Book Review: His Bloody Project
His Bloody Project is as unique a book as I’ve ever read. Presented as true crime, it follows the early life, crimes, and subsequent trial of Roderick McRae, a crofter from the Scottish highland village of Culduie. It was Longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016, and it’s not hard to see why – the uniqueness is just one of its many wonderful parts, and the whole package is something definitely worth reading.
The book is fiction, presented as fact, and is done so in such a way that I had to research to find if there was any truth in it (this didn’t spoil the book for me, and don’t let knowing it’s not real put you off – it doesn’t dampen the enjoyment at all). Split in to separate parts, the book focuses around McRae’s murder of three people, and the aftermath. Another thing that makes the book unique is that McRae’s guilt is never in doubt; he admits his guilt from the first, and never once tries to hide from his responsibility. What this book revolves around is his lawyer’s attempts to prove him insane, and thus save him from the gallows (the book is set in 1867).
The separate parts of the book are as unique from each other as this book is from others; first we have interviews with witnesses to the crime, followed by McRae’s journal of the crimes and the events leading up to them, written at the behest of his lawyer whilst he is awaiting trial. Next we have a couple of extracts of a diary written by a criminal psychologist, who is to be used as a trial witness by the defence lawyer. Then we have the pathologist’s report of the three murders, followed finally by the trial and subsequent events following its conclusion, presented as newspaper reports. The chronology of the sections is far from linear, however it’s presented in such a way that it flows seamlessly, and we as reader is never in doubt where in time we are, why we’re there, and the importance of where we are.
The debut novel by Graeme MacRae Burnet, the book is written in such a way that makes you believe it could have been written at the time it was set. Whilst the Scottish dialect is minimal (which isn’t a necessarily bad thing), the style is very Dickensian, although much easier to read. The language presented to us is formal and correct, as you’d expect from the period. There is little to no slang, and you can almost imagine this book being presented in a newspaper in serial form in the 1800s (some excerpts of the book are presented as having being first produced in this way, and whilst we know it’s fictional, it could easily pass as fact).
The characters themselves are very carefully written, and very cleverly created, so that we can easily imagine them as real people. Roderick McRae, our main character, is a simple crofter’s son, a smart child who has no ambitions other than to continue to farm his father’s land, until he inherits it for himself. His lawyer, Andrew Sinclair, is smart and well educated, one of the few people on Roderick’s side, and is very human for this fact. We meet various other characters such as Roderick’s father, sister, younger twins, Lachlan McKenzie, one of the victims and main antagonist of the book, his daughter Flora, another victim and subject of Roderick’s affection, and many others. The characters range in intelligence, morality, kindness, temperament, enough so that a fully living, thriving world is presented to us, and it’s easy to lap it up.
In fact, everything about this book is easy to lap up. It’s strange to call a book that immediately presents us with the key events as a page turner, but this one really is. Whilst we know what’s happened, we need to know all the gory details, and more than this, we need to know what’s going to happen to these characters we’ve been introduced to, and grown fond of. Most importantly, we need to know if everything is going to be OK; it’s crucial to read to the every end to find out if it is OK or not, but it’s a pleasure to do so.