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His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae

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The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.

A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country's finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence.

Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

Graeme Macrae Burnet tells an irresistible and original story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts seem clear. His Bloody Project is a mesmerising literary thriller set in an unforgiving landscape where the exercise of power is arbitrary.
--back cover

282 pages, Paperback

First published November 5, 2015

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About the author

Graeme Macrae Burnet

8 books724 followers
Graeme Macrae Burnet was born in Kilmarnock in 1967. He studied English Literature at Glasgow University before spending some years teaching in France, the Czech Republic and Portugal. He then took an M.Litt in International Security Studies at St Andrews University and fell into a series of jobs in television. These days he lives in Glasgow.

He has been writing since he was a teenager. His first book, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2014), is a literary crime novel set in a small town in France. His second novel, His Bloody Project (2015), revolves around the murder of a village birleyman in nineteenth century Wester Ross. He likes Georges Simenon, the films of Michael Haneke and black pudding.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,252 reviews
Profile Image for Jibran.
224 reviews656 followers
September 23, 2019
An excellent novel not just for its fascinating historical setting, but for the novelty of its form and its delicate coverage of the larger social, political, and personal themes that blend seamlessly into a topnotch criminal investigation.

I am not qualified to opine on its historical authenticity, or how well the characters fit into their historical clothes, but it strikes me as "true" - as true as fiction can be - for its remarkable fidelity to its time and place. Its structure also gives it an illusion of a true story, not least because the narrative is modeled as a research project conducted by the author's double. But of course it's all fiction.

It revolves around Roderick Macrae, a bright 17-year-old son of a crofter born in an isolated stretch of Scottish Highlands, who willy-nilly murders his neighbour along with two other people. One hundred fifty years later a researcher unearths a memoir ascribed to the murderer and reproduces it verbatim along with an excerpt from the prison doctor, one Dr. Thomson, and an account of the subsequent court proceedings as reported in the press at that time to establish the real motive for the murders.

A whole array of forces bear down upon the apparently idyllic life in the thinly-populated villages in a corner of Scottish Highlands, a place that forms part of the estate of a landlord, where the family has lived for generations to grow crops for season-to-season survival. As a defence against their hard existence, tyrannical feudal practices, and lack of opportunities to break free and go away, the people have developed a kind of fatalism accentuated by unreasoning adherence to easy religious explanations, not in small measure encouraged by their Church leaders, to justify their plight. It is in this milieu that our protagonist-murderer is born and who showcases signs of an existential view of life that will soon go off the rails. His resignation to reality and refusal to reflect on his own actions lend him a Meursault -like quality which is disturbed only when in his view his most heinous transgression is touched upon, and that crime is not the committing of triple murders.

The language is more sombre than deadened and the dreary tone is at home with the narrative voice, the life-changing events taking place in Roderick's life could not have been adequately evoked with a less serious writing. The author has made no attempt to reproduce the Highlander patois in dialogue (not a criticism), but more than that, Roderick's "memoir" is written in standard mid-19th century language which decently educated middle class people might have used, not someone from a Gaelic-speaking godforsaken Highland hamlet, however bright a student he might have been at the elementary village school, which is where one might say it's a tad affected. The author has anticipated the criticism and made a sly attempt in the fictional "preface" to the "murderer's memoir" to explain away the discrepancy by casting "doubt" on its authorship. That's a literary trick some might object to. I have further criticisms but I can't do that without spoilers so I'm hiding it.

It's a serious story but, due to historical distance, its earnestness itself provides material for comic relief, e.g; Dr Thomson's memoir is titled "Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy" (LOL!) referring to the isolated and thinly-populated parish of Applecross and the village of Culduie whence Macraes come, and his curious mix of medical qualification as a leading criminologist of his times, his condescending views about the lower classes, and presumptive, flippant comments about the women he meets gave me inadvertent laughs. Also the theatrics of journalism of the times as the court proceedings are reported in the dailies provide humour in an otherwise grim story.

I'm not a reader of genre crime fiction but I like this kind of stuff. Now, shall we call it literary crime novel - literary - a word loved and dreaded in equal measure, depending on which side of the divide you come from.

Profile Image for Adina.
827 reviews3,225 followers
August 17, 2022
Read 2016/Some modifications made in 2022

Shortlisted for Booker prize 2016

When the longlist for the Booker Prize came out, I thought that His Bloody Project was the most interesting title. I was intrigued that the jurors chose a historical mystery, even more that the book made it to the Shortlist. After reading it, I understood why it was so well regarded.

Technically, this is not murder mystery as we know from the start who is the murderer since he confesses. The mystery is in the reason for that person’s crime and the uniqueness comes from the format. The story is told through a memoir of the killer, official documents of the investigation (witness declarations, coronel reports etc), an excerpt from a book written by the psychiatrist who examined the accused and the minutes of the trial. Quite original I would say.

1895, young Roderick John Macrae scraps a living in the harsh, unforgiving, Scotish Highlands together with his grim father, sister and twin brothers. His beloved mother died in childbirth a year and a half before and everything had changed from that moment. Roddie, as he is called, is accused of murdering his neighbor, Lachlan Mackenzie and two others (unnamed for a reason revealed in due time). Through the boy’s memoir and other documents we learn of the circumstance surrounding the murder and the motives that lead to the horrid events.

I was expecting the book to be too clinical, even boring as it included ”official” documents to tell the story but the pages flew and I finished the book in two day which was quite unusual for a Booker contender. I thought the fictional documents seemed authentic and they gave the impression that the facts and characters were real, not the result of the writer’s imagination.

It was a well written, gritty historical mystery which kept me interested until the last page. There is also a twist at the end which I was not expecting so do not think that the trial is only a retelling of the previous findings.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,001 reviews35.9k followers
March 21, 2017
Update: first off....This is NO LONGER a $1.99 Kindle special. Today it's selling for $14.17. So for those of us - who bought this on the $1.99 day.....we got a great deal.

Here's my review:
I just finished this seconds ago......
DEFINITELY worth more than the $1.99 I paid.

It felt sooo REAL! This book feels like a TRUE STORY! It's NOT! It's a NOVEL!!!
During the trial - at the end of the book -- I felt like I was part of the jury. More than that .... when this book ended, I was still wondering - and still am wondering about the verdict.

Plus, when you're reading a memoir-- ( within a novel or not) -- it sounds real - feels real -and even the 'word' memoir is hard to image any other way than 'real'. A big chunk of the first half of this story is a memoir by the Killer. (From 150 years prior)

I had to pinch myself a few times and remind myself --again --"this is a novel".
Everything about this book feels like non-fiction.
Yet....I admit -- I believed what was 'in' the memoir.....written by Roddy Macrae when he was 17 years old. - The language was mournful and grim ....but it felt fitting.
Doubts began to entered my mind once presented with testimonies from neighbors, medical reports, police statements, a psychologist's evaluation......and especially at the trial.

The killer ---Roddy Macrae's describes the characteristics of rural life - a small village of Culduie - in the 1860's in Scotland, in his memoir. Not knowing much about the Scottish Highlands - I looked it up.... [quite beautiful].... but the community seemed lonely and sad......a community of poverty. The author examines religion and class besides the mystery itself: There was the established Church - divisions- and hierarchy. Bleak - unfair - and just sad!

Roddy definitely was the killer - of the triple murder. That's not the question.....
but what is the question is whether or not he was he insane at the time of the crimes?
And if so - why did he kill them?

