I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies. Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project.
This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history. The documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder. Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.
But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.
This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions? The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.
The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently. Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.
The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.
The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.
Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…