‘I have removed him from this world’ writes the incarcerated 17-year-old Roddy McRae of the neighbour he has done to death in a grisly triple murder. A crofter living in a tiny village in Scotland, young Roddy is on trial for a deed he has calmly confessed to. The dramatic tension in this finely crafted Man Booker short-listed novel is not whether he killed local constable Lachlan Broad, but why – and will he hang for it?
Based on the conceit that the author is investigating a long-forgotten but at the time cause célèbre connected with his own family history, Graeme McRae Burnet weaves together a complex tapestry of voices so authentic that you will want to keep checking that this is indeed fiction. The central piece is the first person account written in prison by Roddy. Around this ‘confession’ (itself acknowledged to be a remarkable literary accomplishment for a simple ruffian, and not the first time the author asks us to doubt the evidence he is assembling) are placed a multitude of other sources. These include witness reports, character references, anecdotes, newspaper reports and comments by the supporting characters: villagers and family members, a well-meaning schoolmaster, a lawyer, and an arrogant medical criminologist.
As a picture builds up of a desperately poor crofting community scratching a meagre living on the edge of civilisation, what at first seems straightforward becomes darker and more convoluted. These are people raised in poverty and easy violence, where resentments fester, bad blood begets bad blood and superstition is rife. Despite the sparseness and raw beauty of the Highland landscape this is a claustrophobic, feudal community in which suffering is an inescapable fact of life and it is a small leap from putting a wounded animal out of its misery to doing the same to a human being. Accounts are contradictory, evidence changes and nothing is quite as it seems. And the defendant himself – is he justified in carrying out his brutal revenge, is he coldly calculating, or is he partly insane?
Alongside a brilliantly realised historical setting, McRae has done a wonderful job in capturing the vernacular, relying on idiom and syntax rather than on phonetic recreation of pronunciation.
I was by this time cold and hungry and cursed myself for not filling my pockets with bannocks before I left the house. I pulled my cap low over my eyes and continued on foot, leading the garron by the reins. The road twisted downwards through a craggy glen…the scene before me filled me with a kind of dread.
We are asked to join the jury in sifting through the evidence of the trial to come to our own conclusions about what drove Roddy to carry out his bloody project. More psychological drama than thriller; more revenge tragedy than murder mystery, this will leave you guessing right to the horrifying end.
His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, 288 page.