His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 and has sold far more than any of the other novels shortlisted, tells the story of a young man, almost a boy, who murdered three people in a small, poor Highland village in the middle of the 19th century. The author Graham Macrae Burnet tells the story so convincingly, including post mortem reports, doctors’ reports, and witness statements, that you can’t believe it wasn’t all true. Indeed, even as I write this now I’m not sure that it wasn’t.
I read all of the book (and Lin most of it) in a house in North Uist that stands on the site of what was a croft. Roddy Macrae, the murderer, was the son of a crofter, and the novel makes very clear that the life of a crofter was hard. The central question of the novel is not whether Roddy committed the murders (we know from the first page that he did) but whether he was in some sense justified in the murders by the hardship and injustice he’d experienced or because his sanity was impaired.
As a reader, you have great sympathy for Roddy and none for the person murdered. This is because you learn about the case mostly from an account written by Roddy while held in Inverness prison. His lawyer, a gentleman we also appreciate, urged him to do so. We tend to believe what Roddy writes, not least because he shows no self-pity, but we may be wrong to do so. Issues are thrown up that we are left wondering about.
Roddy was a clever boy, which was something to hide rather than flaunt in a 19th century Highland village (as perhaps it was in South London in the 1950s), and his schoolmaster approached his father about the possibility of him doing something other than take over the croft. Roddy didn’t want this because he felt it was against providence even to contemplate it, and his father never considered it. His father had experienced such hardship that he was turned sour, prematurely aged, and deeply religious. His only reading was the Bible, and the local minister was obsessed with sin, as was typical of ministers in the Highlands at the time.
For 21st century readers of literary novels, education and learning are more important than anything and obsession with sin is seen as almost mad. So again the reader sympathises with Roddy, and the story is told so well that you keep reading to see what happens to him. The writing could hardly be more straightforward. Every sentence takes the story forward, which Somerset Maugham insisted is essential in a great novel. (I don’t think he’s right: Les Miserables, which I’ve suspended reading for a moment while in Scotland, and Moby Dick, both indisputably great novels, roam all over the place.) Yet despite the unadorned writing in His Bloody Project, you are left with many questions, many uncertainties at the end.
I urge you to read this novel, preferably while inside a stone cottage in the Highlands or Hebrides with rain and wind bearing against the small windows and a fire burning.