His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a deft blend of historical fiction, murder mystery, psychological fiction, and courtroom drama. The writing is also complex and elegant all the way through (this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize).
Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, the story is about Roderick Macrae, a young man who has brutally murdered three of his neighbors. He does not deny his guilt in the slayings. But the question is: is Roderick sane? Or will he hang for his crime? And what drove him to murder in the first place?
Burnet tells the story with the conceit that he is piecing together a narrative from materials related to the case that he found in an archive. A nice framing device, but one that, for me, quickly was absorbed into the memoir which was supposedly written by Roderick.
Roderick’s story is gritty and bleak, given his time, place, and social status, and it’s clear from his personal narrative that there’s something off about him. Yet you’re sucked into his story completely, and into his poor community and desolate household. You know there’s something he’s not telling you, but at the same time you get a good picture of what his life and relationships (or lack thereof) were like.
Following Roderick’s account of the murders, there are accounts from the medical examiner, a criminologist, and then a courtroom transcript. All of these following accounts allow for the reader to fill in the gaps in Roderick’s narrative, and to provide a clearer and more three-dimensional picture of the other characters.
For my money, the best parts of the book were the memoir written by Roderick, and the excerpt about the case written by the criminologist. Both have the best atmosphere and voices in the book. They also allow for the best presentation of the historical time, place, and mood.
If you enjoy historical fiction and/or historical murder mysteries, give this one a try!