It is all too rare that contemporary Scottish fiction looks to its own rich past to tell us something new. James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack and John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints are two fine examples from the last 10 years which spring to mind, and there are echoes of both in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel His Bloody Project. Channeling Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg and even Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s a novel which leads you down deliberate and dark dead-ends as Macrae Burnet takes great delight in wrong footing the reader at every turn. Because of that rather than despite it, it is also one of the most enjoyable and involving novels you’ll read this year.
The games commence immediately with the Preface, which has the present day ‘author’ (who signs himself GMB) relating how he came across the memoir of one of his ancestors, Roderick Macrae, written during the latter’s time in gaol at Inverness Castle in 1896. It relates to terrible events which scandalised the Ross-shire village of Culduie in August of that year, and to which Roderick Macrae has accepted culpability. He is asked by his sympathetic advocate, Andrew Sinclair, to commit his version of events to paper, as well as the reasons behind his actions and any mitigating circumstances which he can recall, as Sinclair hopes to prove his client ‘not guilty’ for reasons of insanity.
What follows is a wonderfully vivid and moving account of the life of the young Roderick Macrae, so eloquently written that it explains why many who read it at the time, according to GMB, believed the document to be a fake in the manner of James Macpherson’s Ossian (another nod to Scotland’s literary past). However, there is other evidence as to its veracity, and we are encouraged that what we are about to read is no fiction. What follows, with echoes of the structure of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are various statements, medical reports, and other testaments from some of the individuals who are also involved in this tale to supplement and often contradict Roderick’s memoir. Sympathies shift with every differing point of view as Roderick Macrae’s nature, intellect and morality are examined and pulled in different directions.
The memoir stretches back to Roderick’s early days, where he excels at school but remains a loner with few friends. Already a picture is being painted of the accused which will colour later events. The tale he tells is one of persecution against his family by Lachlan Mackenzie, also known as Lachlan Broad (and such doubling of names adds to the sense of confusion which nibbles at the edges of Roderick’s narrative). Lachlan’s relationship with Roderick’s father comes to define the Macrae family’s lives, and Roderick becomes obsessed by it. However, it is his relationship with another member of the Mackenzie family which makes the reader question everything they have read.
Roderick Macrae is as unreliable as narrators get in that the story told in his memoir, while he professes it to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is still only his truth (or is it?), and there are enough clues in the statements of others, and in the investigations of the attending surgeon James Bruce Thomson (a character reminiscent of Sherlock, Columbo or Gil Grissom depending on how you take your detection), to make you doubt this version of what happened on that fateful night. Once the available facts are known the reader has to become their own judge and jury, deciding for themselves a verdict.
When Roderick Macrae’s memoir is finally read by the wider public the reaction is a strong one, a commentary on the power of a persuasive narrative which reflects the book as a whole. Like the members of the jury and those in court, we are presented not only with the evidence but physical descriptions of those who give it; the striking and beguiling Carmina Murchison, the pompous Reverend James Galbraith – all are sketched just so as Macrae Burnet uses every trick in this book to take his own audience in a certain direction, before pulling the rug from under them. Just when you think you have a grip on His Bloody Project, he throws something new into the mix which makes you question everything. In the hands of a lesser writer this could be infuriating, but you don’t just want to read on; you have to. It is a novel which gives you something new with each visit. Many theories emerge, but no firm conclusion is offered, and as a result you will have to return regularly to previous sections to see what clues you may have missed as individual’s perspectives and points of view consistently challenge assumptions.
You can’t escape the feeling that Graeme Macrae Burnet was having a grand old time writing this novel, and that enjoyment translates to the reader. It’s a love letter to Scottish literature, past and present, but you don’t have to know the references to enjoy it as a terrific psychological thriller in its own right. It’s also proof, once again, that one of the most exciting developments in Scottish publishing of recent times is Contraband, the crime fiction imprint from Saraband Books, which proves you can be innovative and challenging in a genre which has the reputation for too often being derivative and formulaic.
Here’s the audio version of this review…