If you only read one novel about a 19th century Scottish triple-homicide…

14 Dec

graeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-projectThe fact that His Bloody Project is (mostly) fictional is either the most or least important thing you could know about it, depending on how much you care.

Framed as a memoir written by an accused murderer, coupled with court transcripts and another associated documents related to the crime, HBP—down to its faux-bloody-fingerprinted cover—wants very badly to sell itself as a true-crime adventure, an In Cold Blood for fans of 1800s homicides committed in remote and sparsely populated Scottish enclaves. That the book is in fact a epistolary novel marauding as truth makes it all the more ambitious and, like its main character, all the more tricky to pin down.

Said main character is Roddy Macrae, who opens his lawyer-prescribed written statement, i.e. the book, with a fairly direct confession:

“My life has been short and of little consequences, and I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed. [My advocate] 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….I shall begin by saying that I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations he has lately suffered.”

And so with this rather dispassionate Inigo Montoya-ing, Roddy establishes the conclusion of a situation whose origin the reader does not yet know, and will spend the rest of the book finding out. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that Roddy’s father is a stern and downtrodden farmer, and Lachlan Mackenzie—town police officer, of sorts—is a douche of the most fable-ready order: petty, power-hungry, and loathsome from jump. But Roddy is no angel, and stacking his version of events up against the version outlined by other parties is one of the primary exercises in reading this slim and quirky book.

I don’t know that I enjoyed MBP—it’s a novel whose quiet suspense gives way to some pretty gruesome details, and it never quite loses the feeling of being the preliminary version of some larger epic. But I was intrigued by it, at times even gripped. Burnet’s second novel is a textbook example of unreliable narration, and as a bonus an interesting (and in this sense mostly true) glimpse at a lifestyle wholly unfamiliar to modern-day readers. I learned a lot about crofting (farming), and lairds (lords), and the price of ale in 1860s Scotland. I also learned a bit about the legal underpinnings of our modern definition of murder, and insanity, and where and how the latter might supersede culpability for the former.

His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker this year—it lost to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout—an accolade I appreciate but don’t totally agree with (though I wasn’t in love with The Sellout either). This is, though, a book that sticks with you, and a book whose central questions are as timeless as they are uncomfortable. To even your own surprise, you’ll be foisting this one on friends and family, bloody cover and all.

3papercutsTITLE: His Bloody Project
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AUTHOR: Graeme MaCrae Burnet
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PAGES: 300 (in hardcover)
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ALSO WROTE: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau
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SORTA LIKE: Carrie meets In Cold Blood 
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FIRST LINE: “I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair, who since my incarceration here in Inverness has treated me with a degree of civility I in no way deserve.”

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