Thoughts: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I just finished reading this this morning, and my thoughts are many and jumbled, but as I’ve written most of my recent bookthoughts after delays, so I want to get all this down now while it’s still fresh.

Warning: if you want to read this book, don’t read my thoughts on it. Go in fresh. You’ll be glad you did.

This book wasn’t on my TBR, but it was lent to me by someone whose opinions I trust, so up to the top it went. Borrowed books always get priority, as they are honoured guests.

Oh my goodness, there was so much here. It’s not a long book, but it’s chock full of Things. You’d probably get different things out of it every time you read it.

Let’s start superficial and dig in from there.

I really love the whole look of the hardcover! It’s designed to look like one of those dusty, plain, niche books you find in uni libraries that haven’t been taken out in fifteen years. Just perfect design, and yes, I love the subtle little bloodstains. Fight me.

I love books with strong voices, with immersive worlds and His Bloody Project gave both to me in spades. I was worried I’d start speaking in a terrible Scottish accent whenever someone spoke to me after I’d been reading it (and indeed, when there was no one in the house, I did indulge in reading it aloud…).

Another trick I love is novels which claim truth beyond the normal suspension of disbelief we’re used to ceding up to the pages. I did a few French literature modules at uni, and loved the authors’ notes telling us the manuscripts were found in someone’s attic, or that they’d come into possession of this bundle of letters at a flea market or whatever and have merely compiled them for publication. When I read The Princess Bride by William Goldman, I was always slightly disappointed I could never find the original Morgenstern version (because I assumed that, being the nerdy person I was, I would have appreciated long, lyrical passages about trees and foliage) and discreetly scrutinised maps for the country of Florin, just in case. I love this. I love being fooled like this.

His Bloody Project is ostensibly a collection of documents and some original work by Graeme Macrae Burnet based on the legal case of one of his ancestors, which he found in the course of some casual genealogy work. These include witness statements, an account written by the accused himself, an extract of an eminent psychologist’s memoir in which he details his experience with the accused, medical reports and finally an account of the trial compiled from various newspaper articles. So far, so good. We know where we stand. We all know our Akutagawa (or if not, our Kurosawa).

OK, this is where the real spoilers start, so this is your last chance to keep the mystery alive!

The case itself is quite straightforward at first. Roderick Macrae has murdered three people, and says as much quite openly. There are contradictions in the witness statements but you can resolve them, you think. The kindly, sensible neighbours believe that Roddy was a respectful, good kid, and the stern priest thinks the worst of him, and the gentle schoolmaster thinks him the most intelligent pupil he’s ever taught, and the relative of the victims thinks him the devil. You get this – people are all influenced by their own biases and see those reflected back at them. People get back from someone what they put in. You think you know where this is going.

Nope.

This is all playing. This is a prelude. This is the magician’s opening gambit, the trick that he lets you in on because he knows you’re clever.

It wasn’t until quite late in the book when I had my first “oh dear” moment. Roderick’s account is the longest single document, and I was completely absorbed in it. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell myself that the narrator is unreliable, I naturally want to believe what I’m told. And it makes sense – it dovetailed perfectly with the impression I’d formed of him from the contradictions of the witness statements. It’s only after that, in Thomson’s (the psychologist’s) memoir that you’re forcefully reminded of the imperfection of any first person account, by accident and design. Carmina Smoke’s revelation of what he did on his night-time jaunts (wanking over sleeping girls) is so not what Roderick said he was doing (staring enviously at the sleeping, ridding his mind of uninvited thoughts) that you can only think, what else is he hiding? And when Roderick claims to have not been paying attention to Thomson’s questions and then you find out later about Flora’s… extra injuries, and then in Thomson’s own writing you find out that Roderick answered those questions perfectly fine…

You can’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head.

You can’t know what someone else does when there’s no one around if they don’t tell you.

I mean, it’s obvious when you say it like that, but argh, this book! During the times I wasn’t reading but wanted to be (woe, the life of a full time worker) I was thinking that it couldn’t be that complicated, or that it couldn’t be that twisty, it would probably be quite predictable, even if done well. But it wasn’t like that at all. This one’s going to stay with me for a long time.

There are just so many angles and so many things left in there that you can pick things out and make patterns basically as you like. One thing that struck me was that it was about ownership and responsibility, and the specific lack and rejection of those things. The ownership of land and what that means – especially what that means to the renters and crofters who are essentially borrowing what is owned. To not own anything at all – not your house, not the land you grow crops on, not the seaweed you use to fertilise the crops, not the money you earn from your livelihood. The responsibility of what it means to own something – and how easy it is to ignore that responsibility, and what happens when it is ignored. Conversely, the resignation to being owned (visible in superstitions and trusting to providence), the small rejections of ownership that are all a person can manage when they’re owned so thoroughly.

John Macrae was to me a particularly interesting character. Of all the characters in the story, he’s the only one who never explains himself. But his actions are consistent and logical. He’s frustrating to those who wish him well, and he plays into the hands of his enemies, and I felt like I knew him? I felt like he reminded me of someone, but I can’t think who. The regulations scene with the factor broke my heart, because I felt like I knew him.

