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.