Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae
(NB contains lots of spoilers)
The Guardian described this novel as “a slippery creature indeed”. Having read this and some other reviews, I was expecting a modernist novel, in which the unreliable narration leaves the reader to piece together their own version of what ‘really happened’. ‘His Bloody Project’ undoubtedly has some superficially modern features, most notably the use of apparently ‘found’ documents relating to the murders to construct the narrative. But don’t be either put off nor excited by this, because lurking behind this mildly unconventional façade is what I found to be in many ways a very traditional crime novel.
Of the ‘found’ documents, the three significant ones are: the murder’s long confession, giving the background to the crimes and a cold-blooded description of the murders themselves; a pompous report from an expert witness more interested in his theories of the innate criminality of the lower classes than the accused; and a newspaper report of the trial. These are all very traditional ways of constructing a narrative, and there is only a very limited exploration of the different natures of these reports. One would expect for example a confession to be either a long list of excuses and evasions, or a straightforward “fair cop, I don’t regret a thing” – what we get here is largely the latter. But as we later find out the confession is almost completely an entirely accurate description of the crimes and their background, something we could have been given by a traditional narrator. The opportunity for us to be given different perspectives on the crimes, each time challenging our assumptions, is foregone – instead we just have different media to progress essentially the same version of events.
Burnet anticipates the inevitable objection to the confession – that a 17 year old crofter of limited education could hardly have produced such a fluent and eloquent description of this crimes – it is “quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could produce such a sustained and eloquent piece of writing”. The explanation – that this is a genuine document that was once suspected as a forgery, but appears real enough to the novelist – is clever, but doesn’t really address the concern, and doesn’t withstand a 30-second check on the internet. The newspaper report on the trial is similarly disappointing – facsimiles of the reports would have been an interesting experiment, but instead all we get is an omniscient narration dressed up as a newspaper reporter’s words.
To be fair there are some small inconsistencies in Macrae’s apparently entirely frank description of the murders, and I was hoping that these might have been explored in more depth, opening up a different interpretation of the crimes. The expert witness briefly mentions one possible alternative explanation – that these were murders to cover up a sex crime – but this line of enquiry is not pursued. Earlier in Macrae’s narrative there is a description of the scene when he inadvertently stumbles across his sister having sex with the neighbour who he goes on to murder. Initially he doesn’t understand what he is seeing – he thinks the neighbour is trying fruitlessly to push the table across the room – which for a young man brought up in a farming community is unlikely to say the least! Jetta, the sister, becomes pregnant, either through this relationship or possibly through the darker, hinted at, incestuous relationship with her father, and commits suicide on the day of the murders – only to be mentioned just once again in the novel. No-one thinks to comment on the timing of her suicide, her unmarried pregnancy, or any possible connection between her death and the murders. Her brother is well aware of her suicidal intentions and makes no attempt to stop her – and we only find out that she has killed herself much later in passing. Jetta would probably have been a more interesting person to have followed than her brother – a pity she did not leave a diary behind for us to read!
Traditionally, where a crime novel tells you the identity of the murderer from the outset, and where they are caught and do not deny their responsibility, the author needs to create another point of interest – if not a whodunit, then a whydunnit? During his trial there is some discussion of Macrae’s state of mind, inevitably given his defence of insanity, (which he rejects despite his solicitor’s best efforts to avoid the death sentence), but to be honest I found the debates about the theories of “moral insanity” and “moral imbecility” tedious and some of the least interesting aspects of the novel. The descriptions of the rigidly structured but dirt-poor crofting community are by contrast the strongest parts of the novel.
This was an interesting read but not the challenging modernist text I was expecting. The idea of a novel constructed of found documents is an interesting idea, but Burnet doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, and instead presents the reader with something much more traditional behind this façade. Ultimately it was disappointing – but that novels such as this can do well in the Booker, and in bookshops thereafter, can only be a good thing.