SHORT-LISTED for this year’s Man Booker prize, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is an utterly compelling novel about a series of murders in a remote Highland village in 1869. It was perhaps appropriate, then, for Burnet to discuss his book a few miles away from “the scene of the crime”, at a meet-the-author session in the Lochcarron Gallery, a former butcher’s shop where much blood has also been spilled through the years.
His Bloody Project is a psychological thriller which describes the case of Roderick Macrae, a young man from the Highland clachan of Culduie in Wester Ross who commits a brutal triple murder. Right from the start, the reader knows whodunnit but a number of important questions remain. Should Roddy plead insanity or was he insane to confess? Does he tell the full story, and will he be hanged for his crime? Could there be a sexual undercurrent to the murders?
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The story is told through a series of “found” documents (including Roddy's confession) which the author states in the preface were the fruits of his research into his family tree – a literary sleight of hand which also has an element of truth. Burnet's mother, Primrose, was born and brought up in Lochcarron, a few miles away from where the novel is set, and his grandfather, Donald “Tramp” Macrae was born in Applecross and later ran a business in Lochcarron. “There seems to have been some debate about the origin of this nickname,” says 48-year-old Burnet, “but the truth is probably that he or one of his forefathers worked on the ‘tramp steamers’ that plied their trade on the west coast.”
Unlike his rather short and stocky Victorian characters, Burnet, who is tall and imposing, would not look out of place on a shinty pitch.The surroundings of the Highlands, combined with his colourful family history, have always been a source of inspiration, he says. Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, his debut novel was the critically well-received The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau. He lives in Glasgow and, before turning full-time to writing, made a living as a TV researcher.
It was only after finishing the first draft of the novel that he heard two true stories about the Macraes which – entirely by coincidence – mirror the fiction. In the novel, two of Roddy’s uncles die in a shipwreck, and Burnet learned that two of his family members had also drowned in similar circumstances not long before the time when the novel is set, close to the scene of the fictional shipwreck. “Later on,” he says, “I also learned that one of my ancestors was 'the Bard of Applecross,' who wrote the words of the song used in one of the scenes in the novel.”
His Bloody Project draws on a wide range of sources for literary inspiration. For quarter of a century Burnet has been fascinated by the infamous case of a Frenchman called Pierre Riviere, who brutally murdered his mother, his sister and brother with a pruning hook, in 1835, “to free his father and himself from his mother's tyranny”. The killer then wrote a sensational memoir to justify what he had done. This confession was later included in a book by Michel Foucault, as part of a collection of found documents, including medical and legal testimony, a format which influenced Burnet's novel.
Because His Bloody Project has strong Scottish roots, it is hard to avoid comparisons with James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. “I wasn’t consciously thinking of Hogg while I was writing the book, but maybe there is something in the Scottish psyche that draws us to similar themes, like the obsession with the father-son relationship, doppelgangers and the misuse of power.” He is also fascinated by the early days of criminology, and he imagines how a pioneer in studying the criminal brain, the Scottish psychiatrist J.B. Thomson, might have played a key role in the murder inquiry, by including his “official” report on Roddy, where he writes about “the border-land of lunacy”.
The novel is presented as a case study, dealing with actual events, but was there a true crime behind it? “Just as I was finishing the novel,” Burnet says, “I read about a strangely similar murder committed in Benbecula in 1857 by a crofter called Angus Macphee, who 'hideously butchered' his mother and two other family members, and – also by coincidence – was later imprisoned in Perth under the supervision of J.B. Thomson.”
Roddy’s memoir may appear to be an unusually eloquent document for the son of a crofter, but the author explains that many real-life prisoners wrote equally articulate letters in those days, some of which are stored in the National Archives of Scotland, where Burnet did much of his research. “Macphee himself was a model example – a crofter regarded as 'violent and insane' who also wrote beautiful prose, even when describing debts of one or two shillings he owed to his neighbours.”
The picture of life in the Highlands he paints is vivid, but does not indulge in laboured descriptions of terrible rural conditions or lyrical musings on scenic surroundings. “Roddy doesn't talk about the beauty of the landscape. He tells the story through the eyes of a crofter who is working the land to survive, despite injustice and abuse by the authorities.”
Among its most memorable scenes is when Roddy and his father gather seaweed on the seashore, and are ordered to return it because it is against “the regulations.” When Roddy and his father ask to see a copy of these “regulations” so they may avoid any future transgressions, they are told they may not see the regulations, “because there are no regulations. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe... The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist.”
Burnet confirms that this Kafkaesque situation is based on historical fact. “Such horrifying regulations really existed,” he says, “forbidding the tenants from taking things like oysters, fish and seaweed from the sea without the landlord’s permission.”
In order to recreate what life was like then, he did a “reasonable amount of research” before he embarked on the novel. “I tried my best to make sure the details are historically accurate, but it is not a work of history.” He is also careful to avoid making overt political comments, even though a journalist recently told him that the novel reminded her of life in China during the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the “regulations” were equally cruel and perverse.
“My concern, as a novelist,” he says, “is to try to tell a compelling story, rather than to make any didactic points about the social conditions of the time.”
His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, £8.99
Graeme Macrae Burnet will be a the Wigtown Book Festival on 30 September