Review: His Bloody project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

‘A novel about a crime rather than a crime novel’ is how Burnet describes this Booker Prize finalist. Regardless of how it is described, it is fantastic.

Burnet takes us to into the mind of 19th century Scottish farmer, Roderick Macrae – guilty of three grisly murders in the highlands. Roderick is undoubtedly guilty, but what drove him to commit these awful acts?

Burnet uses a few of narrators to guide us through this case. First up there is Roderick’s own account written from his jail cell, followed up by the thoughts of the prison doctor who examines the prisoner, and finally coverage of the eventual trial in the news.

Each of these are unreliable in their own way: Roddy’s claim that he arrived at the scene of the crime with his weapons just to see what might happen if his victim saw him with them doesn’t hold water. Likewise, the prison doctor’s self importance, alongside his firmly set views on the ‘criminal class’ make him untrustworthy. In the end we’re left wondering, just what happened? What is the truth?

Burnet has thrown in a whole bunch of other stuff in here too. It is almost funny for a start – there are some bits that would make me laugh out loud were they not so dark, like when his Roderick’s father refuses to answer questions about his son, in front of a packed courthouse, on the grounds that,

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.”

He’s also thrown in a dash of Kafka’s Trial in here to marvellous effect. Halfway through Roderick’s account, he relates of a visit to the steward of the village to see the regulations that they must obey, and that are used to take their livelihood away. They are told,

“The reason you may not ‘see’ the regulations is because there are no regulations… You might as well ask to see the air we breathe.”

In fact, the steward says, asking to see the regulations is evidence that they should be punished even more, because,

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit”

I loved this. I think you would too – His Bloody Project is one of the most rewarding books I’ve read this year.

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