His Bloody Project

To most people in the remote village of Culduie, Roderick Macrae seemed like an ordinary, quiet, solitary, but decent, teenager. That is until he set out one morning to a neighbor’s house and brutally murders three members of the family.  The novel starts with the horrific event, with no question as to who the murderer is.  It is clear that Roderick killed his neighbors, as he freely admits to anyone who asks.  The question is, why did he kill his neighbors? This is the question that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel His Bloody Project tries to answer.

Roderick Macrae and his family are one of many crofters in the small highland village of Culduie, Scotland. Living in a near-hovel, Roderick and his family work the small land allotted to them in the village. Everyone in the village knows each other and tries to get along.  However, a series of unfortunate events, starting from when Roderick was just a child, connected to the Mackenzie family have created bad blood and ill feelings between the two neighboring families.  Their relations go from bad to worse when the head of the Mackenzie family, Lachlan Broad, as he is known in the community, becomes the village constable and makes life hell for the Macrae clan.  Powerless against the constable’s authority, Roderick and his family could do nothing but obey Lachlan’s rules and regulations.

The plot of His Bloody Project is quite straightforward: a murder committed by a young man to avenge his family and deliver them from the tyrannical rule of Constable Lachlan.  However, it is the presentation of the story that makes His Bloody Project unique and compelling.

His Bloody Project is not a narrative about the unfortunate life of Roderick Macrae. Rather, it is a collection of documents in relation to Roderick’s murder case.  The novel opens with official statements given by Roderick’s neighbors and acquaintances to the police, attesting to Roderick’s involvement in the crime and to his general personality and family background.  The set of statements include testimonies from his neighbors who talked to Roderick prior to the murder and had seen him, covered in blood, right after the crime was committed. The witnesses attested that Roderick admitted to killing his neighbors and did not try to flee or hide after his terrible deeds.  Other members of the community acquainted with the Macraes also provide character sketches of Roderick and other members of this family.

The second and longest part of the novel consists of the short memoir that Roderick wrote, as per his attorney’s request, while in jail at Inverness awaiting trial.  Mr. Sinclair, Roderick’s attorney, suggested that he endeavour to write down his thoughts, feelings, and actions and the events leading to the tragic day of the murders to fill his days and make sense of his crime. It is this memoir that provides considerable insights into Roderick’s sad life and general state of mind.  Roderick admits that his life and family changed drastically with the death of his mother and pinpoints this moment as the start of their troubles.  In his memoirs, Roderick swings back and forth, sometimes describing his past in the village, and sometimes describing his present life and activities in jail.  While in the village, Roderick describes his poor relations with his father and deteriorating relationships with his siblings.  He also describes the events leading to Lachlan Mackenzie being voted constable of their village and of his minor yet incessant bullying of his father.  Roderick also describes the friendship he formed with Lachlan’s young daughter, Flora, who Roderick had gone to school with and later, developed feelings for.  Roderick’s memoir relates his thoughts and everyday life in the village and eventually the incidents leading up to Lachlan’s murder.  He admits in his memoir that he killed Lachlan Mackenzie to free his father from the hardships he had brought upon him.

The preface of the novel states that the authenticity of this memoir is highly questionable given that it seems too eloquent to have been written by a poorly-educated 17-year-old crofter.  It is the discovery of this memoir, in the archive of the Highland Archive Center at Inverness, while the author was researching the origins of his ancestors, that prompted Graeme Macrae Burnet to present the story of Roderick Macrae.

The novel also includes medical reports on the body of Lachlan Mackenzie and the two other members of the family who Roderick killed, followed by an excerpt from the memoir of the resident surgeon at the General Prison of Scotland and leading criminal anthropologist, Dr. J. Bruce Thomson.  Dr. J. Bruce Thomson was called in by Mr. Sinclair to examine Roderick Macrae and ascertain his state of mind.  In Dr. Thomson’s memoir, entitled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy, he describes how he came to know Roderick while in Inverness prison, the physical and mental examinations he conducted of the accused, and his professional opinion of Roderick’s state of mind. As Roderick’s defense attorney, Mr. Sinclair sought out Dr. Thomson to determine whether or not Roderick is really insane or suffering from “moral insanity.” In his memoir, Dr. Thomson also describes how he had visited Culduie with Mr. Sinclair to determine whether or not Roderick’s environment or family played a role in shaping his personality.  With the aide of breakthrough studies in criminal anthropology at the time, Dr. Thomson examines every aspect of Roderick to determine whether or not he shared the same physical, mental, or emotional characteristics of other members of the so-called criminal class.

The penultimate section of the novel is dedicated to the four-day trial of Roderick Macrae, which was compiled from newspaper articles and a complete report of the trial published in 1869.  The trial described the sides and arguments presented by both sides, namely, the prosecutor, or the Crown, and the defense, Mr. Sinclair.  At the start of the trial, Roderick pleads not guilty, with Mr. Sinclair putting forth that his client was suffering from moral insanity and unaware of the moral consequences of his actions.  The trial reports described the different witnesses presented by the prosecutor, including the Macrae’s neighbors, members of the Mackenzie clan, Roderick’s father, his teacher, experts, and other acquaintances.  The defense’s only witness was Dr. Thomson, whose job was to present to the jury that Roderick was not responsible for his actions given that he was suffering from “moral insanity” or “insanity without delirium.”  However, to the surprise of the court, Dr. Thomson puts forth an altogether different hypothesis regarding the nature of the crime and Roderick’s real intentions.

The trial reports also include the general atmosphere of the four-day event, which created much sensation in the town, as well as the reaction of the townspeople, media, and other members of the court.  After the witnesses for both sides were presented and all the evidence exhausted, the trial report concludes by providing the verdict of the case, as decided by the jurymen.

The last part of the novel includes a short epilogue describing the fate of Roderick Macrae after his trial and the publication and general reception of his memoir.

Although seemingly exhaustive, His Bloody Project is a relatively short and easy read.  It lays out the problem – the murder of Lachlan and his family, and the name the culprit and presents different sides, from the most private thoughts of the accused, Roderick Macrae, to the medical reports, police statements, and reports from experts, for the reader to get a 360-degree view of the story and perhaps make their own judgement.  Although a murder is presented at the onset of the novel, the writing is carefully controlled in such a way that the shocking and brutal details of the event are withheld until the last, crucial second.

However, His Bloody Project isn’t just about a brutal murder.  It also describes the harsh life of highland clans in the 1800s, living in near poverty as tenants to tyrannical, rich landlords.  It addresses the inequality of social classes at the time and the negative stereotypes that persisted in the minds of urban residents of the inhabitants of the highlands.  His Bloody Project also presents the absurdity of early concepts in disciplines such as criminal anthropology, which  proposed that certain types of people who share similar “low” physical characteristics are predisposed to commit crimes.

With its anthropological, psychological, and sociological aspects, His Bloody Project leaves readers with a lot to ponder. However, its brilliance really lies in its presentation.  Graeme Macrae Burnet turned what would normally be a run-of-the-mill murder story into a compelling account that leaves readers questioning the veracity not only of the story but also the origin of the novel.

His Bloody Project is one of the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.  I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted novels, but I wouldn’t be unhappy if it actually won.


His Bloody Project (2015) – Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband; 280 pages (tpb)

Personal rating:  3.5/5

4 thoughts on “His Bloody Project

  1. How unusual! And intriguing. I’ve seen the Booker shortlist but I too tend to get round to ‘prize’ novels long after they win.

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