I was looking forward to reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. The crime novel is billed as a historical thriller and is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s. Roderick Macrae is arrested for murdering three people. He admits he is guilty, and he is already in jail awaiting trial before the book begins. We read his memoir of the events, along with other documents related to the crime, such as statements by people who knew him, medical reports, and so forth.
Bloody Project received rave reviews and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Critics called it “gripping,” “compelling,” a “psychological thriller.” I enjoy psychological thrillers and was ready to be gripped and compelled.
However, I was disappointed. Although I was impressed at Burnet’s evocation of the godawfulness of the life of crofters in 19th century Scotland, I did not find the book riveting. Roderick Macrae admits from the beginning that he killed the three people and is ready to face the consequences. His memoir explains what led to the killing. Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything of a psychological thriller in his account. His voice was devoid of emotion or any real depth. He wrote in what a psychologist might call “flat affect.” The life he and his family led was devoid of any warmth, affection, joy or anything to make life worthwhile. The way Lachlan Broad treated them was brutal. Given the circumstances of his life, I completely understand why Roderick murdered the three victims and why he did not much care whether he lived or died. I guess that is a testament to the strength of Burnet’s writing. However, because Macrae’s life was so grim, and there was nothing compelling about his personality, I did not feel affected one way or the other about the outcome of his trial.
To state it bluntly, I felt no thrill or mystery or much of anything except pity for the entire class of people who had to live this way.
Note to writers
From a craft perspective, though, I did find Burnet’s use of various documents to tell the story interesting. It is a different way to convey multiple perspectives on a character or event. Tim O’Brien used this technique brilliantly in his novel In the Lake of the Woods, and I think it added layers of complexity to the story.
I also thought the inclusion of J. Bruce Thomson, the expert in the field of criminal anthropology, was interesting. This character illustrates the real trend at that period of “experts” who were able to tell if a person was inherently prone to criminality by examining his physical features. Criminality was believed by some to be something hereditary and innate rather than a response to circumstances. Bringing in this character was a good way to help readers understand the intellectual currents at work in this period.
Question for my readers: I know this was a critically acclaimed book. What am I missing?