Title: His Bloody Project
Author: Graeme Macrae Burnet
Publisher: Contraband an imprint of Saraband
Price: Rs. 399/-
It is not a Whodunnit in the traditional sense – or actually, in any sense. There’s absolutely no question of “Who” did it in the story. That is evident from the outset. The question rather, is Why? Even that is not really a question, not in any singular, tangible sense. It is the vast universe of practices and experiences telescoping to focus on a time, a place, a community, a family, a person. The “Why” is both the backbone and the meat of the book.
The time then, is the 1800s; the place, the Scottish Highlands; the community, residents of the remote village of Culduie; the family, that of the “Black” Macraes; with 17 year-old Roderick Macrae as the axis of the story.
The book opens with the murder of some persons — though for some time we don’t know who all, except that one of them is Lachlan Mackenzie. We also know from the beginning, both, that the slayings are extremely gruesome, as well as that Roderick Macrae has committed them. The novel is about the circumstances surrounding the boy, the events leading up to making him a murderer.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2016, and it is easy to see why. It is consummately conceived and competently written. Its most interesting aspect is the clever blending of reality and fiction. For example, woven into the story are some figures – notably prison doctor and psychology specialist J. Bruce Thomson and journalist John Murdoch who actually existed at the time. Their roles, their thoughts, as portrayed in the novel are those that they held at the historical time of the events of the story unfolds. There are other “real” elements that have been blended in as well.
Interestingly, the Preface itself sets the tone with the author speaking of documents found while researching about his grandfather Donald ‘Tramp’ Macrae who hailed from Applecross, one of the villages close to Culduie. Add to this the tagline to the title of teh novel “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” and the veil is delicately drawn over reality to obfuscate the reader’s perception. That is not to say that it is a deception, or that it detracts from the reading. Rather, taken together with the rest of the content of the book it adds a certain richness. It is definitely a story which could have taken place, perhaps did take place to someone somewhere at the time.
Needless to say, the manner the novel is composed is also unique: it is not narrated in several neat chapters. Rather, it is presented through several “documents” relating to the case, put together. Chiefly, these comprise the statements to the police by villagers when the murder was discovered; a memoir recounting the events by Roderick himself – albeit at the behest of his advocate Andrew Sinclair; an extract from “Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy”, a document prepared by J. Bruce Thomson; the reportage of the trial. Added to these are the medical reports of the doctors conducting the post mortem on the victims, and the Preface and Epilogue.
The broad social and economic milieu is very well known: the era of feudalism. There is the laird or lord, to whom all the lands belong; there is the “factor” or the agent of the laird who was entrusted with the management of the laird’s demesne, or domain. To oversee the minutiae of the day-to-day and to act as a bridge between the community (in this case comprising residents of three villages) and the factor is a constable, a local person from the community, elected by the villagers.
Lachlan Mackenzie, village bully, villain and victim, becomes the constable in the course of the story, replacing one who was more suitable both by temperament and ability to perform the role. His animosity towards the Macraes is thus given a fillip and turns into full-fledged harassment, finally ending with him getting an eviction notice sent to John Macrae, Roderick’s father.
Roderick’s own account recounts how the death of his mother in child birth has cast a gloom over the entire family, leaving a young teenage daughter, Jetta to look after the household and a pair of toddler twins.
Through the accounts of some of the neighbours, warders, doctors and his own memoir, a picture emerges of Roderick – a boy of above average intelligence; solitary, quiet and introspective by nature. While he is loyal to his father and refuses to entertain any thoughts of escaping his hard life, it is clear that he is nowhere as subservient or as cowed down by the rest of the community around him.
As we get more information from the various documents and the story begins to unravel, a stark picture of a crofter’s life is skilfully depicted by the author. There is no tear jerking, hand-wringing, or breast-beating. It is a simple telling of things as they actually were. Yet, the story has a searing impact and one feels the pain of the family Macrae, indeed of all souls under the yokel of feudalism.
One of the most telling moments is when John Macrae, harassed and harangued by Mackenzie, decides to speak to the factor directly – something unheard of and never before attempted by any ordinary crofter. When he is asked what his business is, John says he would like to “see the regulations” so that he can better abide by them and not fall foul of the laird. The factor who is almost apoplectic at his temerity finally concedes that there are no regulations to show — thereby revealing the complete arbitrariness of laws that governed crofters in those days. Whatever those in power said, were the regulations.
Chills you to the bone. To realise that there were – and still are — entire communities shackled by their circumstances. Prey to what is commonly called fate, but what is ultimately the inexorable, almost mathematical, progression of their lives: one plus one plus one plus one or plus whatever number, leading to ground zero or the end game. Unless the chain is broken in some manner.
Burnet’s novel — though quite different in its essentials and less grand in scale and scope – kept bringing to mind epic novels like “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell.