Cbr15bingo Getaway (for You Are Here), bingo
His Bloody Project, a Man Booker Prize finalist from 2016, is a novel that imagines a case of murder in which the question is: was the murderer insane? The action is set in a remote village of coastal Scotland in 1869, and author Graeme Macrae Burnet immerses his readers in a rough, rural environment where opportunities for success are few and being able to get on with the neighbors is vital. The structure of this novel is ingenious: Macrae opens with the murders behind us and the suspect, 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, in prison. He has admitted his guilt but his lawyer has asked Roderick to write an account of what he has done in order to argue that Roderick was in fact insane when he committed the murders. The first part of the novel, then, is Roderick’s account, followed by court documents and a transcript of the trial. This is a haunting story, quite appropriate for the time of year.
Roderick Macrae sees no point in writing his “memoir” for attorney Andrew Sinclair. He has admitted to the murders of several people and did not try to escape after committing them. He writes that he killed neighbor Lachlan “Broad” Mackenzie and others (identities revealed at the end of the account) for “…the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations he has recently suffered.” Roderick then states that all of his family’s troubles began in the previous year when his beloved mother died in childbirth, leaving Roderick, his older sister Jetta, twins, and a baby with their father John, a man known for being rough and brooding. Through Roderick’s account, the reader learns of the tough, hard scrabble existence of “crofters,” that is, tenant farmers in this small village called Culduie. The land is owned by the “laird” and farmers hold land because he allows it. The local lord, however, rarely involves himself in the village’s affairs. His “factor” (a land manager) interacts with the local constable, and the constable is a villager elected by fellow villagers to collect rents and fines and to enforce the lord’s regulations. The Macrae family’s problems take a turn for the worse when the local bully Lachlan Broad becomes constable.
We the readers try to get a sense of who Roderick Macrae is from his written account and from the testimony presented from fellow villagers at his trial. Some seemed shocked that such a quiet, decent boy could have committed such acts of brutality. Others indicate that Roderick was always strange, muttering to himself and not friendly with his peers. But the question is whether Roderick was “morally insane” at the time of the murders. To bolster his case, the attorney enlists the testimony of famed criminologist J. Bruce Thomson (a real person who really did work in prisons and write about criminal anthropology). If Roderick is found to have been “insane” when he committed the murders, he will spend his life in jail. If not, he will be hanged for his crimes.
The information author Burnet conveys about daily life for a crofter, how easily things can go from manageable to dire, inclines the reader to have some sympathy for the Macrae family. So many factors complicate their situation, such as strict religious beliefs that emphasize the sinfulness of humanity and the righteousness of the punishments visited upon them. Few opportunities would be available to improve one’s station in life, although some rudimentary education could be had. We learn that Roderick was a good student and his teacher had hoped Roderick could pursue higher education and work in a city. Others hoped to move to places like Glasgow for factory work but for the most part, villagers stayed stuck where they were, working the family plot. For women, even fewer opportunities would be available for improvement unless they could move to the city or get a job in the local lord’s “big house.”
At the end of the novel, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Roderick or the question of his “insanity.” I was left with a sense of the desperation a village outsider might feel when every small light in his life has been extinguished and he feels himself responsible for it. If you are looking for a dark, brooding novel for fall, His Bloody Project fits the bill and would be a good choice for a book group.