His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project was recommended by the New York Times as one of the best books of 2016 and as someone for whom a murderous thriller is appealing, I was interested to get to grips with the novel.

Given the premise that this is an account written by the actual Roderick Macrae in 1869 with additional documents that include statements from witnesses and accounts of his trial, working your way into the novel isn’t straightforward and won’t be for everyone. This is a very consciously constructed tale built to give the characters authenticity even if it does not offer certainty.

The story behind the various documents is fascinating. Roderick Macrae was a seventeen-year-old crofter living in a small village in Scotland, who killed Lachlan Mackenzie, his neighbour and the local constable of the parish, Lachlan’s teenage daughter and his youngest son. Roderick claims to have intended to go to Lachlan Mackenzie’s house to kill him for persecuting his father and that the other murders were incidental, necessary only so that neither child could raise the alarm.

The novel has multiple documents because the tale that Roderick tells is obviously fallible. Conjecture suggests that either he didn’t really write it because he couldn’t have been literate enough, or he wrote what might exonerate his actions. As a reader you can choose whether to believe he is a thoughtful, intelligent, life-loving young man whose world is plagued by poverty, the death of his mother, the harsh treatment of his father, and the nature of a mostly feudal system in which peasants are loaned land by the local gentry. Or, you can understand that built upon this history grows a young troubled man whose sexual and murderous instincts are hidden under a politically astute account written to induce sympathy.

There are aspects of the novel that are easier to decide upon. The psychology of the criminal, expounded from ideas printed at the time, is painful to read and yet also pertinent. Are we not still judging others based upon the hand dealt to them at birth? The idea that crime can be inherited, that behaviours and beliefs are based upon heritage, however ridiculous the novel makes such an idea seem, is still widely believed in today. This makes His Bloody Project wonderfully provocative. How a reader responds to the novel is a kind of litmus test of his or her political ideology. Graeme Macrae Burnet himself leaves reality in question. Ultimately, the only person capable of truly knowing why and how a person acts as they do, is that person themselves. How do we judge? How do we create systems of law and governance that take such this level of knowing into account? And then, what if the person themselves isn’t certain, isn’t in ‘their right mind’?

It’s certainly a complex and difficult problem and possibly one we should consider revising. We still live with a law built upon precedent. We have no constitution. His Bloody Project asks readers to question the rules upon which their society is organised and that is no mean feat.

A powerful and intriguing read, His Bloody Project won’t be for everyone because not everyone likes to have to build their own story. If you do, then you will thoroughly enjoy this novel.

As I wrote this review and then forgot to post it (!), I have already read this week’s novel, Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. I’ll be posting a review tomorrow. Next week I’ll be reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

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