His Bloody Project is historical fiction from author Graham Macrae Burnet that reads like true crime. But the crime was committed in 1869 in Culduie, Scotland. It’s a tiny burg between the poetically-named Toscaig and Camusterrach.
Yes, I indulged my habit of checking Google Maps while reading. The book’s village and its surrounding area are indeed real places. They’re in the northwestern Scottish Highlands. It’s rough, coastal territory. But the story here isn’t like that other famous Highlands-based book, Outlander.
This is set a hundred years later, and immeasurably poorer and more hardscrabble. Young Roderick (Roddy) Macrae, just seventeen, stands accused of brutally murdering three of his neighbors. The deceased include a man, his teenage daughter, and young son. It’s really quite a horrific crime.
This obviously isn’t a whodunnit. The preface states everything I’ve just detailed. It’s more of a psychological study and courtroom procedural. As such, I found whole sections to be quite dull. However, the section where the accused sets out his version of events is intriguing. And I often had to remind myself that Burnet’s imagination was the source, not true events.
At one point, a fancy, Edinburgh-based psychologist presents his reasoning as it relates to the case. What a reprehensible ass that man was! I understand the author used historically accurate attitudes. But ugh, there was so much classism and prejudice. Poor Roderick isn’t given a fair shake by life, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Roddy lacks any significant impulse control. He’s a typical teenager in that sense. In another, he lives in a time where violence is just a part of life. Burnet creates a clear and depressing picture of just how awful life was for the dirt-poor crofters of Culduie.
If that’s not enough, everyone in this village has an ax to grind with everyone else. These people have plenty of history with each other that’s both detailed and unrelenting, and it colors their attitudes. Through Burnet’s use of “historical” documents, we see several perspectives from both villagers and outsiders.
Burnet uses a creative approach to historical fiction. He gives the reader pieces of a puzzle with each “document,” bringing the final shape slowly into focus. That said, the rotating POVs kept me from connecting emotionally with anyone but Roddy. Perhaps, though, that was intentional since juries and judges have to remain objective.
Looking over my recent fictional choices, I’ve read quite a few modern books written in 18th century language and verbiage. I need a break, because staying true to the time makes the novel harder to read. Historical accuracy has a frustrating downside.
Therefore, I’ll admit to skim reading large swaths of His Bloody Project. I wanted to be enthralled, but the attitudes, the language, and some of the characters made it challenging. This one is firmly in my “like, but didn’t love” category.