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Mind the Gap

By (January 1, 2017) One Comment

His Bloody Project
By Graeme Macrae Burnet
Skyhorse, 2016

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project takes us back to the 1860s—not just by setting its story then but also by adopting some of the textual tricks of the ‘sensation novelists’ whose work thrilled and scandalized readers of the period. It is impossible to read His Bloody Project without thinking, for instance, of Wilkie Collins’s great 1868 novel The Moonstone, which T. S. Eliot famously called “the first, the longest, and the best” English detective novel. Like The Moonstone, His Bloody Project offers us multiple perspectives on the mystery at its center, compiling “authentic” documents and narratives in different voices so that rather than simply finding out what happened, we have to figure the truth out for ourselves as best we can. While in Collins’s novels the testimonies generally converge on a consistent story, however, the modernity of Burnet’s thriller lies in the irresolution he allows to persist right to the end. The result is gripping reading, but ultimately not wholly satisfying—it’s more a clever simulacrum than a substantive original.

His Bloody Project is presented as a collection of material discovered by Burnet while “on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Tramp’ Macrea.” “It was in the course of my research at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness,” he reports, “that I came across some newspaper clippings describing the trial of Roderick Macrea,” including the memoir that comprises about half of the novel. Roderick was imprisoned, tried, and finally convicted in 1869 for the horrific murder of three members of a neighboring family in the Highland town of Culduie. In his role as “editor,” Burnet prefaces Roderick’s account with the statements of some key witnesses; he follows it with medical reports about the condition of the bodies; recollections from J. Bruce Thomson, a former prison doctor and expert in criminal psychology, of his meetings with Roderick; and, finally, an account of Roderick’s trial, drawing on “contemporary coverage” of the case.

The basic facts of the case are simple enough: in August 1869, Roderick (commonly known as “Roddy”) used two farming implements—a “croman” (like a pick-ax, Burnet’s glossary tells us) and a “flaughter” (“a spade with a pointed triangular blade”)—to kill his neighbor Lachlan Mackenzie, along with two of Lachlan’s children, Flora (age 15) and Donald (age 3). The bodies are discovered after Roddy is seen leaving the Mackenzies’ home “covered from head to foot in blood.” Roddy immediately admits to the crime and never backs away from his initial confession. Though he never expresses remorse, he also never attempts to avoid its consequences: “I have no wish,” he says at the beginning of his own statement, “to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed.”

His Bloody Project thus is never a whodunit, so where’s the mystery? As in so much good crime fiction, it lies in the ‘whydunit’—in the questions of motive and meaning to which no amount of physical evidence or medical testimony can give a definitive answer. As Collins well knew when he described The Moonstone as a story about “the influence of character on circumstances,” it’s people who are ultimately the greatest mystery of all, and Burnet exploits to the full the inaccessibility of the inner life to the outside observer—this in spite of the first-person narrative through which Roddy offers his own version of events, because after all, there is no guarantee that his account is reliable. He may be lying, or he may, as his solicitor Andrew Sinclair hopes to show, be insane and thus unaware of his own distortions of the truth.

If Roddy has experienced what Sinclair calls “an alienation of reason,” you wouldn’t know it from his statement, which is coherent and temperate from start to finish— though of course that in itself, from the perpetrator of a bloody triple homicide, could seem suspicious. Roddy’s memoir of his short life—he is only seventeen—tells a story of grinding poverty and hard physical labor on his family’s small holding. His mother is dead and his father is rough and punitive; the only grace we glimpse in his life comes from his love for his sister Jetta, and from his own instinctive kindness towards animals. The latter does him more harm than good in the harsh world of Culduie, however. For example, he loses a much-needed job assisting the local laird, Lord Middleton, on shooting expeditions, when he scares off the prey on his first time out:

I was close enough to the gentleman to see his finger move towards the trigger. I looked again to the stag and felt it a terrible shame that it should die in order that this man might mount its head on the wall of his parlour. The gentleman’s finger curled around the trigger. Without any forethought, I leapt suddenly to my feet and bounded over the ridge, flapping my arms like a great bird and crowing like a cock. The deer below took flight and the gentleman loosed his shot into the air.

