GRAEME Macrae Burnet’s first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2014), was one of the best debuts from a Scottish writer in some time. A playful and highly intelligent experiment in style and form, it worked both as a tricksy metafictional pastiche of the French policier novel, and as a genuinely gripping crime narrative in its own right. Burnet’s second novel is perhaps less immediately satisfying than his first, but His Bloody Project soon reveals itself as the more ambitious achievement.
Presented as a collection of documents uncovered by “Graeme Macrae Burnet” as he researches his family history in the Highlands, the book opens with a sequence of short police statements gathered from the villagers of Culduie, in Ross-shire, in 1869. All give conflicting impressions of Roddy Macrae, a young man who has been arrested and charged with the brutal murder of his neighbour Lachlan Mackenzie along with Lachlan’s teenager daughter Flora and infant son. At the core of the book is Roddy’s written statement, composed “for no other reason than to repay my advocate’s kindness towards me”. Surprisingly articulate for a crofter’s son, although he apologises for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style”, Roddy outlines in an affectless tone the sequence of events that led up to the murders.
Growing up in a society of unthinking deference and extreme poverty, Roddy has no more prospect in life than to help his father on the croft, leased at an exorbitant rent from the local laird. Over the course of his narrative he touches on his grief at the death of his mother, and the growing antagonism between his father and Lachlan, an influential figure in the village who is elected parish constable, and who soon begins to abuse his power in what Roddy interprets as a vendetta against his family. In this atmosphere of persecution, two events act as a catalyst for the murders; Roddy’s naive advances being rebuffed by Flora, and Lachlan arranging for his father to be evicted from the lease on the croft. As he describes it, Roddy’s brutal response is not premeditated so much as guided by fate; he arms himself with a croman and flaughter, “merely to discover what would happen if I paid a visit to his [Lachlan’s] house thus armed”.
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In many ways Roddy’s narrative could sit comfortably alongside other classic accounts of rural poverty and desperation in Scottish literature; an updated House With the Green Shutters, perhaps. In the second part of the book though, Burnet deepens our sense of Roddy Macrae as an unreliable narrator, presenting medical reports on the victims, an extract from the consulting psychiatrist’s memoir, and concluding with an account of the trial in which Roddy’s solicitor tries to have his death sentence commuted, on account of his mental illness.
Here we discover more about the probable motives for the killings and fill in the gaps Roddy has self-servingly left out of his own account. What we are left with is an impression of a society that is a community in name only, alienated and ignorant, and, as several participants note, where the very environment seems to conspire against the people who live there.
This presentation of a single, shocking event, rounded out through a sequence of competing perspectives, would have been interesting and compelling in itself. Burnet is too talented a writer to let the narrative rest on such an easy approach though. What is at question here is not so much the external reality of events, but the internal impulses that made it possible; “not the facts of the case”, as is claimed during the trial, “but the contents of the perpetrator’s mind”. What is most daring about Burnet’s approach here is to suggest that the contents of anyone’s mind is essentially unknowable, even to the person in question. In any event, especially one as shocking and violent as this, all that can be gathered are statements, attempts at objectivity that can never be more than subjective opinions, and that bring us no closer to a reliable conclusion.
Establishing the right tone in each of the novel’s segments, from Roddy’s chilling detachment to the rambunctious account of the trial, Burnet’s eye for detail fleshes out the book with great economy, the Highland horse, for example, plodding along “as if expecting at any moment to strike its head on a low beam”. Psychologically astute and convincingly grounded in its environment, this study of petty persecution and murder is a fine achievement from an ambitious and accomplished writer.