His Bloody Project features an unreliable narrator.

Eighteen sixty-nine. Rural Scotland. A 17-year-old boy named Roderick Macrae has brutally murdered a neighboring man and two of his children. He freely confesses to the crime, stating that “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations he has lately suffered” at the hands of the murdered man. But is that really why Roddy carried out this hideous crime? In His Bloody Project, Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet probes the young man’s motives through a compilation of documents. Included are Roddy’s detailed and lengthy confession, transcripts of interviews with some of his neighbors and from the trial, and excerpts from a book written by one of the doctors who interviewed the young man in prison. In Burnet’s skillful telling, the truth only slowly emerges.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

An unreliable narrator explains three brutal murders

His Bloody Project masquerades as a true crime account, but it is of course a novel. Burnet uses the platform of this grim story to reveal the feudal conditions under which landless farmers lived in 19th-century Scotland. And that tale is none the less grim. An absentee lord holds an estate that encompasses several villages and a huge expanse of nearby land. In the Big House, the lord’s “factor” rules but is himself a distant presence to the villagers. Within each village, a constable represents the factor and thus the lord. He is the face of the law, and if he is inclined to rule harshly, there is no one to stop him. And therein lies the tale.

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2016) 300 pages ★★★★★

Man Booker Prize Finalist

Roddy, his ailing father, and his older sister have eked out a meager existence in the village of Culduie. But when Lachlan Broad is elected constable, their lives gradually grow more difficult and more painful. And this is the backdrop, and the ostensible reason, for Roddy’s murder of Broad and his children. Burnet is a skillful writer who uses the overworked device of the unreliable narrator in a clever and ultimately successful way.

This is one of the Great courtroom dramas and of the many Mysteries and thrillers set in Scotland that I’ve reviewed here.

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