Shortlisted for 2016’s Man Booker Prize and set in the depths of coastal, rural, Scotland, His Bloody Project is Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, and is a gripping, Gothic, psychological thriller that plays with genre conventions in wild, murderous, abandon.
Roderick Macrae is a seventeen year old crofter in 1869, accused of the violent murder of the local constable (an agent of the laird rather than the state), the local constable’s three year old son as well as the local constable’s teenage daughter. There is little evidence to suggest Roderick did not commit these crimes, but the central thrust of the text is a debate as to WHY he did them, and whether he can be described as of sound enough mind to face criminal punishment. The book is deeply evocative of a time and world incredibly foreign to the now, and with its focus on psychology, interpretation, detail and human fallibility, His Bloody Project is a starkly engaging piece of literary fiction.
It is the structure of His Bloody Project that initially marks it as interesting, for rather than a “straightforward” novel with a constant and consistent narrative voice, it is instead constructed episodically, as if from a collection of documents that pertain to the crime. An initial introduction connects the author to the events of the novel – the fictional Roderick Macrae is a fictional ancestor of the real Graeme Macrae Burnet, living in the real hamlet of Culduie up in crazily North Scotland. After the introduction, we receive several short “Witness Statements” related to the murders, presented as found evidence from police files (the book’s subtitle is Documents relating to the the case of Roderick Macrae). This is followed by roughly 150 pages (about half the book) containing Roderick’s own extended testimony, written whilst awaiting trial. This is followed by gory, detailed, post-mortem reports of the smashed corpses of the murder victims, then we get 30 pages taken from the [fictional] memoir of [real] criminal psychologist J. Bruce Thomson, detailing the days he spent assessing Roderick in his jail cell and visiting Culduie. This is followed by a novelisation of Roderick’s trial, which incorporates fake newspaper reports and fake court records, and is written like a history book. (Given the mad non-fiction reading I went through in January, I can confirm that – in terms of effective fictionality – all Macrae Burnett lacks here is constant [fake] referencing, a detail that would’ve further added to the book’s believability.) After the trial and its verdict, we get a short Epilogue discussing the legacy of the crimes, then a – non-fictional – page of notes/acknowledgements, like is [increasingly] normal at the end of a book. Apologies, this is a messy paragraph – Macrae Burnet’s structure is much clearer than my retelling of it. (Almost 20 days without a drink now, my mind’s in a weird place.)
In terms of voices, we get FIVE villagers giving brief statements, a SIXTH voice which is Roderick, a SEVENTH the medical examiner, an EIGHTH that is Thomson, a NINTH that is the omniscient contemporary novelist/narrator of the introduction and late chapters, as well as numerous other voices – such as witnesses, lawyers and the judge – whose words are (within the context of the novel) culled from official, historic, documents. Macrae Burnet has created a richly evidenced – fictional – crime, set within real judicial procedure, containing real contemporary thought on criminality and psychology and located in real places. As the lawyers, witnesses and press argue the result of the trial before the jury makes its decision, the reader is presented with fresh, new, interpretations of Roderick’s actions that chime far more with the words of the voices other than Roderick’s that we have read. However, as the majority of the text is from Roderick’s perspective, we are almost tricked into being on his side, a narrative device that is pleasingly disconcerting.
Let’s look at things in more detail:
This is a link to Google Street View, located on the one road – as still exists – of Culduie. The location is remote even now, but in the pre-car world it would have felt tremendously so. Culduie was not an easy place to either get to or leave. If born there, especially into the rigid croft system (tenant farmers, generational, traditional, ideological), one was likely to die there too. Education was sparse, and although Roderick was a gifted pupil when he attended the local school, his traditionalist father would not allow him to continue learning beyond the legal minimum, so by the time Roderick is 17, he is already, by his own admission, bitter and bored, but unlikely to ever change his situation (even/especially before the murders). Roderick’s testimony gives a very simple explanation for his crimes – revenge on the constable following persecution of his father. The constable’s children, Roderick claims, were only killed because they stood between him and this goal. This story is backed up by the initial witness statements that open the book, but are disputed immediately and irrevocably by the post mortem[s] that open the second half of the novel.
Thomson’s memoir is macabre but funny – he is a successful, affluent, man and his snobbish opinions of the backwoods of Scotland offer some welcome comic relief after several pages of bloody violence. His investigations into Roderick’s youth differ strongly from how the murderer has presented himself, and we enter into the trial with many questions.
Some spoilers ahead.
His Bloody Project is not merely genre fiction with a postmodern structure, and though it is a historical, psychological, thriller, it is not a mystery, and Macrae Burnet – rather than tying up every loose end a la Agatha Christie – instead leaves a LOT of threads hanging, like the contemporary crime series Serial and Making A Murderer. In fact, His Bloody Project has far more in common with ambiguous true crime reportage than it does with standard historico-crime fiction. Like Serial and Making A Murder, it has a similarly charismatic (maybe that’s the wrong word) young male central figure who’s an outsider of sorts and who has fraught relationships with his family. Similarly, our feelings for Roderick Macrae veer, like those for Adnan Syed and Steven Avery, between great sympathy and great disgust. By virtue of being fiction, His Bloody Project avoids the problematic notion of invasive voyeurism that these “true crime” pieces have been criticised for, however, it still contributes to the normalisation of violence against women, which is probably one of the factors in its failure to win the Booker Prize.
The more frequently that sexually-motivated murder is discussed, the more casual it becomes as an idea, the less weight every discussion has. And, as structurally interesting and written as it is, His Bloody Project does centre on the violent (probably sexualised) murder of a young woman, which is something that occurs disproportionately in culture generally. One can’t object to the normalisation of male violence against women but fail to do so when the cultural object under discussion – i.e. this book – is of high quality, because for every humane, sensitive and literary exploration of the topic, there will be hundreds of poor quality, poor taste, copycats. I’m being wishy-washy and liberal, I know (🎶I’m a snowflake, baby, rub me down🎶), but many unliterary, quickly written, books rely on sexualised violence because it seems provocative, despite being prevalent as a topic. It is an easy way to shock and thus cause a reaction, and many writers do not have the psychological/emotional heft of Macrae Burnet to evoke any reader reaction other than this initial shock.
A lot of fiction and a lot of films are about murder, and the victims are often female, and the victims are often portrayed as attractive and their murder related to male desire. This is a serious topic that is often treated like a light one (think of all those detective shows made for people who don’t read), but Macrae Burnet engages with it seriously. His focus and his structure is fresh and intriguing, the questions he raises and the issues he explores have value. The ambiguity is important and adds to the text’s believability, but it is an ambiguity that hinges on the potential of Roderick getting away with his real crime, which was his motive and action of sexual violence.
Macrae Burnet writes many voices very well, and his evocation of time and place is strong and enveloping, especially his descriptions within the voice of Roderick about the rural community and its distinctive social structure. The second half is slower paced, but I enjoyed it. There are no big revelations, no satisfying, false, conclusions where everything is definitively proven one way or the other, there is instead a simple and believable evocation of real life, richly told and engagingly written. This is solid historical fiction, intelligent and creative. Very glad I picked it up.