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Thread: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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    His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

    His Bloody Project is an experimental historical novel by Scottish crime writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. It is set in 1869, mainly in a remote village in northern Scotland. There a gruesome triple murder has occurred--the killer's identity established in the novel's opening pages. His Bloody Project's mystery involves the killer's motives and the question of his sanity. The narrative takes the form of various documents--witness statements, medical reports, a lengthy confession, an "expert" psychological analysis, and a trial summary--some of which contradict one another. It is in no way a spoiler to say that the novel's resolution is unceremoniously left for the reader to decide. There is no omniscient narrator to tell you what really happened and point out the clues you missed. You'll have to be your own God-like qualities for this one.

    That is not to say that the novel ends with we used to call a cop out (do the Millennial kiddies still have cop outs?). The novel's resolution, which has to do with empirical evidence vs. humanism, could not have been clearer to me. The only problem is that my ancient father read the book also read the book and is equally convinced it is about politics. Other interpretations are possible, too.

    Unfortunately, the parts of the narrative that lead to these conclusions do qualify as spoilers--or at least as things that ought to be noticed by the reader unaided. This compels me to focus my review on aspects of the novel ancillary to its (debatable) main thrust. I will do what I can.

    His Bloody Project is a novel of the croft--an anachronistic system of land ownership in which agrarian householders held tenancy at the pleasure of a hereditary Laird to whom they owed rent. Since rents were chronically in arrears (crofters had little ready cash), the Laird could technically evict householders at will. Not that it would have crossed their tiny minds to do so. By 1869, the lairds were making their real income by charging wealthy gentleman to hunt deer on their forested lands (since there's no point in squeezing a penniless crofter).

    But in fact the lairds had little to do with that--or anything else. They might accompany the rich punters on deer-stalking expeditions, but all their business affairs were handled by factors--agents or stewards--who were gentlemen themselves. Since the factors were too important to bother with tenant farmers, they deferred their authority to constables--not police, but men elected in villages as go-betweens with the factors. Constables made sure that something like income was being sucked out of the community. But as long as a constable was more or less honest, crofters lives were--well, poor but uneventful.

    The victims of the slaughter in His Bloody Project are a corrupt constable and two of his (wholly innocent) family members. The murderer is a 17-year old boy whose father is being driven off his croft by the constable's dirty tricks. Little else is for certain about the case, but as it moves to trial, speculation (including the reader's) abounds.

    If that sounds too far-removed from modern life to have much emotional impact, it is not. The tyrannies of Lachlan Broad (the doomed constable) are eerily reminiscent of rat-race politics in the working world. He is the recently promoted supervisor who has taken a mind to destroy you by any means possible. The boss (in this case the factor) has every confidence in him. And you know both damn well what he's doing. That's where Burnet pulls you in. Because you also know damn well what you would like to do to him.

    If there is a downside to Burnet's writing, it is it's colorlessness. His Bloody Project is a bleak novel set in a bleak land. Whether Burnet intends it or not, his story plays out it the dull grays and Browns of a 19th century photograph. Even the bustling country fair at which Roddy Macrae--the teenage killer--finds himself seems made of faded silent black and white movie frames. It's amazing what can be made bleak in the Highlands.

    Exceptional among Burnet's otherwise lackluster rustic characters is Archibald Ross, a flamboyant young gentleman wannabe who befriends Roddy for a time. While not altogether trustworthy, he is flashy and funny in an unknowing, foolish sort of way. He seems sprung from the pages of Nicholas Nickleby if not Oliver Twist. A more expansive role for Archibald (even if he proved a rat in the end) would have brought some badly needed energy to Burnet's bleak Highland landscape.

    I should say little else. His Bloody Project is not for everybody. Some of its descriptions are graphically violent; those who need to excuse themselves ought to do so. I would recommend the novel mainly to book clubs and reading groups. Exchanging ideas on the book's resolution is bound to be more fun than figuring it out for yourself (although I am still convinced I've got it right ). I would not recommend it to passive (okay, lazy) readers, chronic television watchers, and (dare I say it?) Audible Books fans. Okay, the last one was probably uncalled for, but without full reader participation--in effect, the reader becoming the book's missing detective--His Bloody Project is just a skeleton on a bleak shore. Why not read something you'll enjoy?
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 11-15-2017 at 01:21 PM.
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    This brings out well the very short-term nature of the cheviot sheep in the Highlands and Islands of Northern Scotland, just some 50 years before Australian wool flooded into Europe.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dreamwoven View Post
    This brings out well the very short-term nature of the cheviot sheep in the Highlands and Islands of Northern Scotland, just some 50 years before Australian wool flooded into Europe.
    Interesting, DW. The community in this novel keeps sheep, but they primarily cultivate what seem to be subsistence crops. The women weave wool into shawls to be sold at fairs. The crofters keep all their sheep in one herd and assign shepherding responsibilities to crofter families in turn. Maybe it's necessary to keep sheep like that (because they'd flock together anyway) or maybe it had to do with limited pasture land (from the laird's perspective, of course), but I was surprised to find this kind of "peasant collectivism" in 19th century Scotland. I wish Prendrelmick was still around. I think he was a Yorkshire rancher or had something to do with the sheep biz in any case. He would probably know more about this.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 11-15-2017 at 09:18 AM.
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