In August 1869, seventeen year old crofter Roderick Macrae committed a ghastly murder, killing three people in the tiny Scottish community of Culduie in Ross-shire. Arrested and imprisoned in Inverness awaiting trial, Macrae documents the events that lead up to the crime for his lawyer Andrew Sinclair.
His Bloody Project is a marvellous concoction told in a series of documents. In addition to Macrae's memoir, there are witness statements from neighbours, autopsy reports, media coverage from the trial, and an extract from J Bruce Thompson's posthumous reporting of his meeting with Macrae.
The novel is of course fictional, but Burnet writes in such a way that you are convinced it is all true. He finds an authentic voice and crafts an intricate and compelling tale. It is known from the opening lines that Macrae committed the crime, but what unfurls is a whydunnit - what caused young Roddy to murder and what was his mental state?
Roderick Macrae is an unreliable narrator, but then again so are all the witnesses and doctors and others whose documents have been compiled. As a reader I became engrossed in this story, feeling the Macrae's were hard done by, and rooting for Roddy to be spared the gallows.
Burnet has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (which is how this book came to my attention) and I will be delighted if he wins.
There are so many things I loved about this novel - its structure made up from various accounts; the convincing depiction of class structure (crofters, landowners etc); the use of Scots dialect (there is a glossary hidden halfway through the book, but I relied on my resident Scotsman for translation); and the authenticity of the trial.
His Bloody Project brings to mind other novels that explore historical crimes like Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996) and Hannah Kent's Burial Rites (2013), both of which are reviewed on this blog.