His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae Contraband, 2015, 284 p.

 His Bloody Project cover

This novel caused a fair buzz when first published, and made the Booker Prize short list last year. It is a variation on the found manuscript tale, partly set in the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross in 1869, describing the circumstances leading up to a brutal triple murder. However, that takes up only half the book, which in fact begins with an authorial preface (wherein we find the first set of a number of footnotes which bolster the manuscript conceit,) goes on to witness statements supposedly collected at the time of the murder then we have the manuscript itself, a glossary of Scots words used in it, medical reports on the victims, an extract from a work on psychiatry by the resident Surgeon at Perth Prison – an “acknowledged authority” on crime and psychology – and subsequently describes the resultant trial in Inverness plus the verdict, supposedly drawn from newspaper accounts and a book published in 1869.

The manuscript’s narrator, Roderick Macrae, had lost his mother to childbirth some years previously and the family had since fallen into depression; a circumstance not helped by the fact his father, Black John, was free with his fists within the family and was having difficulty keeping the croft going. This last was made progressively worse by the new occupant of the post of factor’s constable, Lachlan Mackenzie, who had a long-lasting mutual antipathy with Black John, carrying out a vendetta against him. (The reasons for this antipathy may be surmised from a single cryptic remark Lachlan makes to Roddy after Roddy sees him forcing himself on Roddy’s sister, Jetta.) The witness statements and the testimonies at the trial inevitably throw doubt on the reliability of Roddy’s account. In this regard the Minister is as severe and uncompassionate as any of his breed, mindful only of the spiritual and not bodily welfare of his parishioners. About the only two people who have a good word to say about Roddy are the local schoolmaster who thought he had a good chance of bettering himself, and his lawyer, who strives to prove Roddy is insane.

It’s all exquisitely written. Burnet is a master, inhabiting the various voices within the book expertly, adroitly taking us into the life and times of his characters but I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced by the manuscript section as a found artefact. I know it’s an odd thing to say, all found manuscript tales are made up but there were too many obviously novelistic touches here, incidents too neatly aligned to the arc of the story.

It’s an outstanding example in the use of different narrative forms to tell a story, though; which makes His Bloody Project a fine work of fiction. It’ll be in my books of the year to be sure.

Pedant’s corner:- [The found manuscript is described as being altered only in respect of punctuation and paragraphing but “true to the original”, I have therefore mostly ignored any odd punctuation in that portion of the book.] Otherwise; “children were instructed in Latin, Greek and science” (why no capital for science? or for mathematics and french later on.) “The factor furrowed his brow and look at my father” (looked,) a gavel (3 mentions of the trial judge employing this implement. It is never used in Scottish – or English, Welsh or Northern Irish – courts,) “he had put her hands upon her” (his hands,) indispensible (indispensable.)

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    […] I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge. Jack has read it too. […]

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