His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015) – Saraband

Presented as if it were true crime (though the title page does make it clear that this is a work of fiction), His Bloody Project is a new take on the historical crime novel. This is the story of Roderick Macrae, a seventeen year old crofter who has confessed to the brutal murder of three people in his village in the highlands of Scotland. Burnet claims in his preface that he stumbled across newspaper clippings from the case while carrying out research into another ancestor, and went on to discover the boy’s memoir, written while Macrae was imprisoned in the gaol at Inverness Castle in 1869, awaiting trial for the murders.

Mr Sinclair has instructed me to set out, with as much clarity as possible, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie and the others, and this I will do to the best of my ability, apologising in advance for the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style.

Macrae’s account forms the bulk of the book, taking us back through his unhappy family history, and setting out from the start that the Mackenzies and the Macraes harboured an ongoing feud which may have led to the tragic circumstances that are the subject of the memoir. A promising student, Roddy leaves school as soon as he is able in order to take up his place working on his family’s croft. When he comes across a sheep trapped in a bog, putting it out of its misery once he realises it is beyond saving, he knows that there will be consequences: the sheep belongs to Lachlan Mackenzie. This incident reignites the animosity between the families, the one now in debt to the other.

It is a clever device to present the evidence in such a way. Roddy may have the lion’s share of our attention, but we also have witness statements, the medical reports relating to the victims, the trial itself. Roddy is described, depending on who is asked, as ‘as wicked an individual as one could ever have the misfortune to meet’ and ‘a courteous and obliging young man’. The one thing that is certain is that Roderick Macrae committed the crime, but why? He claims that he was driven to it by months of persecution. Others claim that he had a different motive. And is he even sane?

I am full of admiration for this book. I bought completely into the idea of this being a true story. Roddy’s account was authentic in its details (thank goodness for the glossary!) and I felt the tension of the trail, the dilemma of the jurors as they had to pick through the various testimonies and decide whether to hang a young boy. It is refreshing to see the Man Booker prize laud crime fiction at last and I hugely enjoyed this novel. Dark and clever, this is a book that sends you back to the beginning to find the clues when you realise you’ve been wrong-footed. A worthy contender indeed.

The Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist:

Books – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Books – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

All That Man Is – David Szalay



2 Comments on “His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  1. Great review, I completely agree that the sources are unreliable, and you want to go back and try to figure out what ‘really’ happened. I haven’t worked it out yet though! My review is here if you fancy a look


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