His refusal to ever take anyone’s kindness, a habit picked up by his son, is mocked by the higher class characters as some frivolous affectation against being in anyone’s debt, but we’ve seen in Roddy’s account of his life, which is corroborated enough by other characters’ testimony that we know the basics to be true (did he change things that happened or merely omit things? I lean towards the latter, but I’m just a random reader),what it means to be in debt. We see the spiralling descent. Once you get into debt because of a fine, you have to work off the fine, and by working off the fine you neglect your croft, and then you get fined again for the state of your croft. This sort of cycle of poverty isn’t an unknown concept to us now, but the reaction of the characters of higher classes – including the factor!!! – just goes to show how little it was understood. Why the hell is John Macrae going to take anyone’s favours, knowing that he can’t afford to get into debt? Or why would he want to give anyone any more use of him? Lachlan Mackenzie knew this much about him, and knew that the seaweed trick would work, whereby he said Macrae would be able to harvest seaweed if he only asked permission. He knew Macrae wouldn’t ask permission. To the outside it looks like cutting off his nose to spite his face, but I don’t think it was.

Similarly, the reaction to his wanting to know about the regulations “under which [they] exist”, as he put it in the book. He was tret like a criminal just for wanting to know where the lines were, ostensibly because only a criminal would want to know exactly how far they can go. But of course more is hidden here: retaining the right to squeeze the crofters as necessary because the regulations are a vague agreement and not set in stone, wanting to keep the crofters obeisant, wanting to squash any sense of comfort or well-being at all. If people are constantly wondering whether they’ve broken some unwritten rule, what kind of quality of life is that?

As ill-omened as Roddy’s ruining of the hunting party was, I couldn’t help but be on his side. Who says the laird owns the very seaweed that gets washed up daily on the shore? Who told the deer that they’re owned by anyone? The bogs? The mountain? By scaring the deer away, he’s committing a sort of theft and at the same time revealing the complete absurdity of such thinking, because of course it’s not theft.

The only acts of freedom any of the crofters are capable of committing are crimes, because every act they commit that is not a crime is owned by the laird.

The book in general is a good warning against this sort of renting culture and serf culture. Living on the sufferance of someone’s benevolence might work out well, sure, but it can so easily be abused and even more easily be ignored, so why should you be expected to put up with it at all? Screw that.

The Culduie residents’ acceptance of providence and reliance on such superstitions as crows being bad luck (which, as Roddy points out, means in practice that whenever anything bad happens people will remember seeing a crow [and you’ll notice that crows appeared at key points in Roddy’s own story too; around the sheep and on the road back from the summer Gathering]) is just a logical extension of living under the tyranny of the Big House. What will happen will happen – they have no power over anything in their own lives. Trying to exercise power over one’s own life, for instance with Una’s charms and Jetta’s yarn plait, is looked down upon at least by John Macrae, and frankly doesn’t seem to work anyway. Roddy’s viewing the murder of Lachlan as being providence and therefore unavoidable is a sort of compromise between the two concepts. It’s not just the murder; he talks about the sinking of the Two Iains in the same way.

Speaking of Jetta, her pronouncement that Lachlan Broad is just as innocent and powerless as they are didn’t really strike a chord with me until now. Sure, he’s vindictive and violent and ruthless, but his power as the constable is only possible because of the oppressive system he too lives under. His idea of power over the community is drawn from the larger webs of power he too is a part of: the factor, the laird. Everything he is, he was made by his life as a crofter in Culduie, the same as the rest of them. He too is a small, powerless piece in the game, as we see in Thomson’s memoir when we get a sort of zoom-out on the world.

Speaking of Jetta again, did anyone else notice her remark when Roddy admitted to walking out with Flora? “Is Jetta not enough for you any longer?” Given that Roderick seems to have systematically scrubbed out all mention and thought of sex from his account (describing the scene with Jetta and Lachlan very basically and faithfully but with no understanding, and not even referring to her pregnancy with any particular care, though of course the reader knows what’s going on), are we to assume that his closeness with Jetta was… unbrotherly? She doesn’t say the baby is Lachlan Broad’s (though doesn’t deny it either). Does she keep quiet when her father demands whose it is in order to try to avert Lachlan’s inevitable death? To hide her shame? Or because…?

This is what I mean. There’s just so much here. I could go on forever.

But I won’t.

I’ll end on the ownership note. “Ownership” is a term that’s used in reference to stories as well: who owns a certain story? In a story like this, where there’s no narrator and it becomes a free-for-all, that question is even more important. Everyone grabs at it. Roderick makes a valiant attempt with his imperfect account, but at the last minute in the trial it looks like it’ll be taken away. That’s the irony of it: to save his life, Sinclair the advocate, who is the only person to see Roddy as a human being, has to try his best to deny Roddy even the ownership of his own story. In order to be judged not guilty, he must be pronounced insane, and even this small freedom of brutal triple murder taken away from him retroactively. So in a way, his being judged sane and guilty means he won.

Unless it was just Providence after all.

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