Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a historical crime novel, set in the 1860s, that takes place, for the most part, in Culduie, a small hamlet in the Scottish Highlands. Through the medium of found documents, newspaper articles and police reports of the time, the book details the brutal murder of 40-year-old Lachlan MacKenzie, 15-year-old Flora Mackenzie and 3-year-old Dominic MacKenzie at the hands of 17-year-old Roderick Macrae. The first third of the novel is given over to Roderick Macrae’s account / confession.
Conveniently, and inspite of his low upbringing (a point that’s referred to countless of times in the novel) Roderick is quite the wordsmith and his confession has a certain literary flair. In his account Roderick draws a very clear picture of a family facing regular persecution from the local bully. The MacKenzies and specifically Lachlan, see the Macraes as useless members of society and when Lachlan becomes Culduie’s constable he decides to methodically and with full support from his boss, the Factor, take down Roddy and his father – while also raping Roddy’s sister on the quiet.
The second half of the novel, dominated by the trial and an account from the alienist J. Bruce Thomson, brought in to assess Macrae’s state of mind, focuses on whether Macrae was insane when he killed Lachlan, Flora and Dominic. The discussion on insanity is genuinely fascinating and the revelation from Thomson that Macrae’s murder wasn’t one of revenge against Lachlan but revenge against Flora for spurning Roddy’s advances, provides an interesting spin on Macrae’s account.
But while I did enjoy large chunks of the novel, the structure Burnet employs, while a neat idea, eventually works against the novel to the extent that I never felt fully invested in either Roddy’s circumstances or the people of Culduie. The book opens with a preface, written (I assume) by Burnet (in his role as a descendant of the fictional Roderick) which informs us of the tragic murders and in fact fills us in on many of the issues that Roddy will discuss, such as the family’s dispute with the MacKenzie’s and the general “injustice of the feudal system.” This robs Roddy’s confession of much of its power. We know going in that Lachlan MacKenzie is a piece of work, that the Macrae’s were on the lowest rung of the ladder and, most importantly, that Roddy commits an awful crime. But then that’s the problem with this whole “found document” structure. To provide an air of verisimilitude authors will fall back on framing devices, like prefatory remarks from the person who found the document, rather than allow the material to speak for itself.
And while I don’t mind the vaguely clichéd idea of telling a story through the articles and memoirs and journals of the time, Burnet can’t escape the problem of repetition. This is especially the case in the last third of the novel where a detailed day-by-day account of the trial means that things the reader already knows – whether from Roddy’s confession or statements taken by police – are repeated again. And again. What mitigates this somewhat is the interesting discussion between the prosecution and defence about what constitutes insanity but there are chunks of the trial that are certainly skim-able and by the end of it all Roddy’s fate feels like a footnote rather than a dramatic end to the novel.
There is some good stuff in His Bloody Project but I think it’s undermined by a structure that undercuts rather than elevates the story.