The Barnes & Noble Review
Murder is the dark stain at the heart of many a conventional mystery novel, but it also serves as a deadly effective tool in the hands of a writer who's not interested in whether the butler (or the serial killer) did it, but why he did. Add to the canon of whydunits the grim and fascinating novel, presented in true-crime style, of a murder committed in Scotland nearly 150 years ago.
This sleeper of a novel is veiled in deception. For starters, Burnet has given a part of his name to that of his murderer, Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old boy arrested in 1869 for a brutal triple murder in his small seaside village. Burnet includes a "preface" in which he explains that he stumbled on the case while doing research on his own family. The book itself consists of various pertinent historical documents: medical reports, witness statements, court transcripts, and, most important, the firsthand account of the murders and the events leading up to them, written by the accused from his jail cell. (The language has a veneer of antiquity but is entirely accessible. A short glossary of Scottish words that Burnet includes is all the translation necessary.) In offering us various pieces of the puzzle without any neat, prefab conclusions, Burnet turns his readers into detectives. But what is it, exactly, that we're meant to uncover? There's no dispute that "Roddy" Macrae is guilty: He confesses to the murder immediately, and he comes from the scene of the slaughter covered in the victims' blood. (It's a testament to the powerful hold that the gotcha formula has on our sense of narrative that for a while I found it impossible to accept that Roddy was the killer. It just seemed too obvious.)
In interviews Burnet has mentioned his deep admiration for the ultimate crime novel Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and it's easy to see why he would find a character like the mad murderer Raskolnikov so fascinating. What makes a seemingly ordinary person, to use the term-of-art, "snap"? And is there any such thing as an ordinary person, anyway? Roddy's character and motives are at the center of the mystery Burnet unspools and his young antihero often seems as much at a loss for answers as anyone else. Burnet's first novel, The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, set in in a backwater town in France, told the story of a man suspected in the disappearance and possible murder of a waitress at a beloved local café, and how the suspicion he was under rearranged the furniture of his own mind. It was a smaller novel, much of it sealed within the tight confines of the protagonist's psyche and careful habits. As in His Bloody Project, Burnet wasn't afraid to leave question marks where we might expect definitive answers.
The family research Burnet describes as the genesis for his current book may be a literary device, but he did immerse himself in the nineteenth-century Scottish agrarian system known as crofting, which wasn't far removed from feudalism, to create the grim world that his young accused murderer inhabits. Roddy's impoverished family is permitted to work a plot of land that they lease in a social arrangement ripe for abuse, and in which there's little recourse for unfair treatment.
A passage in which Roddy describes a conversation that his father has with a local authority, known as the factor, underscores the hopeless absurdity of the crofting system for the average farmer, who must live in fear of violating unwritten laws. The factor explains:
The reason you may not "see" the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and enforce them at his discretion. But there are more layers to peel back. A criminal profiler (whose theories are based, Burnet says, on the work of real-life pioneering criminologist J. Bruce Thomson) has his own conclusions about the accused's motives. And then there's the possibility, dangled by Roddy's optimistic lawyer, of an insanity defense. How is insanity to be defined, and what constitutes its proof? In a Scottish courtroom, where emerging modern legal concepts are brought to bear on a rural backdrop that appears little removed from medieval times, how is justice to be meted out?
Years ago, I served on a jury for a robbery and assault case that seemed composed of nothing but holes and contradictions and unreliable witnesses. We reluctantly found the defendant not guilty. The tremendous letdown I felt when, after we rendered that verdict, we simply went home, made me realize how thoroughly our narrative culture has primed us to expect comprehensive answers, final explanations, wrap-ups. The seduction of many crime stories is that they offer all the answers we don't get in real life. His Bloody Project reminds us that there are other pleasures to be drawn from a superb novel that revolves around the act of murder.
Sarah L. Courteau is an essayist and critic who has written for The New York Times, The Wilson Quarterly, and The Oxford American, among other publications.
