I was very impressed by how well he evokes various types of writing and by how well they work together.
The novel opens with a first person account, written by the accused, a 17-year-old farmer, or crofter, accused of multiple homicide. Just how did young Roderick Macrae come to commit such a horrible crime and why did he immediately confess to the killings afterwards? He tells his life story in a confession written at the bequest of his attorney while he spends his final days awaiting trial.
Though we know his account will end in murder, the tale is one of suspense none-the-less. It’s a pretty horrible tale, too. Life working the land for an absentee landlord in 19th century Scotland was not pleasant, at least not in Roderick’s village. Nor was life with Roderick’s abusive father, at least not after his mother’s death. Roderick’s entire family live under a very dark cloud. It’s little wonder he came to kill the local constable who has had it out for him for years.
The remaining ‘documents’ in the novel are the report of a famed psychologist hired by Roderick’s lawyer to establish a defense of temporary insanity and the trail “transcript” composed of trial records and newspaper accounts. All of these documents struck me as historically true-to-life. I’m not an expert by any means but I felt, at times, like I was reading one of 19th century journalist William Roughead’s accounts of the many crimes-of-the-century he covered.
But, while I did admire the way Mr. Burnet evoked so many historical genres in his novel, I couldn’t help but ask what it all added up to. Is there anything more to His Bloody Project than an above average crime thriller?
At this point, my answer is no.
Once the book was done, not very much lingered afterwards. I have read crime thrillers that left something with me once they were over. In Cold Blood, Perfume, Red Harvest, Eileen, to name a few. Though His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, and though it is a good book by any measure, it did not linger with me the way other books have.
In fairness, had there been no Man Booker Prize statement listed on the cover, I probably would not be holding it to his higher standard. It’s a good book, but if the cover is going to make a claim for it as good literature, one can’t up but hold it up to that standard.