I grappled with the way in which Roddy spoke - He left me feeling as if he knew ten times more than he was willing to tell. YET ....I TRUSTED HIM AT THE SAME TIME---even with his limited offerings of satisfying answers to interviews with the psychologist . Roddy wasn't a man to justify his actions - He never admitted to having a plan on killing 3 people. He did however intend to kill one specific victim. Of course I was thinking: "MAYBE HE DESERVED TO DIE".
Roddy said he had no other choice....he HAD to kill all 3 victims. I had a harder time figuring out WHY Roddy killed the other two victims.
I kept thinking ...."this man is not a BLOODY-COLD-KILLER".....but then reality of FACTS would present itself....
My mind was spinning.......my thinking was all over the place.

So..... There ya have it a $1.99 review! Clever structure!!!!

This is a $1.99 Kindle special today! Yippy!!!!!!!!! I just bought it! Many wonderful reviews!!!

It pays to 'wait' sometimes!!! Today is a good day to buy this book if interested!

I'll write a review --and change the rating --if needed after I've read it -- I just thought it might be nice to share with others about the price today!
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews544 followers
April 28, 2018
Have you any clue how difficult it is to hire a bagpiper - in South Louisiana - to come play at one's dinner party because you loved a book that much? But I did it! I tore through this sly novel twice in three months, using book club as the excuse for the repeat-read. All I can say is that Graeme Macrae Burnet is one clever devil, as it took not just me, but every couple in the club two days to GET the whole point.

Anytime a book is short-listed for the Man Booker Award, we open its cover with great anticipation. And yes, there was delightful wonder here, but I think the cleverness of the talented author is what won the hearts of the judges - not specifically the novel itself.

36 Hours Post-Reading and Reviewing: I was WRONG! This is a five star read! It took me a solid day and a half of thinking back on this novel for the penny to finally drop. There was a smattering of five itsy bitsy throw-away comments throughout the first half of the book that were subtle - I noticed them each while reading, and individually, they did raise a little flag with me. I was so intent on learning what would happen with sweet Roddy, however, that I shoved right past them and barely looked back. Bull in a china shop! Graeme Macrae Burnet, I love you better than shortbread - well done!

Okay, enough fawning.... the rest of this review is my initial impression.

Let me clarify - this IS a novel. Graeme Macrae Burnet is such a smart, quirky-minded author that he based not just this book but his former one also on supposed "real events." If you remember the movie Fargo where the fantastic Coen Brothers indicate that we are about to see a movie based on real events (big fat lie!) or have read the outstanding WWII coming-of-age story set in Stalingrad called City of Thieves where the real world author David Benioff has a protagonist named Lev Beniov (catch that spelling?) who ultimately ends up with a screen-writing grandson named Dave (Benioff?) dating a gorgeous green-eyed actress (Amanda Peet?), you'll recognize the fun in the entire project. And what a project! Just as The Blair Witch Project was initially seen by ghost-lovers as being as true as In Cold Blood, this novel was so well put together, it felt like factual "found footage" to me.

No spoilers! We are initially led to believe that the author was investigating his genealogy when he bumped into this murder case of an accused 17 year old with the same last name. The little town where the main character lives is the same as the author's mom, so the accuracy and little details are spot on - particularly the feudal aspects of what life was like back in the 1800s for the "crofters" (tenant farmers - basically serfs). The best spun stories involve real stuff, and Burnet delivers.

Chunk One of the story is (supposedly) the written memoir of the teenager who is accused of the bloody project itself. It is beautifully written, and we come to learn that despite him being denied any further education than was legally required, Roddy was a bright boy whose teacher came to his tumble-down home to try to convince the boy's father to let him pursue a higher path. While the boy is of 'low birth,' he is bright. The writing of Roddy is lovely, and includes all the late 1800s phraseology you'd expect (if you ever were going to expect) from a Scottish highlander. There may be words the average American reader (me) might be unfamiliar with, but about mid-book, there is a glossary provided. The entire thing feels like sort of a reference book or non-fiction. We see the teenager, Roddy, from his own eyes through this faux-memoir and come to care about and understand him. This first chunk of the tale is wonderful!

On a personal note, my grandparents were Scot-Irish immigrants and my step-dad was from Motherwell, Scotland. I listened to this via audio book and was immersed - totally immersed - in Scotland. Between my heritage and my fond memories of family, I may have been less than entirely objective in my reaction to the story.

The second section is hilarious in a way, as it is "narrated" by a ridiculously pompous "alienist" of the time (the guy, J. Bruce Thomson, really did exist!). He charts his employment in investigating whether young Roddy was in his right mind or not when the murders occurred and describes his visits to the hovel in which Roddy lived. While he abhors the thought of touching anything inside the "godforsaken shanty from which the perpetrator sprang," Thomson feels the need to investigate the physical look and the intelligence of Roddy's father. "If one’s cup of water is foul, one must first ascertain if the well is poisoned. If we find that the well is indeed polluted, it may have some bearing on whether or not he is responsible for his deeds."

Seriously, he is one extremely fun character to read, as he is such a total ass. I have got to give the author props for using the word "humonculus" when the esteemed, well-published alienist refers to the large-browed, short, disgusting tribes of Highlanders. These are my ancestors! OMG - he was the Boss Hog of the 1800s in this book! So arrogant, so funny.

SEMI SPOILER ...........
I admit that while the tension of the trial - in the third and final piece of the book - was pretty exquisite, I was waiting on new testimony from a dementia-ridden grandmother or that of a local medicine-woman to change the course of events we see coming from way down the track. Essentially, I wanted a twist or an explanation of how the coroner's findings didn't jibe with Roddy's memoir. There were parts of this crime novel that were not resolved - just like real life, I guess. I wanted to get my butt up there on the stand and testify!

Look up the Macdonald Triad after you finish the book. From old true-crime novels and mysteries that involved profilers, I was aware of these traits, and when they individually popped up here and there in the first half of the book, each was excused as irrelevant. But combined with a handful of other oddities, everything clicked into place!


In sum, the overall structure of this story - varying points of view, subtle clues about motive, and a summation of newspaper articles - was a total humdinger. I'm now dying to read Burnet's earlier story.

Go into this expecting a really great story about a (supposed) crime in mid-century 1800s, but don't expect the five stars one might with a Man Booker Award. If you read along at surface level - which you'll be tempted to do because the story compels the reader forward - then it'll be a good novel, but perhaps not great. This was a four star read for me until I thought back to a handful of odd little clues that later tied in to more obvious statements. Ping! I finally saw the whole picture.

For me, going in expecting perfection does an injustice to the novel - whether young Roddy Macrae gets what he is due, I won't say. But give this book its justice - don't expect the world to be shaken. Just enjoy, and see if it hits you a day after finishing!

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Profile Image for Debra .
2,279 reviews35k followers
September 29, 2020
4.5 stars

His Bloody Project was bloody good! Starting the book, I had no idea I would like it as much as I did. I read most of the book today. The book reads (and feels) like a memoir. This book feels as if it is a "true crime" non-fiction book. This is a novel - but the beauty of it is that it feels SO REAL!!!! This story is told through the "found memoir" of Seventeen year old Roderick "Roddy"Macrae and trial transcripts, the coroner's report, the psychiatrist's report and court testimony of villagers. The Author leads the reader to believe that he has found the 150 year old memoir of a person with the same last name as himself. But keep in mind, this is a Novel and not a memoir.

