His Bloody Project

An in depth review of my latest read: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

Before this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize I don’t think many people can admit that they had heard of the novel or the author. It first came to my attention when it came up as a best seller on Amazon, which I thought was strange as the novel was first published in 2015, why was it coming up now?

It was then I realised it had been shortlisted for one of the most prestigious literary awards and people must have been buying it in their hundreds. As I love crime stories anyway, I decided to purchase the novel. Having never knowingly read a Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about and whether I would be blown away by this piece of fiction or if it would just be like any other book I had read before. The book is based on ‘found documents’ that the author had come across while researching his family roots.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Blurb

‘The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.

A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the county’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence.

Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows’.

My thoughts on the novel

To make my review (hopefully) more interesting I thought that I would blog my thoughts as I am reading instead of after I finish the book.

I began reading at work and read the preface instead of skipping start to the text, I am glad I read this as it sets the context of the book. But it did also confuse me, it sounds so much like this is going to be a true story and it is actually a piece of text written by a triple murdered that I had to google and double check! It’s not, the author has said he even took the measures of writing ‘A novel’ on the first page as so many people have written this is a ‘true crime story’ (you can read more about this here). This in itself made me excited, I thought if the author can make me so convinced what I am reading in the first few pages is a true account and not fiction I can’t wait for the rest of the book.

After the preface there are a couple of pages of statements from character in the novel who give character statements and some recalling the day of the murders. I also really enjoyed this part of the book, it give the accused a multi dimension identity as you see how various people in the small town of Culduie view Roderick Macrae – the accused. Some make you think he can’t have committed the crime while others are adamant that it was him (as he has already confessed).

There is a small town map that makes it easier to picture the various events in your head which is very handy.

map of Culduie
The map of Culduie in my copy of the book

Following the map and the statements is The Account of Roderick Macrae. In the preface the author Graeme Macrae Burnet (which added to my confusion earlier, I thought he was writing a true story about a relative!) says that the only amendments he has made are paragraphing and punctuation as it was originally written as one long prose.

The first few pages give you some background information on the main character, Roderick Macrae has a father who beats him but a lovely older sister Jetta and a friendly mother who is loved by the town’s people. We also hear that he was bullied badly at school to take attention away from his sister. He is also noted as being one of the brightest students in the school and his teacher, who seems to think very highly of him, suggests that he continue his education after 16 years old. He expresses that this isn’t possible as he is needed to tend the land with his father.

Roderick then pinpoints the moment where he believes that the murder he committed was inevitable. This moment is when he has to kill a sheep of Lachlan Broad, the man he has killed after it was stuck in a bog with a dislocated leg. He was supposed to be watching over the livestock but gets stung by a hornet and takes a bath in a nearby waterfall in which time the sheep wanders off. After killing the sheep his father is ordered to pay 35 shillings to Broad and this results in a beating for Roderick.

Ok, now I am at a place in the novel where I can start to see little signs of why Roderick would have committed the triple murder

Ok, now I am at a place in the novel where I can start to see little signs of why Roderick would have committed the triple murder, I know one of the is Lachlan Broad and I can only guess at the other two (I won’t name them as I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s reading). Or at least I believe this is what the author is intending.

To not give too much of the plot away Lachlan has just been appointed constable of the town and is going about his duties heavily fining the residents of the town. He has made Roderick’s father give up some of their croft (land) and has Roderick has also walked in on him ‘having relations’ with his sister. Further to this he also stops Roderick and his father collecting ‘Sea-ware’ or seaweed to spread on their land to help their crops grow, after they have spent a day’s labour harvesting the seaweed. Then the next day, every other inhabitant of Culduie has spread seaweed on their land without fines from the Constable. It is very clear now there is a lot of bad blood between the families.

Which is why it surprises me that Flora Broad, Lachlan’s daughter, strikes up a friendship with Roderick. I am not yet at the point at the novel where I know if this is on her father’s orders or whether she wants to be friends with him. It turns out that Roderick is quite taken with her and at the town’s markets after drinking ale and whiskey he declares that he would like her to be his wife.

After drinking ale and whiskey he declares that he would like her to be his wife

She spurns him and to conceal his tears he buries his face in her neck. She then slaps him and runs off. Roderick returns to the inn only to be beaten up in front of everyone by Lachlan Broad.

It then transpires after Roderick walks in to find his father beating his sister that Lachlan Mackenzie (his real name) has also brought shame on their family, I won’t spoil what happens but this is the climax of Roderick’s account. He then goes on to describe who he has murdered and how in quite graphic details.

At the end of Roderick’s accounts there is a useful glossary of terms as seen below:

Following the account are medical reports describing in-depth the injuries to each of the three bodies. There is also an account from doctor James Bruce Thomson about the state of Roderick’s mind which is quite an interesting segment, it is like another story of its own.

After these short sections the story of the trial is told, over the course of three days we here a summary of Roderick’s accounts from other characters in the novel. I found this part quite hard going because of the language used, the format – some of it is told as if a newspaper story and what is happening in the court room.

There is also a lot of discussion about the mental state of the accused Roderick

There is also a lot of discussion about the mental state of the accused Roderick which gets a bit complicated and I had to concentrate quite hard on this section of the novel.

The verdict follows the third day of the trial, if I’m honest I found this very anti-climactic and very uninteresting compared to the rest of the novel. I won’t spoil the novel by letting anybody know what the verdict is but it was not what I was expecting.

I am glad that the verdict section is followed up by an epilogue as this helped to finish the novel off better than had the author left it at the verdict.

Overall, I am glad that I read the book but I do think that it would have been better being just the Account of Roderick Macrae as this was by far the best part of the novel and very interesting reading. I am pleased to say that I have read a Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, but I probably wouldn’t read it again, or recommend it to anyone else.

Have you read this novel? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

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