Despite failing to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, Graeme Macrae Burnet won what you might call the popular vote, dominating media coverage before the actual winner was revealed as The Sellout by Paul Beatty.
‘A little-known novelist with a tiny independent publisher in Scotland,’ as the Guardian described Burnet and his publisher Contraband, had made it onto the Man Booker shortlist, leapfrogging rejected heavyweights like J.M. Coetzee and Ian McEwan and the major London-based publishing houses. Before its shortlisting, Burnet’s second novel His Bloody Project had been reviewed by a handful of critics in uncelebrated places such as Crime Review, A Novel Bookblog, Shoshi’s Book Blog and The National. The ‘David versus Goliath’ narrative wouldn’t have gained as much traction, however, if it hadn’t also gone on to sell in enviable numbers, trouncing the other books on the shortlist.
Its sales are no doubt related to the third element that appeals to hacks: His Bloody Project is a ‘psychological thriller’ and isn’t what you might call ‘Booker-ish’. This decade the Booker has been experiencing an identity crisis, no longer certain of its mission. Choosing the best novel written in English by an author from the Commonwealth and Ireland is a baggy criterion which depends on the discernment of its judges as much as it does the quality of books submitted. There was no surer sign of the Man Booker’s lack of self-confidence than when it widened its purview to include American novelists. The National Book Prize, the Pulitzer, etc, have not, it goes without saying, felt the need to reciprocate.
Recent Man Booker panels have been variable in their judgements, culminating in the controversy that greeted the shortlist produced in 2011. Then, the chair, the former MI5 chief Stella Rimmington, was criticized for declaring she was looking for ‘readability’ and novels that ‘zip along’. In place of the ideological, creative and sometimes personal tussles that marked previous Booker seasons, the past few years have, whether explicitly or implicitly, pitched ‘readability’ against more traditional literary virtues – a honed prose style, deep exploration of character; in essence, a strong voice that expands and refreshes the possibilities of the novel.
His Bloody Project benefitted from the contemporary Man Booker’s uncertainty over what kind of book it wants to champion. Burnet’s prose, for example, is serviceable, prioritizing plot over style. It is also ‘readable’ whatever that means. All of which lies some distance from the row that erupted when the Booker’s so-far sole Scottish winner James Kelman took the prize for How Late It Was, How Late in 1994. Whatever you think of that novel – one of the judges Julia Neuberger called its victory ‘a disgrace’, while that imperishable chump Simon Jenkins described it as ‘literary vandalism’ – its success forced a debate to take place on class and language that illustrated the prejudices of numerous Londonshire-based writers and critics.
What of His Bloody Project itself? Blurbed a ‘literary thriller’, it is atmospheric, smartly assembled, even gripping in parts. With its rural and historical setting, it has nothing in common with the authors and titles associated with ‘tartan noir’; it owes no debt to the godfather of ‘tartan noir’, McIlvanney, or at least the McIlvanney of Laidlaw. There are certain broad resemblances to the McIlvanney of Docherty: the village, the punishing work, the lack of opportunities to better yourself. I read His Bloody Project while confined to bed with a hellish cold, and it distracted me from my lurgy. It is, however, a far cry from Man Booker alumni such as Midnight’s Children, Disgrace or The Line of Beauty.
Set in a remote Highland village during the nineteenth century, His Bloody Project comprises a murderer’s confession, witness statements, a chapter from the autobiography of a ‘Criminal Anthropologist’ and newspaper reports of the trial. Burnet’s conceit is that he is merely an editor of documents uncovered while researching his genealogy. His novel’s most obvious antecedent is James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. If that makes it sound as if it is merely a latter-day reworking of Hogg’s masterpiece, much like James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack, you’d be mistaken. There’s very little, for example, in the way of the supernatural or spiritual. Quite the opposite.
If His Bloody Project is a crime novel, it’s not a whodunit. The reader knows from the first page that the killer is Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter who lives in his native village Culduie in Ross-shire. One day in August 1869, Roderick murders three people. To begin with, Burnet is careful to let the reader know only the identity of one of the victims: Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the local ‘constable’. We learn the identity of the other corpses at the climax of Macrae’s account, which is written in Inverness Castle, where Macrae awaits trial, at the behest of his lawyer, Andrew Sinclair. Burnet dangles the possibility that Macrae didn’t write the memoir; it is, as one sceptic argues, ‘quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could practise such a sustained piece of writing’. Some believe Sinclair wrote the memoir.
The dispute over authorship picks at the historical backdrop to the novel. Some journalists covering Macrae’s case – for as we learn, the trial was a media sensation – object to the depiction of Macrae as a ‘noble savage’. For his critics, the murders prove ‘the terrible barbarism which continues to thrive in the northern regions of our country (and which all the efforts of our dedicated presbytery and the great improvements of the past decade have failed to eradicate)’. The great improvements alluded to are the continuing consequences of the Highland Clearances, a second wave of which began in the early nineteenth century, breeding an intolerable strain of uncertainty about the future that plays on the minds and nerves of the residents of Culduie, not least Roderick and his dour, violent father. The book asks: was Roderick not only a killer, but also a victim of a ‘cruel system which makes slaves of men’?
