His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The era of the Penny Dreadful in European literary history is one of vicious source material: many blood-curdling pamphlets of “true” crime were adulterated from the headlines, influenced by grizzly stories of psychopaths like Jack the Ripper and Dr. Neill Cream. These stories were scary, and so enthralling to readers, because they possessed real-life potential; a neighbor could be as brutal behind closed doors as the murderer in a serialized story. One cannot know what one’s neighbors are thinking, and the depraved depths of the Penny Dreadful widened that scope of society’s potential for sordidness. Although someone might not be able to commit a murder, they might enjoy imagining one, or gleefully reading about its details.
In His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet has masterfully compiled a wicked set of documents pertaining to the 1869 triple homicide purportedly committed by the author’s distant relative, seventeen-year old Roderick Macrae, in the rural village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands. It is such a spellbinding read that if it were serialized Burnet would have legions of fans waiting at the docks for a new installment. Burnet brings readers back to the era of works like Alexander Dumas’s Celebrated Crimes and the Appin Murder of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. His Bloody Project is a decidedly modern look at 19th-century thrills, a book that manages to be progressive and thoughtful while reveling in escapist, nostalgic frights.
The novel opens with a perfectly Gothic frame tale, a letter from the author explaining that Burnet was researching his great-grandfather when he discovered Roddy Macrae’s case. After a few well-placed pages of testimonials from witnesses, the next 150 pages of His Bloody Project are devoted to Roddy’s account of the events leading up to the murders (an act he freely admits having done). A coroner’s report and a psychological evaluation follow (an extract from a document called Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy by Dr. J. Bruce Thomson). Burnet closes out his story with an account of Roddy’s trial. This all amounts to an exceptionally engaging read that, through all its playful twists on narrative veracity, evolves into a masterful psychological study of crime and madness.
The central question of His Bloody Project is whether Roddy was “in sound mind” when he cracked open Lachlan Broad’s skull with a “flaughter” (a long-handled spade) and when he committed the incident’s subsequent violent acts. “In the eyes of the law,” Roddy writes in his account, “in order for a crime to be committed there must be both a physical act and a mental act….whether there was a mental act — an evil intention, he called it — was a matter which concerned the contents of my mind.” The trial hinges on the possibility of an insanity plea, and the collected documents allow readers to weigh each bit of evidence like a criminal pathologist.
Roddy’s confession is a calculatingly slow and intense read that intends to justify his actions against Lachlan, who had been recently appointed local constable. While alive, Broad appeared to have a vendetta against the Macraes and, in Roderick’s account, repeatedly flexed his local authority at their expense. After Roddy’s mother died, Broad proposed they reduce the Macrae’s allotment of land to better suit their household’s headcount. He fined the Macraes for numerous indiscretions, punished them for not adhering to the haziest of government regulations, and even gets into a barroom brawl with Roddy one rowdy night. Meanwhile, Roddy finds himself enamored with Lachlan’s daughter, Fiona, and dreams of escaping Culduie for Edinburgh.
Roddy’s matter-of-fact retelling of these events allows a peculiar sort of reading that permits readers to seek holes in his story and constitution. By Roddy first appearing in the previous section’s character testimonials “covered in blood from head to toe”, Burnet allows readers to search for why he did what he did; if he did it is not a concern. Roddy’s deadpan appears to hide a hidden motivation, which Burnet reveals as the case’s psychological layers peel away.
In the words of Roddy’s father, “One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.” As his characters try to plumb the depths into Roderick’s psyche, Graeme Macrae Burnet reminds readers that the very nature of literature hinges on this challenge. What is reading but escaping oneself and slipping into the imagination of another, however dark and uncomfortably familiar it may be? With His Bloody Project, Burnet delivers a wickedly good mind to inhabit and investigate: a worthy, exhilarating read and the sort people have been drawn to for centuries.