Reviewed by Ariell Cacciola
The desolate and remote Scottish Highlands is the brutal setting for Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel His Bloody Project. Seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae is arrested for a violent triple murder. The crime and perpetrator are known from the beginning, but it is the unraveling of documents and testimony where the reader will find so much pleasure.
“It was as I sat by the shore watching the slow movement of the tide, that I first thought to kill Lachlan Broad.”
Over the summer of 1869, in a small crofting community, Roderick sets out one morning to his neighbor’s house where he savagely kills him and his two children. Swiftly arrested, Roderick and his lawyer maintain that it was a just act, with the latter hoping for a jury to find his client insane as to avoid the gallows. Roderick is bright for the generally uneducated village, but his past is spotted with strange moods and off-kilter behavior. But will this be enough to convince a jury? This question is the main thrust of the story and the central question the reader is tasked with deciding by the final page.
Presented as a true life ancestor of the author, the novel opens with a preface by Burnet explaining his recent find of this fascinating memoir written by Roderick while awaiting his trial. With the intentions of finding out what could have been the catalyst for these murders, the reader will delight in trying to find holes in Roderick’s, no doubt, unreliable narration.
The novel is told along with other collected documents related to the case, with each subsequent section bringing a mix of both new mystery and revelation. Using an amalgam of witness statements, trial testimony, and other excerpts, Burnet has a talent for portraying voice. The reader has to rely on the voice of each narrator or testimonial. Roderick is plain-spoken and to the point; his readiness to speak plainly, however, is a tip-off that he might be hiding something in his transparency. There is always something right beneath the surface that is the key to this whole sordid business and the truth in Roderick’s memoir begins to unravel when confronted with the other documents.
It would be a disservice to expectant readers to give away too much about the plot. That is always a challenge with a novel with prominent mysteries and tricky questions. I found myself, about halfway through, giving up on my note-taking and reserving my pen for a few underlining moments, as I didn’t want it distracting me from the pleasure of reading.
Burnet is impressive by penning a book that satiates so many avenues for a reader. His Bloody Project is part thriller, part true crime, part historical, part found documents…you name it. But no matter what, it is the idea of madness, of revealing what has happened leading up to the murders, that drives the story.
There is also a particular pleasure in loosely epistolary novels. The folding in of layers and unreliability in varying documents (read: narratives) is a clever construct.
Burnet is a slick writer, easily maneuvering from one character to the next. I always felt in competent hands and that details were placed with purpose. It is no surprise that the novel—published by the independent Scottish imprint Contraband—is outpacing the rest of the Man Booker nominees in sales. It is highly addicting playing the sleuth in remote nineteenth century Scotland.