A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is one of the biggest surprises of this year’s literary prize season. Published by small Scottish imprint Contraband, it’s turned out to be the dark horse of the Man Booker shortlist with its sales apparently outstripping its fellow nominees.
Although set in 1869, the novel’s premise is one that holds modern resonances. A sort of equivalent of the “found footage” trend in film-making, His Bloody Project purports to be “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the name Macrae there: our author claims that he has stumbled across these documents while researching his ancestors. Roderick – Roddy – was in his late teens when he brutally murdered three people in his small Highland village. That he committed the crimes was never in dispute because he admitted it freely and immediately. What was under question is why.
The documents the book claims to bring together comprise an introduction by the author, contemporary witness and character statements, medical reports, material by the renowned (and real) prison doctor J. Bruce Thompson, a journalistic account of the trial, and an epilogue. However, the centrepiece is the memoir written by Roddy himself at the behest of his lawyer while he awaits trial in Inverness. Making up the bulk of the novel, it is a detailed and erudite account of the circumstances that led up to the murders. Roddy maintains throughout that he fully intended to murder Lachlan Mackenzie to put an end to the difficulties Mackenzie had been causing Roddy’s taciturn and religiously devout father. But, of course, we only have his word for that. The rest of the documents question the veracity of his reasons and even his very sanity, using contemporary trends in psychology and criminology to both assess the case at hand but also to reveal the preoccupations of the Scottish Victorian justice system.
It is a dark and unforgiving novel, almost gothic despite its apparently clinical bent. Its remote setting in a tiny, remote Highland crofting community has a claustrophobic effect in spite of its windswept landscape. It is firmly cemented in the traditions of Scottish literature, and is also a not-t00-distant relation of the frozen plains of Nordic Noir. Its cast of characters, playing with both fictional creations and real historical figures, is cleverly balanced. And what was the truth of the case? I know what I think, but who knows whether you will agree with me.
Although I’ve not (yet) read anything else from the Booker shortlist this year, I am not surprised that His Bloody Project has sold well. Thank goodness the publisher entered it into the prize because its success there has driven many more people to discover it than might otherwise have done – including me.
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project (Glasgow: Contraband, 2015). ISBN 9781910192146, RRP £8.99