As I stated above, Seventeen year old, Roderick Macrae is telling his story for most of the book. He is the son of a crofter (tenant farmer who does not own the land he farms). His Mother died in childbirth and his depressed father is left to care for the family. Roderick paints a dreary picture of life in Culdie, a Scottish farming community. His story sounds, feels and is dreary. His family leads a harsh existence made even harder by Lachlan Mackenzie, the Constable, who wields his power to bully Roderick's father, rob them of part of their land, and torment the family.

Roderick has killed three people. We know this. He admits to this. He is being held in Inverness Castle during his trial. During his imprisonment he has penned his memoir. Roderick paints a picture of his life, but then during the trial, those who live in the Highland community with him paint a differing story - thus making Roderick a very unreliable narrator. This is where the MAGIC happens. While I sat and read this part, I thought "Wait!" "What?" and "Wow!" this turned the book on a dime.

Yes, Roderick really did commit the Murders but what was really going on with him? Was he Mentally Ill? Was he just a poor boy from a poor family (sorry channeling Queen here). But seriously, was he a young man avenging all of the wrongs committed against his family or was something else entirely going on with this young man? Boy oh Boy was this book up my alley!

What I wished would have happened -well, I was hoping for the woman who mentioned Roderick's sister's condition to him as being like that of his Mother's to testify and shed some insight on just how evil a man was Mackenzie.YES I am being vague so as not give away too much of the plot. I WISHED what Roderick walked in on and witnessed was mentioned. It was not. Are you kidding me??????? Why Not?

This book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. Not every book lives up to it's hype. This one not only lived up to it's hype - it jumped in the air, turned on a dime and nailed the landing!!! This is a book that I sat and thought about for most of the day. This is a book that one does not only read - but one feels. The atmosphere is just as much a character in this book as the "real" characters are. This book is, in reality, a psychological thriller parading as a memoir - bloody brilliant!

See more of my Reviews at www.openbookposts.com
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,631 followers
May 9, 2017
4.5 stars!

"The accounts presented here contain various discrepancies, contradictions and omissions, but taken together they form a tapestry of one of the most fascinating cases in Scottish legal history."

Presented in the fashion of a true crime case, His Bloody Project is in fact a fictional, historical and literary ‘mystery’ novel if you will. It is an exceedingly well-done and riveting account of the gruesome murders committed by Roderick Macrae, or Roddy, in 1869 in the small village of Culduie in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands. The novel is composed of a series of documents, including Roddy’s own memoir and confession as written from his jail cell, witness accounts, psychological evaluations, and the trial transcript. Each of these pieces of testimony gives the reader the feeling that he or she is perhaps a member of the jury, as we try to unravel the conflicting reports of Roddy’s character, his level of sanity, and the motive for his crimes. We don’t need to determine if Roddy is guilty of the crimes as this has already been established from the first, but we, like the jury, need to determine what frame of mind he was in at the time and ultimately whether or not he should be sent to the gallows.

I was completely engrossed in this novel from the beginning and throughout its entirety. Author Graeme Macrae Burnet paints a vivid picture of the beauty of the Scottish landscape contrasted by the wretched life of the poverty-stricken crofter, one who toils the land with little or no profit. Roddy’s family seems to have a constant shadow overhead, one which has not gone away ever since his mother died in childbirth leaving behind not just Roddy, but his sister, twin brothers, and his thickheaded father. "The outlook in these parts is that if one is to be visited by misfortune, there is nothing that can be done to avoid it." Roddy is really still just a boy, albeit a surprisingly intelligent lad considering his upbringing and living conditions. His voice as heard in his memoir is very clear and feels so genuine. It is difficult to reconcile this 17 year old young man who has penned his articulate thoughts on paper as being the accused who has landed himself in prison for such brutal acts. But is he a reliable narrator? Ah, that is what is so intriguing here! After reading Roddy’s narrative and the records and reports of all the rest – including that of an esteemed professional in the newly emerging field of criminal anthropology (wait until you ‘listen’ to this guy!) – I was constantly trying to decide what to believe and how to reach my own verdict on the case. Even now as I write this review, the wheels are turning and I have reached another decision after reading through my various highlights. When I discuss this with my reading buddies, who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind again!

This book is not a thriller in the sense of a fast action-driven plot, but it is a page-turner in its own right. The psychological details and the little subtleties in the narrative, the setting, and the alternating accounts which provide varied perspectives – all these make for a compelling read that I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Julie .
4,025 reviews58.9k followers
December 30, 2020
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by
Graeme Macrae Burnet is a 2015 Contraband publication.

I have had this book in my TBR pile for several years. In keeping with my project of reading ‘books everyone else has read, but me’ and getting a head start on my new years resolution of tackling my massive TBR list, I finally got round to reading it.

1869- Scottish Highlands

Seventeen-year old Roderick Macrae has been arrested for committing three brutal murders. While he awaits trial, Roderick gives a written account of his version of events. Between reading his memoir, there are interviews with Roderick by experts who work to uncover his psychological make-up- trying to determine what role his environment might have played in the events leading up to the murders.

This clever set up – a fictional crime novel masquerading as true crime, is ingenious. Roddy writes, perhaps a bit too articulately for his station in life, a memoir/confession, explaining how and why he committed the murders.

Once we have his confession, the story moves on to the trial, where witnesses and expert testimony muddy the waters enough to keep the reader from drawing a clear picture of what really transpired, and uncertain what level of empathy should be applied, if any.

The book has a rather abrupt, ambiguous conclusion, but one that makes sense considering the book's composition and themes. It also pretty much guarantees readers will be thinking about the implications long after they turn the final page.

This book was recognized by a few prestigious literary folks, which is rare for a crime novel. This location, the history, the hint of dark humor, and the presentation is impressive, yet I’m still not sure I’m on board with the literary qualifications that have been attributed to it.

All the same, this is a unique, dark little crime thriller, and I’m glad I managed to finally work it into my schedule!!

4 stars
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,336 followers
October 20, 2016
I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying His Bloody Project. It is on the shortlist for the Booker prize this year. When I looked through the list of nominees, it was the one book that appealed the least to me based on the description. But then I read an enthusiastic review written by GR friend Cheri, and decided that I would give it a try. His Bloody Project is written in the form of a case study of a murder committed in 1869 in the Scottish Highlands. The murderer was 15 year old Roderick Macrae. The story takes the form of a case file – a few witness statements, a long confession written by Roddy, notes from a criminal anthropologist who was called to testify as to whether Roddy was insane at the time of the murders, and an account of the trial. In other words, this feels more like a historical document than a novel. And what makes it compelling is in fact the sense of historical and geographic immersion. The author does an excellent job of painting the time and place – the paucity and brutality of Roddy’s life, but also the real human emotions and connections that propelled him and the people around him. And I must say that one of my favourite things about this book is the writing – the author’s use of language feels in step with the 19th century without being overdone or gimmicky. I’m not sure I would pick this one for the Booker, but I’m glad I took the time to read it. Readers should be aware that this is not a mystery or a page turner – it’s a somewhat slow and carefully told story that’s enjoyable in the telling and not because of any surprising twists and turns. Thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me an opportunity to read an advance copy.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,739 reviews2,265 followers
October 2, 2016
4.5 Stars

The 2016 Man Booker shortlist includes six books total; among those is Graeme MaCrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project.”

