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Response: His Bloody Project (Tariq Ashkanani)

REFRESH / RESPONSES | As part of the Year of Scotland’s Stories, we are running a series of Responses, commissioning writers to respond to books from the publishing membership, engaging with work in different ways. For September, and to celebrate the Booker longlisting of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study, crime writer Tariq Ashkanani revisits his previous work, the Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project. (Contains spoilers)


To mis-quote Shrek: His Bloody Project has layers.

Its outermost is also its simplest. At its heart, this is a crime novel. It has a homicide, it has a villain. But unlike most of his peers, Graeme Macrae Burnet begins his story at the end – with the reveal of the murderous acts and their perpetrator’s admission of guilt.

Peel that layer away. Reveal the narrative structure beneath.

His Bloody Project is presented as something akin to a ‘found footage’ movie. Burnet opens with a brief in-person explanation for having pulled together various pieces of documentation during his own historical research, before providing them to the reader to work through. This cracking of the fourth wall is something which makes for a refreshing twist on the reader’s own role in the story (other excellent examples of this style include Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story and the works of Janice Hallett).

But go on, peel that layer away too. Who is the main character of this story?

That would be young Roderick Macrae. The son of a crofter in the small village of Culduie in the north of Scotland, he lives a fairly pitiful existence scraping a living from the soil along with his family and neighbours. We learn of his character early on: His Bloody Project opens with a selection of statements from Roderick’s contemporaries. Some say he is wicked, others say he is not; some say he is stupid, others that he is highly intelligent. Right from the start we are presented with these contrasting views, with these uncertainties. Right from the start we are presented with the ongoing question which will linger over the entire sorry tale: who is Roderick Macrae?

Well, keep on peeling. We’re not there yet.

Most of the book itself is made up of Roderick’s memoirs. Written after the fact, in an Inverness prison awaiting trial. In eloquent style, he tells us the sad tale of his life in Culduie and of the hardships that everyone faced. He also tells us of Lachlan Mackenzie – the local constable, eventual murder victim and a most horrible person, obnoxious and leery. Mackenzie wages a war-of-sorts against Roderick’s family, and knowing his fate in advance only serves to drape proceedings in a melancholy dread.

Mackenzie is described as a brute who has made difficult many of the villagers’ lives – none more so than Roderick’s father, whose futile attempts to get out from under Mackenzie’s thumb have backfired repeatedly. Further, Roderick’s sister has fallen pregnant with Mackenzie’s child; a relationship in which his sister likely had little choice in.

It is testament to Burnet’s writing that when Roderick finally embarks upon his journey to murder Lachlan Mackenzie, the young man has the reader’s understanding, if not their sympathy.

Everything in this section is told from Roderick Macrae’s point of view. The reader is given no cause to doubt him, the boy’s soul seemingly laid bare: his fears for his family’s future, his despair at his father’s feud with Lachlan Mackenzie, his shame in being utterly unable to successfully pursue Mackenzie’s daughter, Flora. Indeed, Roderick has already admitted his murderous deeds, what reason does he have now to conceal anything?

And then, of course, the final layer is peeled back.

Because this found footage style of writing isn’t just an entertaining way to tell a story, it’s also an incredibly effective method of constructing unreliable narration. In focusing the reader’s attention on Roderick’s version of events – and doing so in a believable way – the impact is all the more keenly felt when presented with the medical examiner’s reports into Roderick’s victims. Plural, of course, because along with Lachlan Mackenzie, Roderick has also killed his daughter, Flora, and his infant son. Worse, Flora’s genitals have been brutally mutilated.

It’s a shocking reveal. One that works all the better for the cold, emotionless way it is handled. In contrast to Roderick’s emotional journey of self-destruction, the medical report is detached and impassive, almost chilling. Suddenly the reader is forced to question the entirety of Roderick’s story. That opening proposition, first asked as a result of the conflicting statements from the Culduie residents, rears its head once more: who is Roderick Macrae?

From there, the novel dives into this issue with aplomb. Interrogation and musings by experts in psychology and ‘mental science’ follow, before both versions of Roderick are presented to the reader by way of that classic twofold proposition: the courtroom drama. Here, the disparity is on full display between those of working class and those who would view themselves as educated (and if not high society, then at least higher than those living in Culduie).

Experts surmise that criminals must be deformed in some way – there is mention of webbed fingers or prominent cheekbones. They consider women who die in childbirth to suffer from congenital weakness, and that an entire class of people exist who are incapable of experiencing boredom, who are suited mainly for repetitive and undemanding labour. Time and time again, the status of Roderick’s mind is called into question. Can a boy who commits these crimes be in full control of his faculties? Can the performing of such brutal acts be proof itself of insanity?

Finally, the reader is asked to be the jury of the story they have just finished, and although Burnet provides a firm narrative ending, it is not necessarily a conclusive one.

With the final layer removed, the core of His Bloody Project is at last exposed. At its widest, it is many things. It is a contemplation on free will and the mental intent required to commit a crime. It is a commentary on social inequality and the prejudices of those with supposed evolved sensibilities. It is a con – albeit a wonderful one – that passively invites the reader to pull the wool over their own eyes before letting it fall away.

But it is also simply a collection of documents, gathered together and presented without any overt attempt to trick or fool. Indeed, as Burnet states in his introductory remarks, it is left to the reader to reach their own conclusions, and to solve the question that has hovered over them this entire time, lingering on their shoulder, watching them turn every page.

Who is Roderick Macrae?


The Year of Stories x Books from Scotland response strand was inspired by Fringe of Colour’s series, which you can read more of at This piece also featured in September’s Books from Scotland issue, Pause