Crime fiction is always well represented on bestseller lists, but this year it's also found its way into the most exclusive chambers of literary prestige. Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Sympathizer" won the best first novel Edgar, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; and one of the finalists for the Man Booker (which went to Paul Beatty's "The Sellout") was a historical thriller from a small Scottish press. "His Bloody Project" by second-time novelist Graeme Macrae Burnet is so unabashedly crime-y that its cover boasts bloody fingerprints, on both front and back, with a few rusty smudges on the spine; it's now out in the U.S.
Burnet has been quick to point out that it's not a typical crime novel ("I prefer to call it 'a novel about a crime'"), and though this is indisputable, it is also true that it's just not a typical novel. The book is presented as a true-crime dossier per its subtitle, "Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae" — a group of found documents excavated by a fictional version of Burnet in the course of researching his grandfather (Donald "Tramp" Macrae), coupled with Burnet's reconstruction of his ancestor's trial. There are witness statements and medical reports, but the centerpiece of these documents is the fictional memoir of 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, written in prison after his arrest for a gory triple murder in his home village of Culduie in 1869.
Roderick is a strange, shy, intelligent boy, and while we get several views of him throughout the book — many of them contradictory — he comes to life most brightly in his own voice. "My life has been short and of little consequence," he begins, "and I have no wish to absolve myself of the responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed." His guilt is never in question, but as Roderick lays out the events leading up to the murders, it becomes hard not to sympathize with him. He's an unusually smart young man, trapped in backwater Culduie (population 55, give or take a few murder victims); his mother has just died, leaving him to tend the croft — rented farm — with his bitter, abusive father John. Even this simple life becomes impossible to live in peace when John's old enemy becomes village constable.
The constable, Lachlan Mackenzie, a.k.a. Lachlan Broad, is one of Roderick's victims, and his petty tyranny and general odiousness make it so easy to root for Roderick that I found myself comforted, more than once, that he was already murdered and dead. Lachlan and John Macrae had a feud going well before Roderick's birth — "In these parts it is not uncommon for grievances to be nursed long after their original source is forgotten" — and when Broad becomes constable, he conducts a campaign of harassment against John and two of his children, Roderick and his older sister Jetta.
But as Roderick narrates the escalation of this campaign, he subtly erases — or tries to erase — the existence of his two other victims. Lachlan Broad is the only one named until very late in Roderick's memoir, the identities of the others providing much of the suspense of this he-done-it thriller. Roderick is of course an unreliable narrator, and his account of "the circumstances surrounding the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie and the others" offers but one version of events, filtered through what is at times a determined tunnel vision.
This account ends about halfway through the novel, and though there's a loss of momentum with the shift out of Roderick's voice, the trial that makes up the bulk of the second half is fast-paced and fascinating, full of rapid-fire examinations and big questions about the nature of guilt, of sanity. When Roderick loses control of the narrative, physical evidence and witness testimony paint him in different lights, and Roderick Macrae — so clear and knowable when he's the only one talking — becomes difficult to see.
"It is not possible, almost a century and a half later, to know the truth of the events recounted in this volume," Burnet's alter-Burnet notes in his preface. "The accounts presented here contain various discrepancies, contradictions and omissions, but taken together they form a tapestry of one of the most fascinating cases in Scottish legal history. Naturally, I have come to my own view of the case, but I shall leave it to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions."
"His Bloody Project" offers an intricate, interactive puzzle, a crime novel written, excuse my British, bloody well.
Cha is the author, most recently, of "Dead Soon Enough."
Graeme Macrae Burnet