In the Highlands of Scotland, 1869, is the village of Culduie where three rather brutal murders takes place amidst a landscape of despair, and general misery among the masses. A few chosen ones enjoy a less harsh lifestyle, but for young Roderick John Macrae, life’s few joys disappeared when his mother died in childbirth, leaving himself, his slightly older sister, twin brothers and his father.

Told in alternating segments, Roddy Macrae shares the episodes that took place leading up to the murders through his memoir, alternating with conversations with his court advocate Mr. Sinclair, a psychiatrist, various statements from neighbors, doctors, and newspaper accounts. What’s astounding is how true young Roddie’s voice seems, how emotionally removed he becomes as more time passes by, while he lingers in the gaol cell. It’s just another prison than his life on his croft. The accommodations alone are a significant improvement over the hovel he called home.

A totally convincing read. I was hooked by this brilliant historical novel and entirely spellbound.

Pub Date: 04 Oct 2016

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Skyhorse Publishing, NetGalley and author Graeme MaCrae Burnet
Profile Image for Paula K .
417 reviews424 followers
October 5, 2017
His Bloody Project, a 2016 Booker Prize nominee, by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a real find. I listened to the audio book and was delighted with the narrator's fine Scottish brogue. Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, this is the story of a triple murder by 17 year old Roderick Macrae. Roddy admits his guilt to killing the local village constable and takes full responsibility without remorse.

What's beautiful about this book is the way it was put together with Roddy's memoir, written while jailed, court transcripts, police, witness and psychiatrist statements. You get a real feel for the harsh life of a crofter in the small remote village of Culduiey. It's a story of class. How those working the land are treated very poorly by those that rule. So mistreated as to make life unbearable.

As the book progresses the life of Roderick Macrae unfolds through his eyes. This bright and misunderstood boy lives a very difficult life. If he lived in our day and age I would guess he would be diagnosed with Asperger's. You see the traits in much of his actions. How it makes you feel for this young man!

Being of Scottish/Irish descent I really took to this book. But do you need to be? No. This is a treat for every reader.

5 out of 5 stars!
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
April 27, 2017
Well, this is more like it! A grim, propulsive story, a weird and kind of loveable murderer, a sharp, poignant light shone on an obscure period of human suffering (Scottish crofting), a meticulous picture of what real human oppression looks like from the ground up, a meaty villain who so deserved what was coming to him, a beautiful investigation into what it is or is not to be of sound mind, what I am trying to say is that I liked this immoderately.

So therefore, may I say, without any further untoward prevarication or flummery, and just to be absolutely crystal clear, this novel is recommended. And I hardly ever say that, being something of an old grouch.


That’s the review, this is just an observation. The novel is presented in the form of a series of “genuine” historical documents – the prisoner’s confession, the medical reports, the account of the trial, etc. Movies which do this are called “found footage” movies, I think it began with Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 and then the big one was The Blair Witch Project and it’s become a cliché now, particularly in horror films, like Paranormal Activity, [Rec], Cloverfield, District 9 – but of course “found document” novels have been there from the beginning of novels – in the form of letters, usually, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and more elaborately in Dracula (1897) which has newspaper reports, diary entries and letters. Movies could only catch up with novels when ordinary people could get hold of the technology. Last year, a well-reviewed movie called Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
November 6, 2021
Hell in the Highlands

According to the Borges-like found-documents of His Bloody Project, rural Scotland in the 19th century was a society of serfs as oppressed as those of contemporary Russia or India. The life of the common man, from the provision of most basic physical necessity to the enforcement of law, was determined by the interests of the laird, and his administrative henchmen. The estate over which they ruled was the size of a small country and included every inch of ground, every hovel and wall, every resource of any value whatsoever, even the sea weed growing on the rocks.

The sociology of Burnet's estate-of-interest is more or less that of a war-time prison camp. The inmates spend much of their time trying to avoid or outwit their guards. The guards themselves, but not the laird who spends limited time on the premises, live the same bleak existence as their charges, with the frisson that comes from unchecked sadistic torture. A divine rationale for this suffering is provided by the local parson of the Church of Scotland: the horrible life is merely a just consequence of the utter depravity of all human beings. An extreme fatalism, which drains even the hope of escape pervades the book.

But there are limits, even to the superstitious subservience of those accustomed to expect nothing from life. Is it any wonder that, next to the Jews, the Scots are the most dispersed people on the planet? Or that the evolutionary crap-shoot might occasionally produce an intelligent but emotionally immature misfit who disrupts the equilibrium of this appalling social drama? The only mystery in His Bloody Project is whether or not its protagonist will be condemned or rewarded for his self-confessed slaughter of a clan of some very bad folk.

Interestingly the hamlet of Culduie in Wester Ross, the site of the book's important action, is a real place. Even more, it is apparently exactly the same in terms of its human habitation and its remoteness as it was in the mid-nineteenth century. Burnet provides an introductory map of the place which corresponds house for house and wall for wall with those on Google Earth today. For that and the frequent necessity to look up archaic Gaelic vocabulary, it's probably best to read His Bloody Project on your iPad.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,481 reviews12.8k followers
October 25, 2016
I honestly feel like the requirements for getting on the Booker Prize shortlist are for the novels to: bore you to tears, make you question the very act of reading for pleasure, and make you want to strangle the author out of sheer misery - because that’s what reading His Bloody Project did to me!

Set in the 19th century, a Scottish wanker kills some poor Scottish bastards and goes on trial. That’s the story.

The author’s ponderous, tedious introduction to the book should’ve been a warning sign for me to not bother going any further because he unfortunately carries on in this style the entire time. Graeme Macrae Burnet unconvincingly attempts to make it seem like this is all nonfiction and he stumbled across these documents while being a boring sod and here are his findings, blah, blah, blah. It goes on and on and on, blathering about something that should take a sentence or two at the most to say.

The novel is made up of a memoir by the murderer Roderick Macrae, as well as witness testimonies, trial reports, medical records, and a psychologist’s assessment. The memoir is mostly about recreating dour life in the Scottish Highlands’ crofting communities rather than tell a sensational crime story which is what I’d hoped for when picking this one up. It is maddeningly dull. Yes, it’s detailed, and boy do I wish it wasn’t! This is not good fun to read to say the least.

And the other things like the trial reports, etc. - yes, they’re realistically written but have you ever tried reading official reports of any kind? Mind-numbing almost describes the experience, so why would anyone try to recreate that for anyone not being paid to read them?! That’s why I read novels in my spare time instead of sitting down with a pile of dry, near-unreadable court documents!

The author trudges - and I mean really, this thing makes glaciers look like they’re speeding! - through his non-story which is actually about informing everyone how much research he put into this time period, before throwing in yet another hoary literary device: the unreliable narrator! Sigh. So clichéd, so lame – you see this nonsense used in so many Booker-nominated novels. And then finally the torture is over.

For a Booker shortlisted novel, it has very few literary merits. It provides no relevant commentary on this lost culture, creates no great characters, tells no good story, fails to dazzle with any original literary tricks or show any clever usage of old literary ploys, it’s written in this exceedingly dull and unremarkable prose, and provides zero insight into the psychological makeup of someone who murders. It’s just miserable people doing miserable things to each other in a miserable place which this miserable writer has rendered into a miserable novel - dreary, dreary, dreary!

His Bloody Project is bloody awful so it’ll probably win the Booker – usually only the shittiest reads take home the prize!
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
488 reviews596 followers
September 11, 2016
The Man Booker longlist raised a few eyebrows earlier this year by omitting the works of accomplished authors like Don DeLillo, Eimear McBride and Ian McEwan. But had it not focused on some less-heralded novels instead of the more obvious names, I'd never have heard of the wonderful His Bloody Project. So hooray for the Booker jury I say!

