Saturday, October 8, 2016


HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A brutal triple murder in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869 leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that Macrae is guilty, but the police and courts must uncover what drove him to murder the local village constable. And who were the other two victims? Ultimately, Macrae’s fate hinges on one key question: is he insane?

Crime novels are traditionally shunned by the literary-minded Man Booker Prize, so this under-the-radar Scottish tale was something of a surprise longlistee, on a few fronts, earlier this year.

Burnet's second novel,following his critically acclaimed debut THE DISAPPERANCE OF ADELE BEDEAU, is a dark, clever, and riveting historical whydunit in the guise of a true crime expose. It’s easy to see what lured the Man Booker Prize judging panel, as well as what earned it a place on the shortlist last month (and has seen it become the most popular of all this year's shortlistees, by far, with readers).

In the preface, Burnet explains that he stumbled across the sensational story of teenaged killer Roderick Macrae while scouring the Inverness archives for information on his own grandfather, Donald 'Tramp' Macrae, who was born some twenty years after the massacre, in nearby Applecross. Burnet skilfully blurs the line between fact and fiction throughout HIS BLOODY PROJECT. It's a novel, inspired by a real-life nineteenth century massacre (in France). Burnet has crafted an array of 'found historical documents' that have a strong ring of authenticity, cleverly build the narrative, and draw us deeply into the harsh world of nineteenth century tenant farmers in northern Scotland.

Right from the beginning, we're plunged into Roddy's world, and are immediately questioning things, as we read a variety of short descriptions of him and his crime from his fellow villagers. In the eyes of his neighbours he's everything from a boy who's had a tough life to pure evil, from someone who has been treated unfairly to someone who is the root cause of problems in the village. In a few short pages, Burnet has set up one of the underlying themes of his masterpiece - how even 'true events' are a matter of perspective, and people can't see into or know the mind of another (even themselves).

HIS BLOODY PROJECT is not a whodunnit. Teenager Roderick has confessed to brutally killing three fellow villagers in his impoverished crofting community in the Scottish highlands in 1869. The only thing standing between him and execution is a zealous advocate who believes Roderick must have snapped. Surely only a boy driven to madness could be responsible for such a bloodbath? Or, as the advocate believes, 'not responsible'… Through newspaper reports, witness statements, trial transcript, expert opinion from a psychiatrist called in by the defense, and Roderick’s own jailhouse memoir, we uncover a vivid and varied picture of events leading up to the murders.

Who’s really to blame? Will it be enough to save the teenager from the noose?

This is an unusual but absorbing crime tale. Burnet skillfully uses the ‘discovered documents’ device to time-travel readers back to nineteenth century Scotland, evoking the language and prejudices of the times, and bringing the harsh existence of the crofters (tenant farmers struggling for subsistence) to life. It could have stumbled badly in lesser hands, but here it's seamless, building a strong narrative even as it twists on itself and has the reader questioning what we thought we knew.

I found myself intrigued and engaged throughout. HIS BLOODY PROJECT is written in a way that strongly mimics Victorian vernacular, but it flows well and isn't stilted in any way. I found myself piqued by the attitudes of some of the characters (particularly the psychologist), but that suits the world of the time, and informed the story rather than pulling me out of it.

Overall, HIS BLOODY PROJECT is a brooding and inventive novel deserving of a wide audience.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 160 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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