His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

hisbloodyproject

When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

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3 thoughts on “His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet”

  1. I agree that this is an amazing novel. However, I didn’t find it funny. Quite the opposite, at times I found the novel excruciating and I could hardly bear to read it when confronted by the constant suffering of the villagers. It has a dark, Hardy-esque edge, mitigated by the brilliant later sections when we see the crime through many other eyes. So I liked the novel, but for very different reasons: my review here https://alastairsavage.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnet/

    1. Thanks for the comment and link. I agree with your points in your review. Yes, Thomas Hardy! I haven’t thought about him while reading this novel, but now I see the similarities. And you put me in the mood to read some Foucault now – thanks!

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