September 7, 2016
Paperback, Contraband, £8.99, out now
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
October 19, 2015
John Murray, out now, £25
A child of the Bloomsbury group, Jeremy Hutchinson became a leading QC at the criminal bar in postwar Britain. Fellow lawyer Thomas Grant has written Hutchinson’s life in an unusual style – a shortish biographical sketch, followed by in depth accounts of Hutchinson’s most famous cases. This approach successfully illuminates not only a well-spent life, but also the contribution of an exceptional advocate at pivotal moments of change in British social and cultural history.
As a lawyer who often defended the unpopular or those in conflict with the establishment, much of his work concerned freedom of expression. Obscenity trials feature – he represented Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial as well as the National Theatre concerning their production of The Romans in Britain. He also defended the rights of journalists Duncan Campbell and Jonathan Aitken when they were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and also represented the notorious cold war spy George Blake. The movement towards a more open and freer society is traced through Grant’s well drawn studies.
Hutchinson emerges not only as a great advocate, but as a genial and thoughtful man. Now 100, his postscript to the book shows him to be as committed to the principle of access to justice as ever: “When at long last in 1950 the Legal Aid Act was passed, the idea was that everyone should be able to obtain legal advice if unable to pay for it because, after health, the most important element in a civilised society is the ability of every citizen to assert and protect these rights: in other words a ‘national legal service’.” He notes that “real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen”. Recommended.
Review by Bethan