His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

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62 thoughts on “His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  1. This book sounds far too readable and enjoyable for the Booker, but bravo to Burnet nonetheless! A lovely review and no doubt a book I would very much enjoy. As my TBR is already the size of a small city I can’t promise this will find itself on my bedside cabinet anytime soon but I would certainly recommend it on your behalf, FF.

  2. It would be interesting to know what the editor recommended, regarding the dialect. I think dialect polarises readers, but since I generally dislike it, I would say that! I don’t think this book is for me, dialect or not.

  3. A great review as always FF, although I disagree on a couple of points!
    I was under the impression that Roderick was an ‘unreliable narrator’, and indeed it is hinted at in the book that the schoolmaster may have manipulated, aided or even written Roddy’s account himself. This would explain why the voice doesn’t quite ring true to you.
    I also don’t believe that Roddy would have written in his dialect. Education in Victorian times was pretty prescriptive and anyone who had been at school as long as he had would have known how to write in ‘standard English’. You don’t need a university education or even the final years of high school to achieve that.
    For me, this book is much better than the pretentious drudge that is usually served up as Booker fare. The use of individual voices as narrators places it alongside ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ as a bold attempt to get inside the heads of other people from other times. I thought it was terrific.

    • Ha – I’ve just been having a conversation with a Goodreads pal who disagrees with me from the other direction – he thinks Roderick would only have spoken Gaelic and therefore Scots would be out of place. I was arguing with him that he’d have been taught standard English in school, and now I’m going to argue with you that, even though he’d have been taught English in school, I still don’t think he’d have written in it so fluently since it would have been a second language for him. 😉 In my cynical way, I felt that all the vague stuff about him maybe not having written it himself was Burnet’s way to try to get round the fact that the voice doesn’t ring true. I couldn’t really understand why he didn’t just have Roderick speak it and have someone else write it down, which would have explained them tidying it up as they went along. But better yet, I’d have loved for Roderick to speak it in Scots dialect and for it to be recorded as that. I know most people would prefer not to read Scots dialect but… I’m Scottish!

      I definitely don’t disagree about it being more enjoyable than most Booker books! That comment was really a response to a lot of Goodreads reviewers who seem to have marked it down for not being Bookerish enough – I agree it’s not, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’d have been delighted to see it winning the McIlvanney prize instead. I thought it was excellent, despite my disappointment over the lack of a Scottish voice.

  4. I know just what you mean, FictionFan, about the use of language. To me, language use says a lot about a character. If it doesn’t ring true, then the character doesn’t feel as authentic. Still, the story itself sounds absolutely fascinating. And I do like the setting and context. I’m glad that you enjoyed it as well as you did.

    • I’m often disappointed when Scottish authors choose to use English English rather than Scots English, particularly in historical fiction – partly because I love to see Scots dialect being maintained, but also because it doesn’t feel authentic to me. But I do understand the commercial reasoning. And it was my only disappointment – otherwise I thought this was an excellent crime novel, and the setting is done brilliantly.

  5. Great review. The fact it was shortlisted for the Booker actually put me off this but I have read it and really enjoyed.

    I do agree that Roderick’s account doesn’t necessarily read true but wondered if that was deliberate to raise the question of whether he really wrote it.

    I did love how the different pieces of evidence and witness accounts shifted my view of what really happened. Fascinating reading.

    • Thank you! Yes, I was put off by the Booker nomination too, till I started reading other reviews of it. I think it would have been much better marketing to put it forward for either crime or historical fiction prizes, rather than lit-fic.

      My cynical nature looked at it the other way round – I felt Burnet may have put that confusion in because he realised the voice didn’t ring true so was trying to suggest there might be a reason for it. But really it’s just because I love to see a bit of Scottish dialect in books that made me disappointed with what felt like a lost opportunity. 😀

      Yes, I loved that too – and all the little hints of things that he never explained, just like in real life where we never fully know what goes on in other families… an excellent book!

  6. I agree with everyone who mentioned that this is a great review. Good point on the dialect. It’s sad how making your way on some awards lists is a turnoff. I generally feel that way about National Book award nominees and some Oscar nominated films.

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 😀 I’d love to see more Scottish dialect in books since it’s such an endangered species these days, but I do understand that it makes a book less commercial. Yes, the Booker nomination for this one has definitely got it a lot of readers, but also quite a bit of criticism about it not being ‘worthy’ of the Booker. (Lit-fic snobbery!) I’d have liked to see it put forward for the McIlvanney Prize, specifically for Scottish crime writing – I feel that would have been a much better fit for it.

