There is apparently no suspense at all about whodunnit in Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae. Roderick tells us himself that "I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed" (15)--those deeds being the murders of Lachlan Mackenzie and his two children, Flora and Donald. Of course, as Burnet's reader is already aware, the authenticity of the text in question--a found manuscript in the classic Gothic/historical fiction tradition--is up for grabs, regarded in some elite contemporary quarters as a "hoax" (2). Burnet presents himself as no more than the memoir's editor, supplementing Roderick's's purported memoir of his life and crimes with witness statements, a reconstruction of the trial, and an excerpt from the (fictional) autobiography of a (real) Victorian criminal psychologist, J. Bruce Thompson. This sort of documentary gamesmanship tips the nod to a long line of "authenticated" novels stretching back to the eighteenth century (e.g., Walpole's The Castle of Otranto), and may remind some readers of, among other novels, James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner--a historical Gothic with an infamously unreliable narrator and some darkly humorous takes on the materiality of evidence. Macrae isn't Hogg's sinner (in fact, his religious faith is pretty much non-existent), although Burnet alludes to that narrative road not taken in the form of one witness at the trial, the dour Presbyterian clergyman Mr. Galbraith, who argues that "[m]y observation is that the boy is enslaved to the devil, and if proof is required we need only look to the deeds he has committed" (229). But the novel has related fish to fry.
His Bloody Project engages with multiple questions having to do with unreliability and evidence, both at the level of history (who witnesses to what happens in this tiny village in the Highlands?) and form (what does unreliability imply, especially when everyone agrees, the narrator included, that he's guilty?). The novel is set in a real village, Culduie, occupied by largely impoverished crofters; Thompson, when he visits, notes with disgust that all but one of the houses look like "byres or pig-sties" (175). Culduie is managed by a local constable, who reports to the estate's factor, who reports to the laird, Middleton, an arrangement ripe for exploitation--not least because constable, factor, and laird actually have little regular contact beyond what is necessary. The area's history and current economic situation emerge in only shadowy form from Roderick's narrative, so that he is unable, for example, to parse the implications of Flora's warning that Middleton's "livelihood depended" (106) on escorting wealthy men on deer hunts. Scraps of folk tradition remain in the form of the charms and visions associated with local women like Roddy's sister Jetta and their deceased mother, along with the local assumptions about how crofters ought to be treated. Another local crofter, explaining why Lachlan Mackenzie's decision to reassign land from the Macraes to another family, can only say, "it was not done" (207), which leads one Scottish paper to contemptuously observe that "his baffling adherence to the idea that land should be allocated on the basis of tradition rather than utility was yet another example of how the intransigence of the Highland tribes is bringing about their own demise" (208)--a "modern" response that somehow manages to overlook the devastating effects of the Highland clearances. Mackenzie's purportedly utilitarian local reforms, which involve penalizing the crofters for violating various rules and requiring additional labor from the men, clash badly with the crofters' cultural expectations about land and communal obligations. Moreover, when Roderick and his father visit the factor to stop Mackenzie's actions, they discover that he has been citing rules which don't exist in written form: "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" (102). Mackenzie's interpretations of this unwritten social contract are, despite their maliciousness (especially in regard to the Macraes), in line with mid-Victorian assumptions about profit, discipline, and labor; the difficulty, of course, lies in the underlying assumptions about that "we," as "we" have clearly drifted apart. Throughout, it's clear that the crofters are granted no authority to speak out about or interpret their life experiences unless they affiliate themselves with the assumptions of middle- and upper-class authorities, Highland or Lowland. Thus, Mackenzie gains the factor's respect because his behavior so completely aligns with expectations; similarly, Thompson immediately offers some measure of respect to Mrs. Murchison (as does the audience at the trial) because of her tasteful dress and relatively refined manners, while the working-class witness Ishbel Farquhar also comes off well because she is appropriately "modest" and embodies "the best virtues of Highland womanhood" (236). Typically, Roderick's memoir is, we are told, edited and rewritten as a sensational chapbook, turning him into everyone's popular fantasy of a brutal, uncivilized Highlander.
But what about that memoir? Since there is a secret about Roderick's guilt, let's gone below the fold.