The precariousness of life is underlined when a new constable for the area is appointed by the land’s factor, who himself works for a laird rarely seen unless entertaining fellow aristocrats on grouse shoots. Unfortunately for the Macraes, the new constable is Lachlan Mackenzie. He and Roderick’s father have a longstanding grudge, the origins of which are hazy to the teenager: it may be personal, it may be related to clan. The reader, however, soon deduces the origin of the dispute is Roderick’s mother, a local beauty and popular character who appears in most respects to be a complete contrast to her husband, ‘the Black Macrae’.
Her death in childbirth the year preceding the murders is thought by neighbours to be the moment Roderick began to change. Opinion is divided as to his character before his mother’s death. Some, like the Reverend, the stonemason and Mackenzie’s cousin, thought Roderick was ‘a queer boy’, little more than an imbecile who was said to have tortured animals, that predictor of future psychopathy. Others, though, like his teacher, thought he was intelligent and sensitive, while Roderick in his memoir writes that if he spoke little as a child it was because he considered himself smarter than his peers. The closest he has to a friend is his sister, Jetta, who inherited their mother’s beauty.
Roderick, who it goes without saying is something of an unreliable narrator, seeks to portray his murders as a response to his family’s victimisation at the hands of Mackenzie. The constable levels fines for misdemeanours, forces Roderick and his father to work on the laird’s land for free, and appears to want to evict the family.
Mackenzie runs a small rural police state where informing on your neighbour is encouraged. Reading between the lines of his memoir, however, one can see the small community, not solely Roderick, suffers from a repressed and disturbed response to sexuality. There is a hint that after his wife’s death, Macrae senior starts sleeping with his daughter Jetta, to whom Roderick may also be attracted. If those disturbing thoughts exist at the level of suggestion, Roderick discovers Mackenzie in flagrante with Jetta. Far from suffering embarrassment, a malicious Mackenzie hints he also slept with Roderick’s mother, leaving open the possibility Roderick and Jetta might be his children. There is also a question of whether Jetta consents to sleep with Mackenzie or has been coerced as part of some creepy arrangement between Macrae and Mackenzie, possibly to keep the constable off their backs for a period.
In Roderick’s memoir, he reveals himself to be a surprisingly modern character. He neither believes in religion nor superstition, arguing instead that when one is afflicted, it isn’t punishment; we suffer for ‘no reason’. He reveals himself not only to be alienated from God, but the class structure that constrains him. He is critical, for example, of the gentry that rules over his community. And yet, try as he might, he cannot escape. A failed attempt to flee Culduie is the precursor to his acts of violence. After he is forced to return home, he appears resigned to his fate, no matter how bloody. In his prison cell, awaiting execution, Roderick reminds the reader of no less a character than Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’s The Outsider. Like Meursault, his malaise begins when his mother dies. Others distrust him because he doesn’t react to events in the manner they would expect. The motives for his murder are somewhat mysterious and as he tells his story from his prison cell, he appears resigned to death.
If that sounds a stretch, then consider Burnet’s first, less successful novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, where the protagonist Manfred Baumann writes about The Outsider for a school essay. Later in life, Baumann, like Macrae, comes under suspicion because he is a loner whose behaviour attracts suspicion. Although set in a small French town in the early 1980s, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau rehearses many of the themes Burnet would explore more successful in His Bloody Project. Baumann and his nemesis, Inspector Gorski, are provincials who long to escape their crushingly provincial hometown Saint Louis and yet are incapable of it. ‘For years,’ Baumann thinks, ‘he had told himself that there was nothing he could do about his situation, that circumstances, his temperament, dictated how he behaved.’
The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau reads like a faltering first attempt at the themes Burnet returns to in His Bloody Project. It’s burdened with long, stodgy passages about the Inspector’s unhappy marriage and Baumann’s domestic arrangements. Burnet also amuses himself if not the reader by pretending he is merely the translator of La Disparition d’Adèle Bedeau, going so far as to add a gratuitous ‘Translator’s Afterword’ in which he provides a biography of the supposed author Raymond Brunet. Why, it’s unclear; it does nothing to deepen the themes of the book.
Burnet is on surer ground teasing out Roderick’s story across a mosaic of documents. One might venture that His Bloody Project represents a literary response to the contemporary phenomenon of podcast series like Serial or television shows like Making A Murderer, where the viewer is presented with witness testimony and forensic reports, and asked to make his or her own mind up not just about what happened, but why it happened.
Burnet introduces the figure of J. Bruce Thomson, a nineteenth-century criminologist (and real historical figure), in order to parody science’s pretensions to diagnosing the condition of men’s souls. From a chapter supposedly taken from Thomson’s own memoir, we learn more about the criminologist’s snobbery and egoism than we ever do about Roderick’s inner life. Thomson subscribes to then-fashionable phooey such as physiognomy and describes Highlanders as being of ‘low physical stock’. Thomson’s chapter reveals the ways in which an expert’s knowledge trains them to think in certain directions only; in other words, to serve their biases.
Where Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner examined the way in which faith and doctrine work to stymy reflection, His Bloody Project suggests contemporary methods of measuring a man’s soul would also benefit from self-criticism. Which in turn might be no bad thing for the Man Booker to consider too.