I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at this book which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 when I realised that it made a neat fit with my recent historical crime reads, both factual and fictionalised.
I have to admit I was slightly confused when I opened the first page to a realistic looking statements from the residents of Culduie, I was sure this was a work of fiction but apart from the smattering of Scottish dialect this could have been lifted from my recent non-fiction read, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane by Jane Housham, which was set only three years prior to His Bloody Project. So we are in August 1869 and the residents of Culduie are giving their views of Roderick Macrae, who is accused of three murders.
The book is structured as if it were a work of non-fiction with the longest section given over to Roderick’s only statement, written at the behest of his advocate Mr Andrew Sinclair while he was awaiting trial at Inverness Castle, having been swiftly detained after the bodies had been found. The account of Roderick Macrae is surprisingly well crafted considering the boy was just seventeen, a crofter who had grown up in a small village and one whose boundaries he had rarely crossed. This discrepancy however had already been covered within Graeme Macrae Burnet’s foreword to the book, if you are going to pick up this book, don’t skip this section!
This was a book that kept my interest on so many different levels. I didn’t know much about the life of a crofter, I know far more now. Life in a small Scottish village was tough, ruled by the Laird through his minions, the crofters pretty much lived from hand to mouth, hoping for a good harvest to keep them in food throughout the black months. Roddy was one of four children living with their father following the death of their mother a year earlier. Jette, Rodderick’s sister acting as mother to the two youngest children, kept house and looked after their strict, morose father. In short a grim life that is hard to imagine. When a new Constable is elected to look after the Laird’s interest in Culduie, life takes a turn for the worse.The most I will say about the section containing Roderick’s account is that it raises a few questions and I’m sure each reader will have a slightly different take on the information. It also introduces us to a range of characters, some of which we naturally met within the statements, others only appear through Rodderick’s eyes.
I loved the structure of the books, I was continually reminding myself that this was a work of fiction, and following the preface, the statements and Roderick’s account we finally get to the trial itself. Here, if you didn’t already have enough questions, you will have plenty more to add to the pile! What is brilliant is that I still have questions, I still want to know more about a few of the characters – yes this is a book I want to read again, knowing what I now know to see what else the pages will give me in the way of certainty. For me the mark of a cracking good read.
Although this book isn’t a crime thriller read in the normal sense of the word, there is very little doubt who committed the murders, it more than makes up for it with the whys. For those readers who enjoy something that challenges the norm, and definitely one that makes you think, you really don’t want to miss out!