrae is a self confessed murder, yet I left this novel with the greatest sympathy for him, whilst remaining undecided as to whose narrative I completely trusted. The time and energy this novel must have consumed, with the smallest attention to detail (including footnotes to reference both fictional and true articles), produced, quite simply, a stunning novel. I flew through this, enjoying every aspect of this reading experience. I feel that Burnet definitely deserves a place on the shortlist, and can only hope that the judges opinions align with my own.

For now, onto the remainder of the list!

Publisher: Saraband

Rating 5*/5*

 

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