Events unfold in 1869, deep in the Scottish Highlands. Roderick Macrae, a young crofter from the village of Culduie, commits a brutal triple murder. The book is a compilation of witness statements from his neighbours, post-mortem reports, a psychological evaluation, newspaper accounts of the trial and Roddy's own memoir, written from his prison cell. In it he freely admits killing Lachlan Mackenzie and the two other victims. He describes the circumstances which led him to do so, and we learn about the hardship he and his family had to endure. Mackenzie, the local constable, was a power-hungry bully with a real disliking for the Macraes. By reducing the size of their croft and eventually serving them with an eviction notice, he made Roddy's life a complete misery and few villagers shed a tear at his grisly demise. But when the trial begins, we learn of some inconsistencies in Roddy's account. To elaborate further would spoil the surprise.

The portrait of this harsh, unforgiving lifestyle in the Scottish crofting community is fascinating. It was a miserable existence, absent of any prospects. Macrae Burnet places us right in the heart of this difficult world, with evocative descriptions of the primitive hovels the crofters lived in, the meagre food they ate, the rags they wore. It's hard not to feel sympathy for Roddy in this life of extreme poverty and the author deserves major credit for how detailed and convincing his vision is.

But what thrills most of all is the mystery of the murders. The multiple perspectives are a joy to read, from the breathless newspaper reports to the condescending arrogance of the psychologist's analysis. And Roddy's eerie detachment of course. The ending will be a cause for debate and has not left my head for a few days now. But I'll say no more. This is a brilliantly imagined historical novel and an utterly engrossing crime story.
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews515 followers
May 14, 2020
Gale-force Gothic Tale of Grisly Murders in 1869 Scottish Highlands

This novel brilliantly seats the reader as detective (or perhaps juror) on the savage, gruesome gouging and murders of the town bully and two of his children in a small farm community on the high coast of Scotland. It's a blend of narrative from the killer and statements to the constable, medical reports and trial transcript, portrayed as a recently discovered manuscript. The issue is not whether he committed the crime but his mental capacity at the time of the murders.

The narrative evokes dark clouds covering a grim community full of poverty, in the laird, the weather, the church, the small crofts, tattered clothes, and a rampaging bully set to suit himself in the way of a teenage lady. It blusters with black humor and just when you think you have it figured out it coldcocks you with a crucial clue.

His Bloody Project is a gripping psychological thriller that--I like how The Guardian reviewer described it--"play[s] lovingly with the traditions of Scottish literature; an artful portrait of a remote crofting community in the 19th century that showcases theories about class and criminology."

Most highly recommended.
March 31, 2019
In September 1869, Roderick (Roddy) Macrae is held for the brutal murders of 3 members of the Mackenzie family – Lachlan Mackenzie, his daughter Flora and his infant son Donnie. The flow of the storyline is original, absorbing and really well crafted considering it’s presented as statements from neighbours, reports from what we could loosely call a criminal psychologist, and primarily a memoir from Roddy Macrae.

The story of harsh frugal daily life for Roddy and his family in Culduie, in the highlands of Scotland in the 1860s, is so vividly and imaginatively portrayed. The Laird of the village has appointed Lachlan Mackenzie his constable, a role he adopts with great vigour and ruthlessness, especially with those that he would take umbrage against. The Macrae family are one such family fallen out of favour. I felt so frustrated with a stubbornly principled father, in a time when survival is more important. The harms that befall the family from the early death of the mother to incidents with Roddy’s sister and the transgressions or misunderstandings from Roddy himself, make you feel the hopelessness and misery that Roddy must have felt, and maybe what drove him to commit these murders. The writing and characters are so well developed that you feel sympathy for a murderer when the victim is a cruel, vindictive man like Lachlan Mackenzie. Yet you feel abhorrence towards him for the sickening death of an innocent infant? The story is masterfully told and it's no surprise it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

The story finishes with the trial of Roddy Macrae and there is an interesting twist as to who the main target of the attacks was that day. Was it revenge on a brutal and spiteful man or emotional breakdown against an unrequited love? What was his bloody project? The tabloids and stories that made news at the time exposed the treatment tenants faced under callous landlords and their agents.

I would highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Carol.
829 reviews482 followers
February 12, 2017
The Hook - An unreliable narrator, narrative crime fiction that reads like a true crime case, short-listed for The Man Booker Prize 2016 and many accolades from both professional reviewers and the reading public led me to His Bloody Project.

The Line(s) - “The purpose of the window is, I imagine, less to afford the occupant of the cell a view than to allow a little air to circulate. Nevertheless, in the absence of other diversions, it is surprising how much entertainment can be gleaned from watching the slow alterations in a small patch of sky.”

The Sinker - I’m not a fan gal, rarely rushing to read prizewinners or those making their shortlists. However, I am a fan of crime fiction so it was inevitable that Man Booker Prize status or not, His Bloody Project would make my TBR list. The potential to deliver on plot elements as mentioned in “The Hook” along with additional possibilities of a historical thriller and a complex courtroom drama finally did the trick. It helped that this book just happened to be staring me in the face when I visited our library.

Often, a book with as much hype as His Bloody Project disappoints. Not in this case. His Bloody Project is an all out winner. Presented in a format of documents, testimony and first person narrative, this fictional story of the murder of three persons, two who are just children really, by seventeen year old Roderick John Macrae rivals any real murder case I’ve ever read. Macrae confesses his guilt but the question becomes a matter of just where lies his guilt and his mental state. Thriller may give the wrong impression, as this is a moody, literary, intricate tale, not fast paced but certainly one that provides a willingness to keep reading. Taking place in nineteenth century Scotland allows for a style of writing that would not be possible in a modern story. Graeme Macrae Burne, through the eyes of Roderick Macrae, constructs a desolate landscape and brings to life the tenants of a Scottish croft.

Published in 2016, His Bloody Project, is bound to be one of my favorite reads of 2017. My only regret in this is that I wasn’t able to vote for it in any 2016 best books polls.

Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
December 8, 2016
This is my favourite of the three books on the Booker longlist I have read so far [edit 9 Oct] - though having since read Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Hot Milk it, His Bloody Project is now only my third best. I am probably biased in that I have spent a lot of time in the Scottish highlands and have read quite a lot about its social history, so much of the backdrop is familiar. In one sense it is a historical crime story in that it centres on a triple murder to which a poor crofter's son has admitted full responsibility from the start, but there is also a lot of social history and Burnet clearly knows the Applecross peninsula very well - all of the locations are real, as is one of the criminal psychologists who is called in to help investigate the case, and Burnet has done his best to research the history of the area. The story is always readable despite the limitations imposed by the structure, quite an achievement since it purports to be a set of contemporary documents on the case. It can also be read as a microcosm of the wider story of the highland clearances.
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,615 followers
March 31, 2017
I'm gratified to see that a "mystery" could make the Man-Booker shortlist, upending long-suffering snobbery about the genre. Though, I don't know if mystery is quite the right way to describe this book, only because the question of the killer's identity is never in dispute. Perhaps I would be more inclined to compare this book to In Cold Blood, though this is a faux version (totally fiction, as opposed to Capote's true crime depiction). The mystery, if this is one, is in an innocuous sprinkling of details, which make all the difference.

