Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Outsider in Wester Ross

review originally published in Gutter issue 14

His Bloody Project is Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel and like his first, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, a literary thriller. Whereas Disappearance was indebted to the European crime novels of the mid-20th century, and especially those by Georges Simenon, on whom Burnet is something of an expert, this more recent book resembles Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) inasmuch as it is set in the middle of the 19th century, in an unforgiving landscape and turns on the question of a murderer’s guilt.

If Atwood’s novel conjured a vivid and thoroughly convincing picture of Canada in 1843, Burnet’s does the same for a Wester Ross crofting community in 1869, recounting a triple murder in the village of Culduie, south of Applecross. The novel is assembled from statements given to police by the residents of Culduie, an “Account” by the murderer himself, Roddy Macrae, the memoirs of a vainglorious ‘expert’ in criminal anthropology, a report of the trial compiled “from contemporary newspaper coverage and the volume A Complete Report of the Trial of Roderick John Macrae published by William Kay of Edinburgh 1869.” In collating a number of conflicting versions of the same events, genuine doubt is planted in the reader’s mind as to Roddy’s guilt in a manner not dissimilar to Alasdair Gray’s great 1992 novel Poor Things. And, like Gray, Burnet claims to have simply “edited and introduced” the documents that make up his novel.

While His Bloody Project is rooted, like Poor Things, in Scotland and its history, Burnet brings to his novel a more continental appreciation of crime fiction’s potential existentialism. Roddy displays a disregard for the consequences of his actions, repeatedly states that he has “no intention” of denying responsibility for his crimes and offers no resistance to his arrest for three murders. He only pleads not guilty by reason of insanity to please his advocate, Sinclair, who spies an opportunity to advance his career in a trial that has captured the public’s imagination. There is something here of Camus’ Meursault in Roddy’s indifference.

While the novel utilizes different voices to tell the story, they are similar in style. All describe human behaviour – both the rational and the irrational – in a matter-of-fact way, pared down to paratactic precision. This droll delivery allows for sly humour and Burnet wisely understands that less is often more, as in Roddy’s description of his intoxication at a summer gathering: “In order to express my high spirits, I climbed onto a table and poured a tankard of ale over my head”. Understatement is deployed again, to shocking effect, in the novel’s account of the brutal murders. An unadorned style is also well-suited to depicting the crofters’ existence. Roddy’s account in particular pays close attention to everyday objects and material activities: their carbohydrate-intensive diet, the textures of the landscape, the drudgery of work.

The novel’s lack of indulgence or superfluity echoes the Presbyterian outlook of Roddy’s father, who exhibits an acceptance of his fate (what he calls “the powers-that-be”) that is not a million miles away from an existentialist’s. Burnet skilfully marshals his ‘sources’ so as to not disappoint the reader; it is to his great credit that the novel’s central question is never fully answered.

– Mark West 

This Bloody Project by Graeme MacRae Burnet
Contraband, RRP £8.99, 278 pp

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