Eking out a living is hard enough in Culduie without gaffes like these to limit your chances (“See that he is not employed on the estate again,” decrees Lord Middleton). After the murders, when Sinclair and Thomson go to see Roddy’s home for themselves, they can barely imagine people living in such circumstances:

The majority of houses, if they can be termed as such, were of such rude construction that one would have taken them for byres or pigsties. They were built from a clutter of stones and turf, and topped with rough thatch, which despite the warmth of the day reeked with peat smoke, so that it appeared each of the houses was gently smouldering.

The Macreas’ home “was by some distance the most poorly constructed in the township, resembling less a house than a smoking dung-heap,” so filthy and foul-smelling that “few would have considered this a place fit for human habitation.”

What Sinclair and Thompson see, though, is not quite the way Roddy’s family had always lived: the utter desolation of their croft is the end result of a campaign of degradation carried out by Lachlan Mackenzie (known as Lachlan Broad), who after becoming the local constable turned a longstanding family grudge into relentless persecution against the Macraes. Every attempt they make to resist his authoritarian malevolence fails, including their appeal to Lord Middleton’s agent, who twists their grievances into evidence of their own guilt. When they ask especially to see for themselves the regulations Lachlan repeatedly invokes to justify his actions against, them, the factor tells them scornfully,

You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion.

The humiliation and helplessness the Macraes feel, and their suffering under Lachlan’s harassment, are the motive for Roddy’s crimes. “It is all Lachlan Broad’s doing,” he tells his sister as his father reels under the final blow of an eviction notice; “I should like to be revenged on him.” Later, in his interview with Mr. Thompson, he states clearly “I wished to deliver my father from the tribulations which he had lately suffered.” In his own statement he describes his commitment to killing Lachlan Broad and also to ensuring that “he was cognisant of the fact that it was I, Roderick Macrae, who was ending his life, and that I was doing so in just payment for the tribulations he had caused my family.”

Nothing in Roddy’s statement raises readerly hackles in the style of a classic unreliable narrator: there are no overt slips between reported events and Roddy’s interpretations of them, or between his tone and the content of his narrative. Even its exceptional coherence is accounted for by the information that he was an unusually gifted student; “among the most talented pupils I have taught,” says his schoolteacher Mr. Gillies, a boy whom Mr. Gillies thought “might, in time, amount to something more suited to his abilities than working the land.” Not every witness agrees with Mr. Gillies’s assessment that Roddy was “a gentle lad,” though, and it’s as we start to take the other reports into account that gaps or instabilities appear in Roddy’s version of events. He was frank, for instance, or so it seemed, about his relationship with Lachlan’s daughter Flora, but in his account of the unhappy necessity (in his eyes) that made her his first victim, he doesn’t mention, much less try to excuse, the “lacerations and bruising to the pubic region” described by the medical examiner. Thomson’s perspective is skewed by his ideas about degeneracy and criminal heredity, but his theory of the crime—that “Roderick Macrae was driven not by a quasi-noble desire to protect his father, but by his sexual urges towards Miss Mackenzie”—does better account for at least that piece of the physical evidence. Other elements of the plot, especially those involving Roddy’s sister Jetta, similarly raise questions that Roddy’s narrative does not clearly address or resolve.

The biggest question, both at the trial and for us, is whether Roddy is sane and thus morally responsible for his actions. There isn’t any doubt that, in his own community, he was always something of a misfit, but is that because he is better or worse than those around him? Even his sympathetic schoolteacher acknowledges that Roddy “did not mix readily with his fellows, who, in turn, regarded him with some suspicion”; Lachlan’s cousin, Peter Mackenzie, understandably less forgiving, testifies that “even as a small boy there was a mean spirit about him,” and that “he was generally regarded in the parish as an imbecile,” a report that is hard to reconcile with Roddy’s articulate memoir but not with some of the odd behaviours reported in it, including, possibly, his misguided intervention on behalf of the hunted stag.