Set in a tiny Scottish village in 1869, this book follows the grisly killings of three people at the hands of 17 year old Roderick Macrae. In the preface, the author claims that he was looking into his genealogy and discovered this murder case along with the infamous account by the accused himself. The story is presented as "true crime" and feels that way, for the most part. It has a distinct historical, empirical, judicial feel to it all the way through, despite its being a fictional story.

It's written convincingly in the style of the time and place. It's also super readable - compulsively so. Roderick Macrae's account gives us a vision of the repression and cruelty of life in a poor Scottish village at the time, and of the bleakness of Roddy's world in particular. It leads up to the killings, describing his joyless household after the death of his mother, molesting my brain with the violent death of a sheep, conversations with crows, and ends with the murders in question.

In the subsequent parts I felt a little adrift, unplugged from Roddy's narrative. When I was reading the other accounts, I became aware of my attachment to the shy, motherless, intelligent boy, and how much I wanted there to be something to suddenly and swiftly exonerate him. Sneaky, sneaky Graeme Macrae Burnet!!

No spoilers here, but there's more than initially and superficially meets the eye. In the Trial section, I had the distinct feeling that I was sitting on the jury, that the advocates were addressing me with their questions of what constitutes insanity, and what could justify the atrocious destruction of lives. There's murky darkness, there are inconsistencies, there's some messed up sexuality at play, and we need to filter it all through the words of the unfortunate (and yes, unreliable) young man who is accused of a triple homicide. Brilliant!

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Francesc.
389 reviews192 followers
November 15, 2021
No dudo en ningún momento que el libro tiene cierto interés literario ya que está bien escrito, los paisajes están descritos de manera correcta, el carácter de los habitantes de las Tierras Altas queda muy bien plasmado, pero ahí se acaba todo su encanto.
Leer esta novela es como escuchar una conferencia de alguien que usa siempre el mismo tono. La consecuencia es que acabas por desconectar.
La primera parte sobre la vida de los habitantes de la zona es tediosa y repetitiva.
La parte de las autopsias es totalmente prescindible porqué no aporta nada y ya había quedado suficientemente claro. Entrar en los detalles forenses es, a todas luces, innecesario por muy "true crime" que escribas.
La parte final del juicio es la más entretenida sin llegar a cotas muy elevadas.
Una gran decepción. Esperaba mucho de esta novela tan reconocida y ese siempre es un problema.
En estas casi 400 páginas solo he aprendido algo sobre la vida de los habitantes de Escocia y sobre las leyes que los gobernaban.


I have no doubt that the book has a certain literary interest as it is well written, the landscapes are well described, the character of the Highlanders is well captured, but that is the end of its charm.
Reading this novel is like listening to a lecture by someone who always uses the same tone. The consequence is that you end up tuning out.
The first part about the life of the inhabitants of the area is tedious and repetitive.
The part about the autopsies is totally dispensable because it doesn't contribute anything and it had already been made clear enough. Going into the forensic details is clearly unnecessary no matter how much "true crime" you write.
The final part of the trial is the most entertaining without reaching very high levels.
A big disappointment. I expected a lot from this well-known novel and that is always a problem.
In these almost 400 pages I only learnt something about the life of the people of Scotland and the laws that governed them.

Profile Image for Dem.
1,186 reviews1,098 followers
July 24, 2019
Lost my Original review on Goodreads ( 2015) and as this was one of my favourite books just had to rewrite it.
His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet So gripping and atmospheric, a clever psychological thriller

I would never have picked up this book had it not been chosen for this month's book club read as neighter the cover or the blurb appealed to me and while I rarely enjoy Man booker prize winners, I loved this one for its cleverness, athmosphere, and writing style.

The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macre. A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty but it falls to the county's finish legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit merciless acts of violence

I enjoyed the setting of the novel and the bleak and unforgiving landscape of rural scotland. The sense of time and place is chilling and its the kind of story that gets under your skin and I loved it's originality. At the heart of the book lies a gripping crime story with characters that are real and dislikable.

Loved every minute spent with this book and really looking forward to discussing this one at our next book club meeting.

Quick update: What a discussion this one created.
There was so much in this book to discuss, every member of our group had an opinion and boy did they differ. Wonderful book Club discussion choice.
Profile Image for PorshaJo.
452 reviews659 followers
December 30, 2017
Quite the interesting read. It is fiction, but presented almost as non-fiction. An account of a crime committed by one Roderick Macrae. This one was a 2016 Man Booker nominee and normally, I'm always baffled by the list of books. But this one I kept coming back to. The name, cover, and synopsis kept calling me to it. It seemed quite macabre and I kinda like that. To be honest, I initially thought it was non-fiction.

In 1869, there was a brutal triple murder carried out by one Roderic "Roddy" Macrae in the Scottish Highlands. That is no spoiler. Roddy freely admits he did it. The story unfolds of how this all came to be. Roddy is in jail awaiting trial and his solicitor asks him to write down his account of this story. The book is this account, plus witness accounts, doctors accounts, psychologists, and the court transcripts. See, Roddy has not had the best of life, it's quite bleak in Culdie where he lives. He works as a crofter (works land that he does not own) with his father on their farm. His father is horrible to him. His mother has died some years ago in childbirth. Roddy is 17 when he is thrown into the middle of this 'dispute' with his father and local constable, Lachlan Mackenzie, who seems to have it in for the lot. Lachlan is a brood of a man who wields his power over people, putting them through absolute misery. And he seems to pay extra special attention (hostility) at the Macrae family. Roddy slowly unfolds the story of his life up to the point where is awaiting trail. He's guilty, but what you examine is....was he insane at the time of the murders? Sometimes he seems almost above normal intelligence (is he playing with everyone) and sometimes he seems like such a dolt (did he really understand his actions).

It's very fascinating as it almost seems like a true account of murders. What I also found fascinating is that so many people had such different opinions of the characters - Roddy and Lachlan. And you can't help but feel for Roddy, and care about him. That shows the art of a true writer, making you feel for a cold, blooded murder (yes, Truman Capote did the same in In Cold Blood, but this was non-fiction). I listened to the audio and loved it. I love the heavy Scottish accent. Though after some time, I got the print too as there was quite a bit of terms (many British terms) I did not know and wanted to look up. Then I got to the part mid-way in the book that contained the glossary of words. :-)

A book I'm so glad I read. I'm now a fan of Graeme Macrae Burnet, seeing how he can weave such a captivating story. I now need to go back and read his other works.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
973 reviews1,194 followers
August 8, 2016
Honestly, "literary crime fiction" can be a bit dull sometimes, can't it? All those chilly, brittle delineations of character and meditations on why. The writing may be absent the tiresome clunks often found in a commercial procedural, but also missing is the compulsive moreishness that means you've read a third of the book before you've even looked up from the page again, perplexed and perhaps worried that something so fucking grim is also so much fun. Not so here. This is a book I'd highly recommend to everyone on my GR friendslist who enjoys superbly-done genre writing. It also has greater depth and interest than much contemporary litfic with more overt pretension.

