This Booker-longlisted novel is the story of a 17 year old boy facing the death penalty for a triple murder committed in a remote village in the Scottish highlands. It is 1869, and Roderick Macrae is the son of a crofter who is living in a feudal society. His Bloody Project is presented like a true crime story, with an account by the killer of what happened and documents from other parties involved. The novel is introduced by the author, in his own name, suggesting that Roderick Macrae was a relative of his. You have to bring your brain to this collection of purported primary sources, and the main question you have to answer is not whether Macrae committed the crime, which he admits, but whether he was mad at the time. If it could be proved that he was insane, he might avoid the otherwise inevitable death penalty.
What has happened to Macrae that may have led to this point? Through his partial account we hear of brutality, unfairness, bereavement and extreme poverty. As a study in the abuse of power, and the impunity that goes with it, the book is excellent (to be more specific would be to risk spoilers). The language used by every character in the documents is evocative and convincing – for example, Macrae calls winter in the village the ‘black months’ and summer the ‘yellow months’.
His Bloody Project grips tighter and tighter as the pages run out. As we find out more about the murders and the killer, we inevitably think more about how we test whether a defendant was insane or not, an issue as present today as in 1869. Equally relevant now, is the question – when you are subject to the law but the law does not protect you when you need it, can the society you live in really be said to be based on the rule of law?
Review by Bethan