Skip to content

2016 Man Booker: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his bloody project

Book number nine for our shadow panel is His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Three of our judges read this one. Should this book make the shortlist, we’ll repost our reviews with expanded information and any additional reviews from our judges. Check out where this one ranks on our list and let us know what you thought of the book.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Published: 2016
Judges: Kate, Jen, & Book Worm
Find it/buy it here: His Bloody Project

Synopsis (from Amazon): The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence. Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows. Graeme Macrae Burnet tells an irresistible and original story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts seem clear. His Bloody Project is a mesmerizing literary thriller set in an unforgiving landscape where the exercise of power is arbitrary.

Kate’s Review: Is Roderick McRae “guilty” of a cluster of brutal murders in the Highland community of Culduie in the late summer of 1869?  There is no doubt that he physically caused the death of the victims, he freely admitted it. Burnet’s novel masquerades as a true-crime narrative as he presents documents from the case; testimony from neighbors, coroner’s reports, evaluations of the mental state of the accused from a prison doctor and an outside alienist, and most critically, a written account by the alleged perpetrator himself.

Less than a quarter of the way through the book I would have cheerfully volunteered to put an antique Scottish farm implement through the skull of Lachlan Broad myself. Nineteenth century Highlands society was certainly no romantic idyll. The further we delve into the particulars of the crime though,  the murkier things become.  How can we expect a jury of crofters in 1869 to evaluate the finer points of mental health? It doesn’t seem that modern day juries are any better equipped to wrestle with these questions.

It’s difficult to evaluate writing quality when the author is writing in the styles of various nineteenth century characters from humble crofter to egotistical alienist.  He captures the various voices well enough but never really gets to stretch his wings due to the constraints of the structure he has chosen.  There is nothing particularly original about the crime/courtroom drama scenario.  Roderick is a fascinating and enigmatic character that I will be thinking about for a while, and I can’t help but wonder who he could have become in better circumstances.  There are a few twists in the plot but basically it unfolds as you would expect it to.  I’ll give it full credit for overall “enjoyment” even though the emotion I was left with was sadness. Burnet had me hooked and keeping my fingers crossed for a hopeful ending to the last page.

Writing quality: 3.5/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 14/20

Jen’s Review: I struggled with this one and am wondering if that struggle is in part due to the fact that this was one of my last Man Booker reads and I’m feeling slightly burnt out from reading through the list so quickly. I found the book to be very slow moving and I found myself slightly bored and detached at first. Perhaps it was the 19th century formal narrative style that I found dry and hard to digest at times. However, things certainly picked up for me in the latter half of the book. Ultimately I think it was a pretty solid and thought-provoking book and I certainly understand why it made the longlist. I found the narrative structure to be interesting as Macrae uses a variety of styles and forms to present the case of Roderick.

As a psychologist, the parts of the books that were most interesting to me were the sections dealing with definitions of insanity (the medical reports and clinical evaluation notes) and the case being made Roderick’s mental state. We know Roderick is guilty from the outset but the book isn’t about his guilt. It’s about his mental state leading up to the crime. Is he insane, a sociopath, or simply a man who reacted as many might if cornered by his circumstances?  Interestingly, Roderick’s own story makes us feel like we would act similarly. Many of us probably felt a satisfaction at the demise of Lachlan Broad. I didn’t shed any tears at his death although the other deaths were hard to read about.

His Bloody Project not only focuses on notions of mental health but also highlights the social inequities and corruption of a specific time and place. I felt incredible sadness for Roderick and like Kate I was left contemplating how Roderick’s fate could have been different under different social circumstances. I thought the book was well written and characters were well developed. I think the plot itself was very straightforward, no major surprises, twists or turns, and relatively slow moving. I think it’s a book that will stay with me for a while, but I took points of for personal enjoyment because I did vacillate between boredom and engagement.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 2.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 14.5/20

Book Worm’s Review:  I was drawn into the story from the very beginning, and like Kate, I could have quite happily killed Lachlan Broad myself, although he was not the only one I held responsible for the murders.

As the others have said, we know from the start that Roddy is the murderer. What we don’t know is why he committed the murder. The novel is presented in several different forms. We have witness statements from those who knew Roddy. We have his own account written in jail for his advocate, case notes from a mental health expert, and the reports of the trial. Added up together these present a cohesive narrative of what could drive a 17 year old to murder 3 people. What I found most interesting were the details that Roddy leaves out of his account and which come to light at trial. Does he conceal these because he has no memory of them, because he feels remorse, or because he knows they go against his defense?

The point of the book is not to establish innocence or guilt but to show how one act can lead inevitably to another. While the real life crime and courtroom scenario are not that original, Roddy’s story is thought provoking and leaves you wondering about the outcome of the court case and what his life could have been like in other circumstances.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot complexity 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 15/20

Average score across all panelists: 14.5/20

Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Work Like Any Other (18/20)
1. Hot Milk (18/20)
3. The Sellout (17/20)
4. The Many (16.8)
5. Hystopia (16.63)
6. My Name is Lucy Barton (16.13/20)
7. His Bloody Project (14.5)
8. The North Water (13.5/20)
9. Eileen (12.5/20)

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: His Bloody Project

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you plan on reading this book? Does it deserve to make the Man Booker Shortlist?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have this on my tbr list and really looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 2, 2016
  2. I’m loving this project of yours, and can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 2, 2016
  3. I feel so much less inspired to finish.


    September 5, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2016 Man Booker: Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy | The Reader's Room
  2. 2016 Man Booker: All That Man Is by David Szalay | The Reader's Room
  3. 2016 Man Booker: The Schooldays of Jesus by Coetzee | The Reader's Room
  4. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist: Our Predictions | The Reader's Room
  5. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist | The Reader's Room
  6. 2016 Man Booker Shortlist: His Bloody Project | The Reader's Room

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: