Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet tells the story of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, accused of committing three brutal murders in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Presented as a series of documents “discovered” by the author whilst researching his family history, the first half of the book consists of Roddy’s written statement in which he confesses to the crimes and gives his version of events leading up to the murders followed by an account of the trial and verdict. The identity of one of the victims is revealed at the beginning to be local constable Lachlan Mackenzie while the other two remain a mystery until the event itself occurs.
Published by Contraband, a small independent imprint based in Scotland specialising in crime fiction, ‘His Bloody Project’ was relatively unknown when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year but quickly became one of the most popular titles amongst readers. It is very much a crime fiction novel with a difference due to the way in which Macrae Burnet poses the story as “true crime” in the introduction. This challenges the reader to consider whether they would feel the same amount of sympathy for Roddy as a fictional character or when believing him to be a real person. Intriguingly, other less central characters really did exist such as the medical criminologist James Bruce Thomson.
Inevitably, ‘His Bloody Project’ has been the subject of a debate surrounding the presence of “genre” novels on literary fiction longlists but it is the strength of the characterisation and the convincing depiction of the Scottish caste system in the community which makes it such an enjoyable read. As a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, the story explores Roddy’s alleged insanity and the extent to which his family’s poverty was the main factor behind the murders while the tension in the second half of the book lies in whether or not Roddy will be found guilty in court. The author’s preface acknowledges that there are “doubts” surrounding the authorship of Roddy’s written confession adding further layers of mystery to the significant number of unreliable statements in the case file, ultimately leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.
I read ‘His Bloody Project’ a few weeks after the Man Booker Prize was awarded to ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty (which I haven’t read yet) but I think I may well have been championing for it to win had I read it before the announcement. Macrae Burnet has pulled off a deceptively intricate experiment with form in this gripping and psychologically complex book which thoroughly deserves the wider publicity and readership it has garnered from its place on the shortlist.