Reviewer: Sarah L. Courteau
From the Publisher
"It’s only a story or is it? Graeme Macrae Burnet makes such masterly use of the narrative form that the horrifying tale he tells in HIS BLOODY PROJECT, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, seems plucked straight out of Scotland’s sanguinary historical archives."Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
"Thought-provoking fiction."The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
“[A] powerful, absorbing novel
Fiction authors from Henry James to Vladimir Nabokov to Gillian Flynn have used [an unreliable narrator] to induce ambiguity, heighten suspense and fold an alternative story between the lines of a printed text. Mr. Burnet, a Glasgow author, does all of that and more in this page-turning period account of pathos and violence in 19th-century Scotland
[A] cleverly constructed tale
Has the lineaments of the crime thriller but some of the sociology of a Thomas Hardy novel.”Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
“. . . recalls William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner in the way it portrays an abused people and makes the ensuing violence understandable. . . Bloody Project shows that the power held by landowners and overseers allowed cruelties just like those suffered by the Virginia slaves in Confessions. Halfway between a thriller and a sociological study of an exploitive economic system with eerie echoes to our own time, His Bloody Project is a gripping and relevant read.” Newsweek
“Burnet is a writer of great skill and authority . . . few readers will be able to put down His Bloody Project as it speeds towards a surprising (and ultimately puzzling) conclusion.”Financial Times
“His Bloody Project is an ingenious, artful tale of a 19th century triple murder in the Scottish Highlands. Though a noveland shortlisted for the Man Booker Prizeit masquerades as the tale of a true crime, made up of a collection of historical documents supposedly unearthed by the writer, each bit shedding further light on what drove a 17-year-old to kill three peopleincluding an infantin his small crofting community.”NPR
“. . . an intricate, interactive puzzle, a crime novel written, excuse my British, bloody well.”Los Angeles Times
"A stellar crime novel and a wrenching historical portrait, HIS BLOODY PROJECT also succeeds at lyrically questioning whether it's possible to know another man's mind--or even desirable. The novel sends out vines in all directions, its characters' tangled motives obscured by tragedy and lies."Lyndsay Faye, author of Gods of Gotham
“A thriller with a fine literary pedigree . . . His Bloody Project” offers an intricate, interactive puzzle, a crime novel written, excuse my British, bloody well.”Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times
“It [His Bloody Project] had such an engrossing plot that I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it, so it was no surprise that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s excellent work was short listed for the Man Booker Prize . . .The interesting and innovative structure used by the author, where you feel like you are reading original historical records, sets the book apart from others of a similar genre and his skillful writing means the reader can’t help but empathise with the ‘murderer’. In addition to the gripping story, the book gives the reader a fascinating insight into Highland life at the time its harshness, poverty and brutality. Definitely one of the best books this year.”First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon
“Clever and gripping”Library Journal, starred review
"Psychologically astute and convincingly grounded in its environment . . . a fine achievement.”The National
“Fiendishly readable . . . A psychological thriller masquerading as a slice of true crime. . . The book is also a blackly funny investigation into madness and motivation.”The Gaurdian
“. . .sly, poignant, gritty, thought-provoking, and sprinkled with wit.”Publishers Weekly, starred review
“I disappeared inside the pages of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. . . fascinating”The Seattle Times
“Burnet has created an eloquent character who will stick with you long after the book is read.”The Seattle Review of Books
“Both a horrific tale of violence and a rumination on the societal problems for poor sharecroppers of the era.”TIME
“One of the most convincing and engrossing novels of the year.”The Scotsman
“A truly ingenious thriller as confusingly multilayered as an Escher staircase”Daily Express
“There is no gainstaying the ingenuity with which Burnet has constructed his puzzle. . ." The Telegraph
“A masterful psychological thriller”Ian Stephen, author of A Book of Death and Fish
“A gripping crime story, a deeply imagined historical novel, and gloriously written all in one tour-de-force of a book. Stevensonian that’s the highest praise I can give.”Chris Dolan, Sunday Herald, Books of the Year
“Masterful, clever and playful . . . one of the most experimental and assured authors currently writing in Scotland”Louise Hutcheson, A Novel Bookblog
“One of the most enjoyable and involving novels you’ll read this year”Alistair Braidwood, cots Wha Hae
“Presented as a collection of “Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae,” which took place in 1869, the novel includes the jailhouse memoir of a 17-year-old Scottish Highlander being held in Inverness Castle, awaiting trial for three appalling murders.
"It’s only a story or is it? Graeme Macrae Burnet makes such masterly use of the narrative form that the horrifying tale he tells in HIS BLOODY PROJECT, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, seems plucked straight out of Scotland’s sanguinary historical archives. Roderick and his family brave feudal conditions, toiling as tenant farmers on a small allotment, harvesting peat for fuel and scavenging seaweed to fertilize their gardens. It’s a hard existence, made even harder by Lachlan Mackenzie, a vindictive constable who systematically strips the Macraes of their livelihood. When father and son bravely take their grievances to the factor, the man charged with running the estate on behalf of the laird, he cruelly dismisses their request to see the regulations they’re accused of violating. “The reason you may not ‘see’ the regulations is because there are no regulations,” he informs them. “You might as well ask to see the air we breathe.”
After being goaded beyond endurance, Roderick seeks out his tormentor while carrying a croman (a pickax) and a flaughter (a pointed spade), “merely to discover what would happen if I paid a visit to his house thus armed.” At moments like this, we begin to suspect that Roderick isn’t the most trustworthy of narrators.
For a “semiliterate peasant,” he has recorded a testament so “sustained and eloquent” that the Edinburgh literati suspect a hoax. Not so Roderick’s lawyer, Andrew Sinclair, who marvels at the prisoner’s graceful writing and command of language even as he’s sickened by the conditions under which people like the Macraes must toil. But the lawyer’s defense may not be enough to counter the contemptuous testimony of men like the bigoted prison surgeon, J. Bruce Thomson, who contributes his own sour observations to the medical reports and witness statements presented in court. Thomson’s examination of the prisoner confirms his view that criminal behavior is determined by heredity. In Macrae’s case, though, what might be inherited is sheer desperation."Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review