Among the great fascinations here are the character of seventeen year old Roderick himself and how he is developed - the sort of character whom in the hands of a less skilled author could appear clumsily created to appeal to the typical reader of books, somewhat more solitary and intelligent than those around him, with a few aspie-sounding traits. But he never evoked the heroines or heroes of those cheesy bestsellers about magical bookshops and the like, rather this felt like a completely authentic portrait of the sort of young person who the village schoolmaster wished would go to university, but who had to stay and work the family farm, the ways in which such a person's routine days may have been spent. (I daresay a few of you think of this type as being among your ancestors too.) His blend of thoughts seemed so well chosen it was sometimes hard to believe he hadn't been a real person - the tendencies shared with the men of the Scottish Enlightenment and their intellectual descendants, just communicated more plainly, and others with obvious roots in the remote crofting hamlet (c.f. the miller in the microhistory The Cheese and the Worms) and his mixture of bolshiness and spartanness that is IMO utterly characteristic of a certain kind of bright Scot. The presentation of multiple accounts of the 'case' leads to a curious co-existence of sympathy and more detached views of Roderick. (The presentation is immersive enough that a few people have tagged the novel as 'true crime' and I felt I should do a search to be completely sure it was fiction.)

This is also a story about religion and class.

The story is set a short while after the major phases of the Highland Clearances, but the same powerlessness in the face of of landowners still exists, and still educated characters from further south just don't get it. His Bloody Project is the type of historical novel that leans far more towards accuracy than towards wish-fulfilment for modern readers, but it has modern concerns about the voices of the voiceless, about well-meaning do-gooders, about snobs and their theories on the degenerate poor. It simultaneously makes one relieved that better checks and balances exist now, but concerned about their erosion. And one may feel we know better than the C19th "criminal anthropologist" in certain of his ideas - but how different are some of our current ones, and can we really know they are correct?

I'd forgotten just how utterly pervasive its puritan fatalism of Scots Presbyterianism can be (a tendency which IMO seeps into the Scots mindset even among the non-religious: where does stoicism and acceptance become passivity, exactly?) - and it's possible I've read an equally good evocation of the way this fatalism held people back in its mind forg'd manacles, but if I ever have I can't remember what it was. This book communicates it so very well to the modern reader without any sledgehammering, using characters who are both within and outwith that frame of mind. It's the great unspoken among the educated characters: have they not spotted its role because it's as pervasive as air, or because it's not yet the done thing to question it? Should I even be blaming it on organised Christianity when its roots in more ancient superstitions are also seen here? It may have been a part of the place for centuries or even millenia before John Knox, no doubt a communal coping tactic in a harsh landscape. It may be ancient, but in Roddy there's something modernist and existentialist about it too.
That which cannot be talked about by the characters is still barely talked about in the book, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. [Major spoiler follows.]

This is one of the best crime novels I've read (a surprising proportion of those are Scottish), notable for its intricate attention to larger themes and historical setting, alongside being a thumping good read - deserving of the greater audience the Booker longlisting has brought it, and all the more enjoyable in that context because of the way it zips along and focuses on people somewhere far removed from the typical Booker settings of London/New York/Mumbai.
Profile Image for Emma.
972 reviews975 followers
October 19, 2016
I was surprised and pleased to see the inclusion of this on the Man Booker shortlist this year. For me, the form, style, and intelligence of this novel, as well as the balance between its wit and darkness, gives the prize something it is sometimes lacking: a feeling that there is value in a book being more straightforwardly entertaining. Not that this lacks depth, but it seems to me that nobody could accuse this of 'trying too hard' (a claim which i've heard repeatedly about many of the more modern MB picks). What I mean by that is that even if you are the type of person who doesn't usually read or like literary fiction, this psychological thriller/(faux)true crime book could still satisfy your reading tastes. The 'found' documents allow a variation in tone and experience that give it a verve and veracity, the appealing murderer-narrator adds a frisson of vile delight, and the ability of the author to make this period and place in history entirely absorbing speaks for itself.

Many thanks to Graeme Macrae Burnet, Skyhorse Publishing, and Netgalley for the chance to read this in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,133 reviews8,133 followers
July 31, 2016
A highly enjoyable and interesting examination of justice, criminalization, and classism in late 19th century Scotland. The first 2/3 were engaging enough, but it was the last third that really got my attention. I'm sure this is one that will keep me thinking for quite a while.
Profile Image for Viv JM.
692 reviews154 followers
September 16, 2016
His Bloody Project is a historical novel set in the crofting community of the Scottish highlands. When a brutal triple murder is committed, the community are keen to find out what drove young Roddy Macrae to such violent acts. The reader is to piece together a picture via witness statements, Macrae's journal, the notes of a criminal psychologist and the account of the trial. The variety of sources makes this feel almost like a factual account rather than fiction, and ultimately the reader is left to draw her or his own conclusions.

The first time I tried to read this, I DNF'ed at 22%, because it wasn't really holding my interest much and I found the writing somewhat dry and dreary. When it made the Booker shortlist, I decided to give it another shot. I did end up liking it a little more than expected, but I didn't find it the thrilling page-turner that I had hoped for after reading some reviews. It was competently written and an interesting enough concept, it just didn't really light my fire. Ah well.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews637 followers
July 25, 2017
True Crime (or not) in Scottish Fiction
In the spring of 2014, I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald 'Tramp' Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross, two or three miles north of Culduie. It was in the course of my research at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness that I came across some newspaper clippings describing the trial of Roderick Macrae, and with the assistance of Anne O'Hanlon, the archivist there, discovered the manuscript which comprises the largest part of this volume.
Immediately upon finishing this latest Man Booker nominee, I turned back to the author's introduction to check whether I had been reading genuine documents about a true case, or the imaginative products of a clever author with an uncanny sense of style. I think the latter, but even now I cannot be quite sure. The larger part of this book is, as Macrae Burnet tells us, the memoir written in 1869 by 17-year-old Roderick John Macrae at the request of his solicitor while he is awaiting trial in Inverness Castle. He freely admits to killing Lachlan Mackenzie (commonly known as Lachlan Broad) and two other people in the former's house in Culduie, Wester Ross, in order to relieve his father of the persecution he was suffering at Mackenzie's hands. From beginning to end of the book, there is no dispute about these facts; all that remains to be filled in are the details, motivation, and the question of moral guilt.

Roddy Macrae's memoir takes up the first half of the book. It is preceded by various written statements made at the time by neighbors, the local schoolteacher, and the Presbyterian minister, which show a wide variety of opinions, revealing the character of each writer quite as much as that of their subject. It is an extraordinarily compact way of depicting the small crofting community, the various rivalries within it, and the constricting power of the Kirk. The latter part of the book consists of reports of the trial and its aftermath. Burnet is pitch-perfect in capturing the tone of depositions, official documents, and newspaper reports, but nothing is astounding as Roddy's narrative itself, which not only nails the style of 19th-century Scots prose* (think Stevenson) but also recreates the social and moral world in which the tragedy plays itself out.

