Sunday, October 9, 2016

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

It is the dispassionate telling of this story that makes the mystery of Culduie such a success. Roddy Macrae, discovered walking through his village covered in blood, acknowledges freely that he killed Lachlan Mackenzie and “the others.” The novel opens with Macrae’s confession, solicited by his advocate in court. The author then tells us that in the spring of 2014 he began investigating the background of Donald “Tramp” Macrae, his grandfather, and came upon the documents surrounding Roddy Macrae and the mystery of the deaths at Culduie.

We are already interested, but what we discover is that the confession written by Roddy is fluent and complete, not the brutish scribblings of an ignorant man, but full of nuance and scenes of extraordinary power, despite the limited understanding of a childish comprehension. Roddy was only a boy during most of the time his account describes, but we get the sense of a dawning recognition that what he was witnessing deserved retribution.

Burnet keeps the interest level cranked to high and the outcome of the trial unresolved to the very last pages, making jury-members of his readers. He includes village histories in the accounts of Roddy’s neighbors, Roddy’s personal history, and court documents which spell out officialdom’s opinion of his actions. By the end, even the most sympathetic or jaded among us would have put their legal reasoning and beliefs to the test.

Whatever realism the novel provides, one has to admit to the skill that produced a fiction so compelling, given that the whole thing was concocted by the author. The story of the village with its seasonal requirements and communal reliance, its meager crops and neighborly dramas, its distant overlords and handed-down wisdom reminds us how limited horizons can be for those who grow just enough to survive.

Graeme Macrae Burnet has a favorite crime author, Georges Simenon. Burnet created this novel out of bits and pieces of real-life histories that intrigued him. The setting is one he is familiar with from vacations in his childhood, the name of the protagonist came from his personal family history, and the main bit of the murders from Pierre Rivière, who has been remembered for the account of his wrongdoing since the 19th century. Perhaps the thing that resembles Simenon best is Burnet’s inclusion of so many details of village life, at which Simenon was a master.

Apparently the literary world is aflame with the question of whether or not this novel constitutes a “crime novel,” and is therefore perhaps the first time genre fiction has been given the honor of being nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2016. Since I am not really part of the literary establishment, I may amuse myself with stating my opinion on this case. Yes, His Bloody Project is definitely a “crime” novel, one of the very best of its type….using an innovative structure and an unusual setting and time frame…and is among the best examples of literature produced in English this year. It is a fine addition to the Booker Prize shortlist, other nominees which include innovative and unusual works of fiction by playwrights, story writers, and novelists.

One of the things I liked best about this novel was the way Burnet was able to involve us so completely in the story that even changing the names of individuals did not throw us off the scent of mystery…Lachlan Mackenzie was also Lachlan Broad, and Roddy Black was the infamous Roderick Macrae. Unusual tools, like a croman and a flaughter, did not blunt our curiosity about how they may be used in cleaving the skull. The words and the justice system themselves seemed foreign. We became quite versed, in the end, in the quiet unspoken menace that plagued residents of Culduie when a person against which they had no protection became dispenser of justice.

Personally, I did question why Roddy, clever boy that everyone seemed to acknowledge he was, couldn’t have come up with a better solution to Lachlan Mackenzie’s transgresses than killing him, which was sure to stop the behavior, but also his own life. Since the schoolteacher acknowledged Roddy’s clear superiority over other students, Roderick never seemed to cotton-on that he alone might find a way to best the brute Lachlan. But no matter. I accept what Burnet has offered us and enjoyed it thoroughly, and consider it fine literature.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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