On the morning of 10th August 1869, Roderick Macrae, just seventeen years old, went to the cottage of his neighbour Lachlan Mackenzie, where he committed a series of brutal killings. Returning to the village bathed in blood, he was hidden in a neighbour’s house until the authorities arrived, lest Mackenzie’s kinsmen slay him in revenge.
So begins Graeme Macrae Burnet’s crime novel, His Bloody Project. Set in the historical Scottish county of Ross-shire, Burnet depicts the hard life and cruel injustices that were heaped on the heads of the poor.
People like Roderick Macrae and his family were crofters, a sort of peasant that lived and worked on rented plots of land owned by a local laird. It was a life that was little better than serfdom, free in name only. Although Burnet’s narrative sounds exciting from the introduction above, much of the book is given over to the suffering of these people.
Burnet takes a sadistic relish in heaping misery on his characters that has rarely been seen since the days of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. At times, His Bloody Project is almost unbearable. Burnet is lucky to have avoided the opprobrium that eventually forced Hardy to give up writing novels altogether as the public tired of his depressing tales of woe.
And yet, and yet, His Bloody Project is worth sticking with, because there is another author whose shadow falls over this book, and I was not surprised to see his name appear amongst the acknowledgements: the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
To give a crude summary, Foucault argued in his book Madness and Society that the powers-that-be often branded undesirable elements as ‘insane’ so that they could remove them from society. Basically this meant flinging them into asylums. This brings into serious question what people meant when they branded someone ‘sane’ or ‘insane’.
His Bloody Project is in many ways a novelistic examination of this idea, especially through the voice of the murderer himself, Roderick Macrae. The novel is composed of documents relating to the crime and the criminal, with the most part taken up with an account written by Macrae.
“Our neighbours were by this time emerging from their homes and setting about the daily round. The morning must have appeared entirely commonplace and were it not for what was soon to occur, they would likely have had difficulty recalling it or distinguishing it from any other morning. Indeed in every aspect, aside from the dark thoughts that had taken up residence in my mind, the day was entirely unremarkable … It mattered not what was in my mind or what I planned to do. If fate dictated that Lachlan Broad was to die by my hand, then it would be so. The success or otherwise of my enterprise was outwith my control.”
Burnet’s skill in handling different voices and narrators is exceptional. I also like his cunning wheeze to make the story feel real by claiming that it comes from long-lost authentic documents, rather like the shaggy dog story that Umberto Eco employed so cunningly in the introduction of The Name of the Rose.
Hardy, Foucault, Eco, comparisons abound. However, this is an extremely original work written by a novelist who is both tricksy and bold. It is heavy-going, but the end sections make it worth all the struggle, as we head towards the final courtroom encounter and the resolution of the all-important question. We know that Roderick Macrae admits to the killings, but is he mad or no?