His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae
Graeme Macrae Burnet
Given that I’d not long finished Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy, a non-fiction reconstruction of a true-life murder from the late 1800s, it was interesting that I started this year’s Booker journey with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel. The book, set in 1869, looks at the case of Roderick Macrae, a case we are told (by the author) which gripped the British public: newspapers slavishly followed the trial, and ‘penny dreadfuls’ gleefully described the gory details of the brutal slaying of three people in a remote crofting community. I say we are told this by the author as the book does start with the ‘author’ (or at least the character of the author) telling us how delving into his family history had lead him to comes across the case of a relative – Roderick Macrae, and to the existence of manuscript allegedly penned by Roderick whilst awaiting trial in the gaol at Inverness Castle.
What follows are some police statements; two memoirs (the first of Roderick, written at the behest of his lawyer/Advocate Andrew Sinclair whilst in prison, the second of Psychiatrist James Bruce Thomson, brought in by Sinclair to help support an insanity plea) and details of trial in particular those edited from ‘A Complete Report of the Trial of Roderick John Macrae published by William Kay of Edinburgh 1869′ and enhanced with some newspaper reports of the trial, the post mortem reports and the trial’s conclusion.
This is an engaging and clever novel told through its different voices – the ‘author’, Roddy, Thomson, the ‘report’ of the trial, and the newspapers. It is as much a family history and a snapshot of life in the Scottish highlands in the second half of the 19th century, as it is a meditation on a murder case. Both memoirs conjure up a believable picture of life in a crofting community such as Culduie. Places where tradition, religion and family rivalries intersected, and where personal betterment was often derided and discouraged. Indeed, I was at times taken back to, or at least reminded of reading, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, when I was at School, as well as some of Neil M. Gunn’s work, and Margaret Atwood’s more recent Alias Grace (though that was based on a true story).
Roddy’s memoir, in particular, paints a picture of the close-knit (though not necessarily close) community; the unvaried predictable lifestyle, the trauma’s of family life, especially the death of his mother and its immediate effects on his sister and father: “I do not wish to portray my father as callous or unfeeling …[i]t is rather that he was better adapted to unhappiness”.
There is an understated matter of factness about Burnet’s writing, especially in Roddy’s memoir, which is starkly highlighted by the description of the brutal murders. It’s a powerful section of the book, and one which contrasts nicely with the different unflinching nature and the sense of moral superiority of Thomson’s memoir which verges on comedic in its pompousness.
Both memoirs also present slightly different pictures of the murders, and the motive. Why did Roddy do it if, as he maintains throughout, he did indeed do so. Was it really all for his Father? What if he didn’t do it? The text sows some doubt in the readers mind as to Roddy’s guilt or innocence. Ultimately, of course, the law decides.
What is fact, what is truth? These are perennial questions raises by fine works of fiction, and Burnet’s novel is certainly that. If the rest of this year’s booker long-list can match the skill and pleasure derived from Graeme Macrae Burnet’s book, we could be in for a classic year.