His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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His Bloody Project

I would be a terrible juror. I overthink things so much that I would never be able to come to a decision with my fellow jurors. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project was just a reminder of just how bad I would be if I ever had to decide someone’s guilt or innocence. (Also, I’ve read too many mysteries and might be tempted to Jessica Fletcher my way through the trial.) His Bloody Project puts us right in the jurors’ box in the case of Roderick Macrae. In August 1869, Roddy murdered three people by bludgeoning them to death with farm tools. He admitted that he did it. The question for the jury (and readers) is whether he was insane when he committed the murders. Burnet’s novel is told through witness statements, court accounts, and Roddy’s own jailhouse biography. For readers like me, who love unreliable narrators and ambiguous stories, this book is catnip.

After a few witness statements to set the stage—in which neighbors give their recollections of Roddy Macrae as an odd, put upon teen—Roddy gets his turn to speak. His solicitor, Sinclair, has asked him to write an account of his life and the murders. Since he has nothing else to do, Roddy complies. He tells of his deteriorating family life after his mother’s death, his father’s violence and coldness, and the harassment the family receives from the local constable. He also tells us about his sister’s abuse at the hands of that constable along with a series of embarrassing episodes that culminate in the death of the constable and two of the constable’s children.

Throughout the biography, I was sympathetic to Roddy. He was young and the constable was harassing his family into penury. That said, there are small things in this account that make me wonder if Roddy is neurotypical. Some of the things he says and does might put him on the autism spectrum. Later evidence might point to a diagnosis of sociopathy.

After the biography section, Burnet gives us an excerpt from a report by an early forensic psychologist that turned my opinions of Roddy on their head in spite of all the weird, discredited “science” about inherited criminality, anthropometry, and tortured logic. After the psychologist has his say, Burnet recreates a journalist’s account of the trial, complete with witness cross examination.

Roddy’s case was tried twenty-six years after the M’Naghten case, which established an insanity defense. From the journalist, we can tell that the judge and the prosecutor are deeply skeptical of Sinclair’s attempts to establish that Roddy was insane at the time of the murders. Yet we have Roddy’s very calm biography as evidence that, even though we don’t know exactly what was in his head at the time, he was not consumed with anger or jealousy or any of the other emotions blamed for crimes of passion. On the other hand, evidence is revealed during the trial that Roddy might have been motivated by something else entirely, which is supported by the psychologist.

I inhaled His Bloody Project. I could almost feel my brain churning as I read, trying to work out what was behind Roddy’s explanations, what the physical evidence actually indicated, and how much of the forensic psychologist’s reasoning to accept. This is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 October 2016.

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