Book Review: "His Bloody Project" by Greame Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project, by Greame Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project, by Greame Macrae Burnet

This novel about a gruesome triple murder and the subsequent trial of the perpetrator is set in the Scottish highlands in the mid-19th century. It is very loosely based on real events. Most of the principal characters are crofters - small farmers barely scraping a living on land they rent from the local laird. Apart from a relatively short (though graphic) account of the killings, it is an easy and engaging read. The language is simple and clear, and the main sequences of events are related chronologically. The names of places and of the characters may challenge readers unaccustomed to Gaelic spelling. In addition, many crofters have two names: the one on the birth certificate, and a nickname based on physical appearance or personal habit. Those minor points, however, don't detract from the writing.

It's not a typical crime novel since most crime novels are "whodunits." Here, the readers know the perpetrator's identity from the start. Whatever its genre, it is a gripping story of the killings and the subsequent court case. Yet it's much more than that. Into the main story, the author entwines a number of sub-narratives, which together form a damning indictment of Scottish society of the era, especially the quasi-feudal system's gross inequalities. He highlights the system's insidious, inbuilt injustices, where upward social mobility is virtually impossible. Any faint hope an ambitious young person might have of self-betterment is frustrated, in the first instance, by the obligation to work on the croft to help feed the family, and then by the educated classes' snobbery perfectly illustrated through the prisons' doctor. This bigoted, supercilious man shows unconcealed disdain for the "lower classes." The rich landowners are the only people capable of improving the lot of the poor, but in their secluded mansions, they have little interest in their tenants' well-being, as long as the rent is paid. They rarely, if ever, meet those tenants because the vast estates are managed by a hierarchy of foremen and lackeys.

Yet, despite poverty, those poor people are not without humor. Even the nicknames they give fellow crofters show a droll sense of fun. Hence Kenny Smoke, so named because of his tobacco addiction. One old woman is named The Onion because she wears many layers of clothing that she never changes, regardless of the seasons or the weather. She is immune to her own body odor despite the entire community giving her a wide berth.

The longest section in the book is the perpetrator's own account of the murders and the events preceding them. Here the author takes more than a little poetic license: he endows this crude individual, Roderick Macrea, with the skills to craft a stylish and fluent account of events. According to the murderer's schoolmaster, he was a promising student, yet he is still a poor, unsophisticated crofter - too crude for such articulate writing especially since his time at school was short.

Nevertheless, His Bloody Project is a structured, well-written novel. It is a gripping but somber account of poor people with few reasons to smile struggling to scrape a meager living in an unforgiving, dreary, damp land. The book, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, is a worthwhile and rewarding read.

Adam Quirk

Adam Quirk, MCJ & MBA, is a criminal justice professional and licensed private investigator with nearly two decades of experience. Adam also maintains a true crime blog here.