There is always a level of excitement around the Man Booker Prize shortlist — but this year there is an additional element of surprise. The buzz is not over “readable versus inaccessible” books; rather, it is over the fact that the list includes a crime novel. But is Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project actually a crime novel?
This is the second of Burnet’s books to be published by the small Scottish imprint Contraband; his first, a low-key detective story set in France, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2014), enjoyed respectable reviews but no conspicuous success. In the new book, Burnet proves that the undeniable pleasures of the crime novel can be combined with real literary value and an experimental narrative structure.
His Bloody Project appears to channel a bookish version of the currently fashionable “found footage” film genre, in which verisimilitude is suggested by randomly cobbled-together documentary material forming a fragmentary narrative. In this case, Burnet includes witness statements, postmortem documents on murder victims, a documentary account of a trial — and a lengthy memoir by the man accused of triple murder. The subtitle of the book reads: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”, and these ersatz papers build a picture of an insular Highland crofting community in the 19th century while also presenting a fascinating picture of attitudes to the criminology of the era.
The wholly fictitious premise is that the author, Burnet himself, while looking into his own Scottish roots, discovered a fragment of a memoir that apparently set Edinburgh society of the time alight. A young crofter, Roderick Macrae, wrote up the catastrophes of his life while awaiting trial in Inverness in 1869, accused of three savage killings. Macrae appears to have entered (with murderous intent) the house of his deeply unpleasant neighbour Lachlan Mackenzie, a local constable. But the truth of the events is pieced together via witness statements, postmortem reports, dodgy phrenologists and journalists setting down details of the trial.
The most revealing evidence is provided by the prison surgeon, James Bruce Thomson, who holds ironclad views on the behaviour of the criminal class. In Thomson’s eyes, Roderick is surely guilty, not least because of his admission that he had no love for the dead man who both ruled the community and made Macrae’s life a particular hell. His soul-baring at the trial brings forth condemnation from the pulpit as well as from the new discipline of psychological observation, which analyses character in more scientific — but no more helpful — terms. What, Burnet teasingly asks us, is truth?
Although he clearly draws on a Scottish literary tradition, there are other Celtic influences at work too: Joyce’s fragmentary assembly of narrative and that blackly comic strain characteristic of so many Irish writers. But this is not just a tricksy literary experiment — Burnet is a writer of great skill and authority. The central notion — a thuggish bully receiving bloody justice — is satisfyingly freighted with acute historical detail (the poor crofting community, the dead hand of the Scottish church crushing free spirits). What’s more, the hapless Roderick, writing from his jail cell, begins to grow in authority as a human being, realising that an accusation of murder is the existential fact that has made him a person of note — even if he may have to die for it.
To return to the initial question: is His Bloody Project a crime novel? The author has said that it might better be described as “a novel about a crime”, but readers won’t care about the definitions that still exercise those who worry whether or not Crime and Punishment is a proto-crime novel. Whatever the genre, few readers will be able to put down His Bloody Project as it speeds towards a surprising (and ultimately puzzling) conclusion.
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Contraband, RRP£8.99, 288 pages
Barry Forshaw is the FT’s crime critic