RAD Book Club review: His Bloody Project

29 Sep 2017

Book Club met last Tuesday to discuss His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett, a crime novel, presented as historic documents relating the case of a brutal triple homicide committed by Roddy Macrae around 1869.

We all enjoyed the novel and particularly the use of different types of documents: legal and medical reports along with newspaper stories and witness testimonies, which offered different voices and versions of events and a fascinating insight into the beginnings of anthropological criminology. This diversity of testimonies and reports presented us with many ‘truths’, which meant that as readers we were not offered a definite, reliable account but were free to draw our own conclusions, which led to a lively discussion as we nearly all had different views.

The main body of the narrative comes, surprisingly, from Roddy Macrae himself. From his memoir we learn how the Macrae family live a life of disadvantage in comparison with characters such as Lachlan Mackenzie, the factor, and the people in the Big House, all of whom use their power to intimidate and bully the villagers and the Macrae family in particular. We had a sense that Roddy was treated by the villagers as the village idiot even if he did not recognise it himself. Although the writing style of his memoir proves him to be much brighter than might be expected of a village child, his odd behaviour and reasoning suggested to us that he had an affective or developmental disorder which made him unable to discern or unable to be affected by the consequences of his actions. In following the trial which attempts to prove whether or not Roddy was insane and what led him to commit the murder, we all had different views. Some saw a psychological or biological cause, whereas others believed that the murder was premeditated and vengeful.

We were also puzzled by both father and son’s refusal to try to justify their actions and their acceptance of what was perceived to them as inevitable: father seemed to believe it a matter of faith and fate, whereas son appeared to imply he wasn’t concerned with neither causes nor consequences. The mercy killing of the sheep, near the start of Roddy’s account, also led to different interpretations. For some of us it was the first sign that he was capable of and unmoved by physical violence. Others took this and many of his actions at face value as he describes them, and only evaluated this and other actions of his in light of subsequent events. The killing of the sheep led to his first public trial, after which persecution of his family by Lachlan, who Rodd later beats to death, intensified.

We felt women played a very important part in the novel. There seemed to be some symbolic transference between Roddy’s mother, his sister and Flora, the constable’s daughter, and one member suggested Freudian theory could be applied. Women seemed to represent Roddy’s unfulfilled needs for nurture, protection and sex. The nature of his mother and sister Jetta’s relationship with the constable, were a source of rich debate.

Our Book Club members had very different reactions to the character of Roddy and how far he was responsible for his actions. The things we most enjoyed were hearing different interpretations that we had not thought of ourselves, analysing the motivations of the different characters, experiencing the traditions of village life at that time and learning about the beginnings of anthropological criminology.