  7. I have this book at home and really must read it. How different, exactly, is Scottish from English? Forgive my ignorance; I’m only asking because I’m wondering if I would have trouble reading a Scottish accent. (I would have trouble reading a book written in Bavarian, for example.) What’s a book that uses a Scottish dialect that you recommend?

    • The actual basic vocabulary is very largely the same – or at least it is as you come to more modern times. It’s more to do with pronunciation – which tends to get phonetically spelled – and particularly speech patterns and rhythms. It also varies from region to region – the north west of Scotland and the islands used to speak Gaelic (some still do), so their English tends to borrow words and patterns a lot from that, whereas central and southern Scots is much more to do with accent. Strictly speaking, a successful written Scots dialect should be recognisable as which area of the country it comes from and probably also indicate the date!

      There’s not a huge amount of literature in Scots (which is why I’m always keen to see more), but here are a few I’ve reviewed – in some of them the quotes will give you some idea of the difficulty level.

      William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw has some fairly low level Glaswegian dialect, which I think would be easily readable (and it’s a great book – in fact I’ve only included 5-star books here). It’s mainly dependent on accent and pattern. However McIlvanney’s Docherty has much more dialect and is a brilliant example, I think, of lowland Scots of the time (early 20th century).

      Sunset Song goes easy on the dialect except for a few Scottish words, but it’s great at picking up the patterns and rhythms of the north-east – again early 20th century.

      I don’t think you read as much crime as me, but Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds doesn’t have much dialect but is completely authentic to contemporary Glaswegian speech patterns and what we call ‘patter’ – a kind of wry humour used to cover over the harshness of life.

      And once you’ve mastered all of those, you can graduate to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Thrawn Janet which frankly I struggle with! 😉

    • I loved it too, but did have doubts over his level of apparent fluency in written English. I could have seen it if he’d had access to books and reading at home, but he clearly didn’t, so I struggle with the idea that he could have done so well purely in a few hours of school each day. But it’s intriguing that we all have different views about that but still all seem to agree the book is excellent… 🙂

  8. Great review! I was hooked by the beginning of this book, but put it down somewhere in the middle. Like you say: “And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest.” — Burnet shows this vividly! Even though this book doesn’t sell itself as light reading, the pettiness and cruelty really got to me. But, of course, your review makes me want to pick it back up and finish the story.

    I was a trifle relieved to see it didn’t win though because now it won’t go on my Booker Prize TBR. 😀

    • It does change in the middle, when Roderick’s story stops and it flicks over to the doctor’s narration, but I found the second half just as absorbing as the first. Yes, I thought it was an excellent portrayal of how powerless poor people were and how dependent on their ‘superiors’ being fair or unfair. I think you should pick it back up even if it didn’t win the Booker… 😉

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this (with the same hesitation you had about the ability of the central character to be as eloquant). Burnet has a new novel out but the review I saw at the weekend said it was a pity he hadn’t kept to the same formula as His Bloody Project

    • I think it says something about the overall quality that we all seemed to think it was excellent even with that weakness over Roderick’s voice. Oh, I hadn’t spotted that he has a new one – it looks intriguing, though it does sound very different in style. That’s often a good thing, though, especially after such a successful book as this one. I must try to get hold of a copy…

    • I think this one is different enough to count as historical fiction at least as much as crime fiction. It’s definitely more a look at society than a whodunit. I think you’d enjoy it… 😀

  10. Pity about the lack of dialect – otherwise, this sounds a good read. It felt vaguely familiar – now I realise it must have been in the summery of Booker nominees, all I’ve read of the Booker this year.

    • Yes, it was definitely the popular winner of the Booker last year even if it didn’t actually win – I’ve seen about ten times as many reviews of it as for the actual winner… which I can’t even remember what it was now…

    • Another excellent one, and I do understand why Scottish writers avoid Scots, since they want to sell books after all! But I always find it a bit disappointing when they don’t make at least a bit of effort. The Booker has gone mad recently, I think…

  11. I read this earlier in the year and loved it, although I didn’t find Roderick’s narrative voice very convincing either. I can see why the lack of dialect would disappoint you as a Scot, but I’m not really a fan of books with a lot of dialect anyway (even ones I know well) so it didn’t bother me too much. It certainly doesn’t feel like a typical Booker novel and I think that’s probably why I liked it!

    • I’m hypocritical about the dialect thing – I really like a bit of Scots dialect because the language is under such threat of disappearing altogether, but I generally get fed up with books that use other dialects. Ha – yes, its lack of “Bookerishness” certainly worked for me! I really felt Roderick’s voice was its only weakness, but even with that it’s still an excellent read…

  12. Hmm I’ve never heard of this book, and considering this is one of your contemporary reviews, I’m surprised! I was shocked to see that it was shortlisted for the booker after reading your description of it, it seems so…not bookerish?

