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 3 members of the family.  The novel starts out 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 it to anyone who asks.  The question is, why did he kill his neighbors, and that is what 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 know each other, and try to get along.  However, a series of unfortunate events, starting from when Roderick was just a child, in connection with 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 for the Macrae’s as difficult as he can.  Powerless against the constable’s authority, there’s nothing Roderick and his family can do but to 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 in 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;  it is, instead, a collection of documents in relation to Roderick’s murder case.  The novel opens with official statements given by Roderick’s neighbors and acquaintances, given 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 took place. They attest that Roderick admitted to killing his neighbors, and did not try to flee or to hide after his terrible deeds.  Other members of the community acquainted with the Macrae’s 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 Roderick wrote, as per his attorney’s request, while in jail at Inverness, awaiting trial.  Mr. Sinclair, Roderick’s attorney, suggested that in order to fill his days, and to make sense of his crime, Roderick should endeavor to write down his thoughts, feelings, actions, and the events leading to the tragic day of the murders.  It is this memoir that provides a lot of insight into Roderick’s sad life and the general state of his mind.  Roderick admits that his life and family changed drastically with the death of his mother, and pinpoints this moment as the starting point 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 to the incidents leading up to Lachlan’s murder.  He admits in his memoir that he had killed Lachlan Mackenzie in order to free his father from the hardships he had brought about.

It is stated in preface of the novel that the authenticity of this memoir was highly questionable, given that it seemed 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 his family that Roderick killed, followed by an excerpt from the memoir of 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 to 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, of the physical and mental examination 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 in order to determine whether or not Roderick is really insane, or, suffered from “moral insanity.” In his memoir, Dr. Thomson also describes how, with Mr. Sinclair, he had visited Culduie, to determine whether or not Roderick’s environment, or family, played a role in shaping his personality.  With the aide of breakthrough studies of Criminal Anthropology at the time, Dr. Thomson examines every aspect of Roderick in order to determine whether or not he shares 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 4-day trial of Roderick Macrae, compiled from newspaper articles and from a complete report of the trial published in 1869.  The trial described the sides and arguments put forth by both sides – 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 was not aware 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, teacher, experts, and other acquaintances.  The defense’s only witness was Dr. Thomson, whose job it was to present to the jury that Roderick was not responsible for his actions, as he suffers from “moral insanity” or “insanity without delirium.”  However, to the surprise of the court, Dr. Thomson puts for an altogether different hypothesis regarding the nature of the crime, and Roderick’s real intentions.

The trial reports also includes the general atmosphere of the 4-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 is closed by providing the verdict of the case as decided upon by the jurymen.

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

Though seemingly exhaustive, His Bloody Project is a relatively short and easy read.  It lays out the problem – the murder of Lachlan and his family; it names the culprit; and then it presents the 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.  Though 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.

His Bloody Project, however 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 early thoughts in disciplines such as criminal anthropology, which  proposes 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, but 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 which leaves readers to question the veracity, not only of the story, but of the origin of the novel itself.

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.  If it did win, it’d be the first Booker winner I had read before it was awarded the prize!


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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