Culduie is a real place, on the west coast of Scotland a little bit north of the Isle of Skye; the photo above, looking across to Skye, is of the neighboring village, Camusterrach, where the local church and school are situated. Beautiful though it seems to tourist eyes, in the 19th-century it must have been a place of feudal squalor. Here and elsewhere, huge swaths of coast and mountain would be owned by a Laird, and used largely for the purpose of hunting and fishing. The lands would be managed by a Factor, who would assign local jurisdiction to a Constable elected from each area. The crofters lived in little more than hovels, occupying their houses and farming their land at the pleasure of the Laird, and subject to arbitrary rulings on the part of the Constable. Reading this portion of the book made me very angry indeed, not only at the grossly unfair exercise of class privilege, but at the bovine acceptance of it by most of the local people. Here is a snatch of conversation overheard by Roddy at the annual Highland Gathering:
I fell in behind two well-dressed gentlemen and eavesdropped on their conversation. The first declared in a loud voice, 'It is easy to forget that such primitives still exist in our country.' His companion nodded solemnly and wondered aloud whether more might be done for us. The first gentleman then expressed the view that it was difficult to assist people who were so incapable of doing anything for themselves. They then paused to drink from a flask and watch a knot of girls pass by.
This attitude is echoed by that of the Presbyterian Minister, Mr. Galbraith, who speaks of "a savagism" that the Church has only been partially successful in suppressing. He has no difficulty in asserting that Roddy is a throwback to the primitive type, a noxious individual, enslaved to the Devil. Burnet may have used Galbraith as a scathing example of religion at its worst and least compassionate (he based him, apparently, on a real figure), but there is another aspect to his Presbyterianism that is not much developed in the novel, but which I see as centrally important. The willingness of Roddy's father and his sister Jetta to submit to Lachlan Broad's tyranny is the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination in its crudest form:
You must not say such things, Roddy. If you understood more about the world, your would see that Lachlan Broad is not responsible. It is providence that has brought us to this point. It is no more Lachlan Broad's doing than yours or mine or Father's.
Jetta, who has second sight, tells him that she has foreseen Lachlan's death. The combination of Gaelic superstition and Presbyterian fatalism finally propels Roddy to his act:
We have seen two theories of his crime: class and religion. The trial, however, will focus on the question of mental competence. But here we discover something else: that Roddy is not the trustworthy narrator we had thought.** All along, we have been proceeding towards understanding and even sympathy—but then something happens to kick us in the gut. From this horrendous point on, halfway through the book, neither Roddy nor the author is any more to be trusted. The novel becomes a genuine cliffhanger, even as it sinks deeper into tragedy. It is really a superb achievement.


Also as in Stevenson, the text is scattered with dialect Scots words—including the two murder weapons, a croman and a flaughter. Oddly enough, Burnet places his glossary halfway through the book (54% in my Kindle edition). Sassenach readers would be well advised to bookmark it!

In terms of the combination of unreliable narrator with a 19th-century Scottish crime drama, I thought of the novels of Jane Harris, Gillespie and I and The Observations. Reviews have also compared His Bloody Project to books such as Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and James Robertson's Testament of Gideon Mack. I am sure many other comparisons are possible. But that does not lessen the stunning originality of the book we have.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
616 reviews337 followers
May 5, 2017
“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.”

Indeed I say.
The author begins with an introduction about his research into family history and the discovery of documents recounting a brutal triple murder in the 1869 Scottish Highlands…perpetrated by a relative perhaps? Very clever! Because nothing in the pages is what it seems to be.
It’s clear from the start that young Roderick Macrae did the deed but what exactly happened and why? Page by page the reader is drawn into conflicting testimony and unreliable narrative as high anticipation develops. There is a twist and I did gasp :-O !
I felt like a member of the jury trying to make sense of it all. In the end I came to my verdict but not all my questions were answered. Be careful with reviews as I encountered spoilers. The less you know going in—the better.

Out of Burnet’s impressive imagination we have excellent crime fiction told with literary style and prestige. Film rights have been bought and for good reason.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,411 followers
October 11, 2016
It is the dispassionate telling of this story that makes the mystery of Culduie such a success. Roddy Macrae, discovered walking through his village covered in blood, acknowledges freely that he killed Lachlan Mackenzie and “the others.” The novel opens with Macrae’s confession, solicited by his advocate in court. The author then tells us that in the spring of 2014 he began investigating the background of Donald “Tramp” Macrae, his grandfather, and came upon the documents surrounding Roddy Macrae and the mystery of the deaths at Culduie.

We are already interested, but what we discover is that the confession written by Roddy is fluent and complete, not the brutish scribblings of an ignorant man, but full of nuance and scenes of extraordinary power, despite the limited understanding of a childish comprehension. Roddy was only a boy during most of the time his account describes, but we get the sense of a dawning recognition that what he was witnessing deserved retribution.

Burnet keeps the interest level cranked to high and the outcome of the trial unresolved to the very last pages, making jury-members of his readers. He includes village histories in the accounts of Roddy’s neighbors, Roddy’s personal history, and court documents which spell out officialdom’s opinion of his actions. By the end, even the most sympathetic or jaded among us would have put their legal reasoning and beliefs to the test.

Whatever realism the novel provides, one has to admit to the skill that produced a fiction so compelling, given that the whole thing was concocted by the author. The story of the village with its seasonal requirements and communal reliance, its meager crops and neighborly dramas, its distant overlords and handed-down wisdom reminds us how limited horizons can be for those who grow just enough to survive.

Graeme Macrae Burnet has a favorite crime author, Georges Simenon. Burnet created this novel out of bits and pieces of real-life histories that intrigued him. The setting is one he is familiar with from vacations in his childhood, the name of the protagonist came from his personal family history, and the main bit of the murders from Pierre Rivière, who has been remembered for the account of his wrongdoing since the 19th century. Perhaps the thing that resembles Simenon best is Burnet’s inclusion of so many details of village life, at which Simenon was a master.

Apparently the literary world is aflame with the question of whether or not this novel constitutes a “crime novel,” and is therefore perhaps the first time genre fiction has been given the honor of being nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2016. Since I am not really part of the literary establishment, I may amuse myself with stating my opinion on this case. Yes, His Bloody Project is definitely a “crime” novel, one of the very best of its type….using an innovative structure and an unusual setting and time frame…and is among the best examples of literature produced in English this year. It is a fine addition to the Booker Prize shortlist, other nominees which include innovative and unusual works of fiction by playwrights, poets, and novelists.

One of the things I liked best about this novel was the way Burnet was able to involve us so completely in the story that even changing the names of individuals did not throw us off the scent of mystery…Lachlan Mackenzie was also Lachlan Broad, and Roddy Black was the infamous Roderick Macrae. Unusual tools, like a croman and a flaughter, did not blunt our curiosity about how they may be used in cleaving the skull. The words and the justice system themselves seemed foreign. We became quite versed, in the end, in the quiet unspoken menace that plagued residents of Culduie when a person against which they had no protection became dispenser of justice.

Personally, I did question why Roddy, clever boy that everyone seemed to acknowledge he was, couldn’t have come up with a better solution to Lachlan Mackenzie’s transgresses than killing him, which was sure to stop the behavior, but also his own life. Since the schoolteacher acknowledged Roddy’s clear superiority over other students, Roderick never seemed to cotton-on that he alone might find a way to best the brute Lachlan. But no matter. I accept what Burnet has offered us and enjoyed it thoroughly, and consider it fine literature.
Profile Image for Veronica ⭐️.
970 reviews194 followers
June 21, 2017
Wow! Shocking and affecting.

Rodderick Macrae paints a picture of naivety, innocence and trustworthiness as he tells the story of his life and the events that led up to the murder of three fellow villagers.

I found the start of the book slow going but the further I read the more compelling I found the story and the more I started to second guess my own thoughts.

Burnet wants us, the reader, to make our own conclusions concerning the characters’ actions and motivations. We don’t need to be spoon fed stories with everything spelt out for us and a conclusion all wrapped up nicely.

The author leaves the reader to make their own conclusions whilst he puts new points out there to test the preconceived notions you may have already formed. I found myself questioning again and again my own thoughts on not only the events that occurred but also the characters themselves.

Burnet’s writing gives rise to many questions but if you are looking for answers between the covers of this book you will be sorely disappointed.

A well deserved nomination for The 2016 Man Booker Prize.

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