    • I think its whole marketing has been a bit odd – I suspect lots of its natural readers might have been put off by the Booker thing, while a lot of other readers might have read it because of that and then felt it wasn’t what they expected. I’d class it more as historical fiction than lit-fic, even though it’s very well written… well worth reading, though!

  13. What a shame about the language – when someone like James Kelman can write in such a wonderful way and be completely understood by this very English person, you’d think something could have been done to even capture the speech patterns. Maybe it was the quasi-historical / non-fic aspect that got it Bookered, they do like that, I think.

    • I know – lots of writers manage to get “Scottishness” into the dialogue even if they don’t go all out for dialect – even the likes of Ian Rankin always feels distinctly Scottish to me though I don’t think anyone would find his stuff hard to read. But as far as language was concerned this one didn’t give any feeling of Scottishness at all, which was disappointing considering how specifically Scottish the setting and plot were. Yes, I’m not sure what the Booker’s up to these days – I think it’s trying to become more “populist” but there are loads of prizes for crime and historical fiction already – I look for something more distinctively “literary” from the Booker…

  14. This sounds great, I’ve been keen to read it for a while and your review has definitely confirmed this 🙂 I like dialect in books, it helps me get a sense of another voice, but I can see why it’s off-putting too.It’s a shame they couldn’t make it a bit more authentic-sounding here, even if they didn’t go all out for dialect.

    Superficially, I love the cover!

    • It is great – I think you’ll enjoy it! I have mixed feelings about dialect – if I don’t struggle with it, then I enjoy it, but if it slows me down then it annoys me. But I would like to see more Scottish authors use at least some before we lose it completely. Ha – I love the cover too! Covers have got so much more interesting recently… competing with e-books, I think…

  15. Well I think it’s similar to a debate that exists in fantasy fiction too. How ‘authentic’ should your characters sound? Do we want lots of ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘aye’ and ‘naye’ in there or will that make the story sound even more artificial? It’s a constant problem for translators too.
    For people who haven’t read ‘His Bloody Project’, we should mention that it does include some dialect words (and a glossary too, which I frequently had to make use of!).

    • Yes, it’s the same with older historical fiction too – do we want Tudors to sound like Tudors? And should Vikings really use modern idioms? I come and go – in the end, it depends on how well and how consistently it’s done, I suppose. Ha – I remember reading a book full of Glasgow dialect at one point and trying to imagine how a poor translator would get the meaning across.

      I had to use the glossary from time to time too, but my excuse is some of the words were from the Gaelic. 😉 The editor popped in, BTW, to say “For those discussing the authenticity (or not) of Roddy’s voice, you might find it interesting to look up the real life case of Pierre Rivière.” It’s quite intriguing…

  16. Just to say, as the editor of His Bloody Project, that there was much to admire in this thoughtful review and the btl comments! For those discussing the authenticity (or not) of Roddy’s voice, you might find it interesting to look up the real life case of Pierre Rivière.

    • Thanks for popping in and commenting, and I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion – I did too! I found the Riviere case intriguing, so thanks for sending me in that direction (still not totally convinced about Roddy’s voice though… 😉 ) I’ll draw it to the attention of my other readers – I’m sure they’ll find it as interesting as I did. 🙂

    • I think it’s a pity it didn’t seem to be put forward for the McIlavnney Prize – I’m sure it would have won even though last year’s shortlist was crammed with good stuff. Glad to see you, BTW! I was beginning to worry… 😀

      • Ah, bless you. A lot has been going on. And continues. The to be reviewed pile is the one endlessly climbing, rather than the to be read. At some point I shall try to catch up on some of them before NetGalley revoked privileges. Ps I really enjoyed that Raymond Postgate!

        • I hope all’s well! I kinda spiked with the reviewing backlog and then hit a long streak of abandoned books, so now I’m running out of reviews. No happy medium! Glad you enjoyed the Postgate! Some of these classic crime re-releases have been my top books of the year… which is a sad commentary on the state of current writing…

  17. Lovely review, this book has been on my TBR for far too bloody long it’s ridiculous! I keep saying I’m going to get to it but then other books I’ve promised to read just get in the way. Sigh. Breathe. 😆 Perhaps I’ll get to it before the end of the year? Here’s hoping!

    • Thanks Beth! 😀 It had been on my TBR for ages too and it’s not even a long book – perfect recuperation material! 😉 I think you’ll enjoy it when you do get to it…

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