In his closing arguments, Sinclair makes an impassioned case for Roddy’s innocence on the grounds that by expressing no remorse, Roddy has shown he does not know that what he did was wrong—thus, as the judge’s summing up emphasizes, meeting (if Sinclair is correct, or at least convincing) the legal standard for insanity:

The test you must apply . . . is that a person may be found to be insane, if at the time of the act, or acts, he was labouring under such a defect of reason or from a disease of the mind, that he did not know the nature and quality of the acts he was committing, or that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.

What kind of devious intelligence would it take, too, as Sinclair argues, to come up with an exculpatory version “in the very moments after the commission of three bloody murders,” as Roddy would have to have done if Thomson’s theory is true? Yet the first witnesses to encounter Roddy in the aftermath of the killings describe him as “quite lucid” and speaking “quite calmly”— which of course could signify either a cunning murderer exercising preternatural self-control or someone operating, as Sinclair argues, beyond the reach of reason. The memoir itself hardly seems the work of a madman, but as Burnet’s preface “documents,” some contemporaries found it altogether unbelievable, not just in its particulars but in its entire existence: “For Campbell Balfour, writing in the Edinburgh Review,” Burnet reports, “it was ‘quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could produce such a sustained and eloquent piece of writing. . . . The work is a hoax.’” Should we believe any of it? And if we do, do we accept it as the true story of a young man understandably pushed to the breaking point by malice and injustice, or suspect it as a cunning revisionist history by a killer hoping to mislead and evade the law — or as the deceptively calm delusions of a madman? It’s a fascinating and, as Burnet devises it, ultimately insoluble puzzle.

Burnet plays his game impeccably, never breaking frame or winking at us to let on that he’s constructing a pastiche rather than laying out authentic historical documentation. The only overt metafictional concessions are the premise itself and the conspicuous archaism of the novel’s apparatus—the title page, for instance, with its bold Walter Scott-like adoption of an editorial persona for the author (“Edited and introduced by Graeme Macrea Burnet”), and the subtitle “A Historical Thriller,” which rather gives the game away. Burnet’s language, in the short Preface which is the only part of the novel openly written in his own voice, is also a bit stilted (“it is not my intention to unduly detail the reader”), so although he signs off “GMB July 2015,” stylistically he blurs the line between present and fictional past.

What Burnet can’t quite do is match his Victorian predecessors in their virtuosic ability to convey character through speech: nothing in His Bloody Project comes close to the dazzling display of different voices Collins puts on in The Moonstone or its sensational predecessor, The Woman in White. The Victorian novelists, in their turn, were matched, if not excelled, by Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues are masterclasses in how people betray themselves in words. “I found a thing to do,” says the eponymous speaker of his “Porphyria’s Lover,” sounding perfectly reasonable even after he reveals that his plan to keep his beloved mistress by his side is to wind her yellow hair “three times her little throat around” and strangle her—and in that gap between style and content we recognize the sociopath. Browning’s own extended crime story, The Ring and the Book (1868-69, so exactly contemporary with the action of His Bloody Project) also explores a terrible murder from multiple perspectives. Like Collins’s, though, Browning’s unreliable characters unmask themselves and their motives—often inadvertently—and gradually we come to realize, through the accumulated stories with all their perversions, what the truth is. The artist’s role, as Browning emphasizes throughout, is not simply to invent or report but to seek and shape meaning, to “suffice the eye and save the soul beside.”

This is the other measure by which Burnet’s faux sensation fiction comes up short. For both Victorian authors, literary crime is not, in the end, just an exercise in problem-solving at the expense of the victims (or an exploitation of their audiences’ blood-thirsty voyeurism), but an opportunity to understand crime’s causes and consequences, and to imagine what new order of things—social, political, legal, personal—might make real justice possible. Burnet’s open-ended novel, by contrast, leaves us wondering not just who to believe but what actually happened, and thus what it all might mean. However smart and stylish the execution, that’s a project that inevitably leaves a lot of business unfinished.

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.