His Bloody Project tells the story of Roderick Macrae (Roddy for short), a young man living in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, who is arrested for a triple murder. The story is told through a memoir written by Roddy, a report from an expert on criminal insanity and the transcript of the trial. It is through these means that we discover the nature of what happened, why it happened and the truth of Roddy’s guilt.
This book was recommended to me by a friend quite a long time ago, but I never got round to reading it. Then, when moving a couple of weeks ago, it just so happened to be the first book that I picked out of my many boxes of books when looking for a new read. I wasn’t even going to review it, but I found it so compelling and intriguing that it felt impossible not to write something about it.
This is a wonderfully diverse and unique means of telling a story. The book opens with a preface which is supposed to be the author directly addressing the reader. In it Burnet defends the validity of the sources of information, and the accusation that Roderick Macrae didn’t write the memoir included but in fact his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, did to try and get him acquitted. Not knowing anything about this book, I fully bought into the concept of this being a factual historical text! I was left very puzzled by the fact it had been short-listed for The Man Booker Prize 2016 when it didn’t appear to be fiction. Now, admittedly a large element of this is my own density but it does go some way to demonstrating the effectiveness of this style of writing. I loved the use of different perspectives to give us totally different accounts of exactly what happened and why. We have Roddy’s own account, blunt and seemingly factual, the statements of those who lived in the Highlands with Roddy, the psychiatric report and the trial transcript all roughly telling the same story but with subtle differences sowing the seeds of doubt and creating an intriguing puzzle. Burnet uses them all wonderfully and each one feels like an actual historical text.
This book also uses one of my favourite techniques in storytelling, whether that is in books, films or games which is an unreliable narrator. Much of the book is Roddy’s memoir, depicting his life, what has happened to him and how it led to his becoming a murderer. It is seemingly honest and forthright, and we have no real reason to doubt anything he says. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Roddy, despite his heinous acts, when I came to the end of his memoir. But then come the medical records, psychiatric reports, the statements of other villagers and the trial transcript which all offer new, contradictory information to what Roddy has told us. It forced me to go back and assess what I had read in the first half of the book and try and work out whether it could be trusted. I love this. It keeps you on your toes, engaged with the story to the end and provides a real sucker punch in the climax of the story. The truth is we can never know exactly what happened, but it is incredibly fun trying to work it out.
This story wouldn’t work at all though if it weren’t for the intriguing characters Burnet has created. There are so many wonderful, well-written characters in this story. The villainous Lachlan Broad (his actual last name is Mackenzie but he is known as Broad), hellbent on destroying Roddy’s family and stripping their land from them, John Macrae, Roddy’s father, a strict pious man who could arguably take as much blame as Roddy for the murders which transpired. He is abusive and loveless towards Roddy and his daughter, Roddy’s sister Jetta. Then there is Flora Mackenzie, Lachlan Broad’s daughter. Possibly the catalyst for this whole story in a lot of ways. She is nothing like her father. She is fun, playful, humorous and strikes up a friendship of sorts with Roddy. She unwittingly becomes the source of amorous feelings on Roddy’s part, but she longs to escape the small village she grew up in and her tyrannical father. There are many other characters besides who offer depth and validity to the story being told. Graeme Macrae Burnet has created a world for this story to exist in that is so real and vibrant it left me extremely invested in what was happening.
This book is an astonishing feat of storytelling. The fact that I wouldn’t ordinarily go for this sort of book hammers home just how well-crafted it is to leave such an impression of me. It is a book which begs to be discussed, theorised on, and enjoyed by as many people as possible. I give this book the strongest recommendation. Give yourself a treat and read it!