His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

(Contraband, 2015)

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Set in a remote Scottish village in 1869, young Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae has commited a brutal triple homicide. But what drove him to such measures?

This historical crime* novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. And rightly so. An astonishing novel, it skilfully portrays the hard life endured by crofters in a miniscule village in the Scottish Highlands in a bygone era. This provides the backdrop (or cause?) of Roddy’s horrific tale of murder.

There are just so many things to like about this book. First off, the structure. The way the book is introduced, I genuinely believed it was a true story for the first few pages. To start we get descriptions of the protagonist from the other villagers which paint Roddy in various lights, some sympathetic, some unflattering. Then we get Roddy’s own account of events and feel a certain sympathy with him. It seems clear he was driven to it by a combination of desperate poverty, unforgiving family circumstances and, perhaps most of all, sustained harassment from a neighbour with a grudge.

But then we get the story from the medical reports, the account from the doctor who is an expert in criminal anthropology, and a blow-by-blow account of the court case. And perceptions shift…

It actually made me angry reading some of the criminal anthropology views. But these were ideas that were held up as scientific back then. The treatment of the crofters also made me irate. Again though, that was common practice for the time. The scene where Roddy and his father go to the estate to get the rules, so they’ll know when they are breaking them, and are told they must only want them in order to break them, really reminded me of a Catch 22 type situation. The sheer absurdity!

Then there’s the style. It was perfect for setting the tone and transporting you to the time. There were several local/archaic words so I found the glossary incredibly helpful. Don’t be put off by that though, it’s not difficult to read.

And finally, the characters. You certainly feel you know Roddy after reading his version of events, and feel you understand him. [SPOILER: However, as later testimonies show, he’s left out some crucial elements that paint him in a wholly different light. Each character is very well portrayed and the language and tone changes where necessary but without it being jarring.]

Aside: I’m not even sure that was a spoiler but my definition of spoiler may be somewhat skewed. I’m someone who hates movie trailers and sometimes just starts reading a book without reading the blurb…

This book is brilliant. It draws you in. The pacing ensures you want to keep reading it. I honestly can’t fault it. Plus the cover is pretty cool.

*I’ve seen it classed as historical crime in various places but to me it’s much more flexible than that. It’s not a traditional crime story. From the outset you know what happened and who committed the crime. It’s more about psychology, how much can we really know a person, different perspectives, and a social commentary on the plight of the crofters in that time.

TL;DR: An amazing read, that stayed with me for days after finishing. Highly, highly recommended.

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