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19 October 2016

His Bloody Project challenges our snobbery about genre fiction

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-shortlisted historical thriller has shades of Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Jim Crace.

By Benjamin Myers

The remote rural corners of any country will always offer a literary backdrop for crimes whose motives are deep-rooted and implications far-reaching. But don’t be misled: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second published work, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, is a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel. There is a substantial difference. Where more formulaic authors might begin with a body and triangulate outwards, casting a narrative net that takes in motive and procedure on the way to redemption, Macrae Burnet favours something altogether more evolved.

Here, the deed is spelled out from page one: a triple murder in 1869, committed by the teenager Roderick Macrae in the isolated nine-house hamlet of Culduie, in the Scottish Highland county of Ross-shire. This is crofting country in an era of Presbyterianism – humble, austere, repetitive – and Culduie is a character in its own right.

Although only 300 yards from the sea, the hamlet prefers to look inland, where the inhabitants graze sheep and cut peat from the purpling heathered hillside. With Roddy Macrae’s dour, devout and recently widowed father having narrowly avoided a watery grave in a boating disaster, fishing here is considered a doomed pursuit. Some trading takes place with the nearby hamlet of Aird-Dubh; Roddy, however, deems them slovenly folk, whose men are “devoted to the unrestrained consumption of whisky, while their womenfolk are notoriously wanton”.

At the heart of the novel lies a social system that has subjugated land workers for centuries. It is one in which the crofters live clustered together and in permanent rent arrears to the laird at the big house, whose miles of beautiful emptiness are used for the folly of hosting stag shoots for vulgar incomers. This culture of tied houses and blood sports overseen by gamekeepers and gillies remains today.

More learned and mentally gifted than his passive father, yet viewed as a suspect after slaughtering a drowning sheep, Roddy feels that his conflict is not with the landed gentry but with an overbearing neighbour, Lachlan Broad (the owner of the dead sheep), who is also the locally elected constable, employed to enforce the laird’s rules. A bully and a bureaucrat, Broad tightens the screws on the Macrae household over a series of perceived transgressions, and their small world becomes smaller still as minor punishments – a fraction of land taken away here, a fine or two imposed there – slowly suffocate a community governed by order, borders and good relations.

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Subtitled Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, the story is a palimpsest of witness statements, Roddy’s erudite jail-cell recollections, a criminal anthropologist’s account and the attendant trial. It’s a testament to Macrae Burnet’s effortless writing that the murder of Broad, though barbaric, bloody and expected, still surprises and has a dark logic to it. What the author asks us to consider is the psychological states of the murderer, his victims and a Highland people largely unaffected by the scientific, philosophical and judicial advancements of the era. Truth is in the dock.

In the rigid class divide between the landed gentry and the quietly stoic land workers, I was reminded of Robin Jenkins’s Scottish novel The Cone-Gatherers. Meanwhile, the quiet intensity, tangled family roots and near-farcical parochialism of village life – in which a lingering glance at the wrong neighbour’s daughter or an unkempt garden can spell ostracism from the community – recall variously Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ­Sunset Song, the works of Knut Hamsun and, more obliquely, another recent Man Booker nominee, Jim Crace’s Harvest.

Presented under the crime imprint of the small Scottish publishing house Saraband, His Bloody Project feels like both an underdog and an anomaly on this year’s Man Booker shortlist, in the best possible way. Despite their obsession with stories that “tell us something about who we are today”, the big publishing houses too often overlook works which do exactly that through crime, experimental writing or forms that are casually dismissed as “genre fiction”. His Bloody Project has a feel for authentic-seeming time and geography that transports readers into the moment, as if they were sitting in the public gallery of the courtroom during Roddy’s trial, but its overarching themes are timeless.

Contradictory and ambiguous perceptions of truth and morality by way of judicial process are under scrutiny here. With the current popularity of podcasts, documentaries and long-form journalism exploring similar territory, His Bloody Project also feels prescient, and Macrae Burnet is surely a deserving winner of any plaudits that come his way.

Ben Myers’s most recent novel is “Turning Blue” (Moth/Mayfly)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is published by Contraband (288pp, £8.99)

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge