1869: 17-year-old Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae has just brutally murdered three people in the remote Scottish village of Culduie. He stands calmly in the road, covered in their blood, and informs his neighbours of what he has done. There is no question of his guilt.
Roddy’s story unfolds amid the competing voices of his own prison memoir, court testimony, newspaper cuttings and police statements – a tragic and unsettling whydunnit that provides the reader with no easy answers.
Graeme Macrae Burnet first came to our attention last year, fresh off the success of his Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and the publication of his debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Describing it then, I declared it ‘a masterful character study with a metafictional impulse…a clever beast indeed’. Those words seemed worth revisiting as I reviewed His Bloody Project – at odds with his debut in almost every aspect (historical, not modern; Scotland, not France; non-linear epistolary narrative, not plain crime) – and yet just as masterful, clever and playful. It is every inch the riveting second novel I had hoped for.
From its setting in the small Highland hamlet of Culduie to its reconstruction of the Inverness trial and its coverage, the novel does a clever job indeed of authentically recreating a background for events that never really happened. In his preface, Burnet teases with the somewhat credible notion that Roddy’s memoir – the novel’s centrepiece – is a real historical document discovered whilst researching his family’s history. It is a fictional device he used in his first novel, and one he uses well – a playful acknowledgement of the authorial role and what this might mean for the fidelity of the narrative.
The centrepiece, as noted above, is Roddy’s own memoir. But that does not mean that the novel’s lasting ‘truth’ can be found in his words, his interpretation of events. The novel is a whydunnit, a study of sanity and perception, and for that reason, Burnet weaves the voices and interpretations of myriad others through the novel, unseating the reader just as they assume they have reached some degree of understanding. Indeed, before Roddy’s account is provided, we read first the author’s own preface, followed by police statements of Roddy’s neighbours. These character statements make clear from the outset that individual perception varies wildly – a thrilling and dangerous supposition for the rest of the novel. Carmina Smoke describes Roddy as a ‘pleasant child’ who became ‘a courteous and obliging young man’, while the Reverend identifies in the same boy an ‘easily discernible wickedness’. Later, as trial testimony further complicates Roddy’s story, the reader is forced to accept that there may indeed be inconsistencies in all of the narrative strands provided, and that the facts can only be found through a complex process of piecing together fragments of several competing voices. Clouded by personal bias, ignorance of the facts or by rampant speculation, each character only further underpins the terrifying notion we might never truly know what happened the day Roddy Macrae brutally murdered three people.
Much like the jurors on Roddy’s trial, the reader him/herself must draw together the composite strands to form their own interpretation. But who is the authority here? Is it Roddy Macrae? Is it Graeme Macrae Burnet? Do we, as readers with our own biases, fill in certain gaps and reach our own (different) conclusions? It is a clever device. One that will force many to compulsively return to the first page and re-read with a renewed vigour and keener sense for inconsistency.
The reader’s tireless pursuit of the truth may leave them flagging very slightly by the end – the trial itself is in places realistically laborious, and lacks the freshness of Roddy’s memoir – but the payoff is worth it. Burnet refuses to provide easy answers, and it is with the unsettling sense that a grotesque injustice has been committed that the novel closes. Whether that injustice has been levelled against Roddy, his three victims, or something else entirely is a matter for the reader.
The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau demonstrated that Graeme Macrae Burnet was a writer to watch out for. His Bloody Project confirms that he is one of the most experimental and assured authors currently writing in Scotland. More, please.