There’s no disputing 17 year old Roderick Macrae violently and bloodily murdered three members of the MacKenzie family in the remote Scottish farming community of Culduie in 1869. He’s admitted it to neighbours, police and his legal representative. But why? And will his actions lead to the gallows?
Written in the form of documents supporting a case study, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a masterful psychological thriller. From the slightly tongue-in-cheek preface from the author himself, the witness statements given to the police through to the medical reports and Macrae’s own account of the lead up to the events, the book is an absorbing and intricate read, a mix of revenge tragedy and courtroom drama.
An intelligent and sensitive teenager, Macrae is the son of a dirt-poor crofter on the Ross-shire coast of northeast Scotland. It’s a landscape of great beauty but terrible hardship and injustice as tenants eke out a paltry living in almost feudal conditions. Roderick’s station in life is mapped out before him: there are few opportunities to break away from the tradition of toil.
With his mother recently dead (giving birth to the twins) and parented solely by a dour and devout Presbyterian father not averse to using his fists to punish his eldest son, there is little joy in the Macrae household. But in spite of this, Roderick seemingly accepts his lot. Not that there’s much more joy in the small Culduie community itself – a settlement of nine homes to some 50 people.
It’s Roderick’s account of his life and those around him that forms the core of His Bloody Project. Sitting alone in his cell in Inverness gaol awaiting trial, it is his legal representative, Mr Sinclair, who suggests he writes. And what flows is an intimate yet emotionally distant narrative of his family, the everyday existence of a crofter and his experience at the Big House. But it also details the campaign by Lachlan MacKenzie as constable of the settlement (the laird’s representative) against the Macrae family: fining the family for minor infringements of their tenancy, targeting them and generally bullying father and son alike.
His Bloody Project is a compelling read as Roderick’s account is juxtaposed with that of the official reports and, later in the book, a splendidly pompous ‘extract’ from Travels in the Border Lands of Lunacy by J Bruce Thompson where the expert talks of the criminal class (identifiable in part by the shape of the skull) and (nineteenth century) contemporary criminal psychology. It’s from his discussions with Roderick that Thompson expounds on his opinions and insight. And it’s in the courtroom this overbearing official is more than happy to declare these opinions as fact.
Detailed, evoking a real sense of place through precise prose (it was originally believed to be a novel based on a true story), His Bloody Project delves deeply into the psyche of Roderick – but without giving us all the answers. Just how reliable is the boy as the narrator of events: the prosecution in the courtroom reveals more of the events in the MacKenzie home that certainly wrong-foots us?
Wonderfully multilayered, Burnet’s second book was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. It lost out to the first American winner of the award – Paul Beatty and The Sellout.