His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae
When one thinks “literary,” this isn’t the type of work that comes to mind—it’s a compulsively readable, immersive, darn good story, which snobbish critics are happy to note was shortlisted for the Man Booker “despite the handicap of being a genre novel.” It overcomes its “handicap” primarily through a clever structure, convincing narrative voice, and expert evocation of the crofting culture of the Scottish Highlands in the 1860s.
The conceit: the novel is presented as true crime, a collection of documents unearthed by the author while researching an ancestor. In 1869, teenager Roderick Macrae of the remote farming community of Culduie blithely bids good day to neighbors as he sets off down the village with a croman (a kind of hoe for digging potatoes) and flaughter (a sharp spade for cutting peat)… which he uses to commit a gruesome triple-murder. The novel is made up of Roderick’s handwritten account, police statements from Culduie’s inhabitants, journalistic trial coverage, scholarly excerpts from medical treatises, and “notes” by the author. The crime is never in doubt; backstory, motives, and subtler nuances are what must be untangled from subjective and unreliable narrators.
The characterization here is truly outstanding, as is the author’s ability to conjure the sense of place and everything that comes with it, from the grudging Presbyterian acceptance of a Providence that never sends anything positive, to the terrible disdain of the laird and cityfolk for the Highlander way of life. The author never condescends to his readers: I was thankful for the included glossary, since I certainly had to consult it (even Google has a hard time describing a croman). There are some exceptional pieces of dialogue, literary references that are more playful than pretentious, and pacing that is adept. This novel strikes the perfect balance of literary, historical, and thriller. Highly recommended.