The Booker Foundation celebrates His Bloody Project

Posted on September 18, 2023

It’s September, and while the judges are shortlisting 2023’s finest fiction, the editors have selected His Bloody Project as the Booker Foundation’s Book of the Month.

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s critically acclaimed, best-selling and award-winning novel His Bloody Project was brought to international attention by the Booker Prize in 2016. The foundation is celebrating it again now with a reading guide, interviews, extracts, a podcast and more.

Graeme Macrae Burnet in Culduie

Graeme Macrae Burnet in Culduie, looking out towards Skye. (pic: Sara Hunt)

Almost eight years after it was first published, this dazzling book continues to receive glowing reader reviews and new fans.

If you love reading but haven’t yet found your way to this brilliant novel, here are seven reasons to take the plunge.

For those who appreciate the slippery distinctions between sanity and guilt…

His Bloody Project has echoes of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in its themes of madness and alienation, and questions of culpability for heinous acts. There is no denying that the main protagonists in each case – Roderick Macrae and Raskolnikov – killed their victims. The question the books instead concern themselves with is: why? And were they of sound mind? A fascinating character study awaits you.

If you love to revisit the past through historical fiction …

Readers of historical fiction know that an excellent novel can be far more than just entertainment. It can portray history differently than the history books, and yet in many ways ring just as true. Part of the genius of double Booker-winner Hilary Mantel, for example, lies in the way she created a highly plausible inner life for that most complex of figures, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s research for Wolf Hall was extensive and rigorous. She conjured a believable, immersive world that helped us relive the drama.

Graeme’s job in creating a believable world for His Bloody Project was especially challenging because half the book is written in a first-person narrative. To be convincing to readers, the language needed to be absolutely authentic to its period. In this video interview, Graeme explains how he spent time collecting useful vocabulary and noting them in his ‘Emporium of Words’. Many readers have noted that the language calls to mind Robert Louis Stevenson and other Scottish writers of the period.

Both Hilary Mantel and Graeme saw their novels included in The Sunday Times best books of the decade. They are must-reads!

A few of the international editions of His Bloody Project.

For readers who enjoy the drama of trial narratives…

If you loved Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, in which a trial painted a different picture of an infamous event from the story portrayed in local popular accounts, you’ll love the twists and turns of His Bloody Project. It’s another novel that demonstrates how the scrutiny of a trial can show events in a new light. Hannah Kent’s story tells how two men were killed in a 19th-century community in Iceland. It is based on a real incident in which rumour and prejudice were rife and may have affected the trial.

While His Bloody Project purports to be an account of a real event, it’s entirely fictional. Whether based in real events or not, though, and whether or not the witnesses are reliable, questions addressed or omitted during a trial cast a very different light on truth, bias and power than single-person accounts ever could. All of which makes for compelling drama and thought-provoking questions.

If you find prison memoirs fascinating

As a student, Graeme read I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother…, a prison memoir written by French peasant Pierre Rivière while in prison for killing his family, and edited for publication in the 1970s by Michel Foucault. Graeme was struck by the clash between the author’s eloquent writing style and the brutality of the acts he confessed to committing. So much so that he quotes it as the inspiration for writing His Bloody Project, many years after first reading the memoir. Would you think differently of a case if you heard directly from the perpetrator?

You’ve read Case Study. What’s next?

If you’ve read Case Study, you won’t need any more persuading that it’s time to catch up on this exceptional author’s other Booker-listed novel, and his best-selling book to date.

For fans of (un)True Crime…

If you enjoyed Eliza Clark’s most recent novel, Penance, you could be just as tightly grabbed by the (fictional) ‘true crime’ elements in His Bloody Project. Where Penance stitches together a series of fictional transcripts, letters and books to build its story, His Bloody Project is made up of doctor’s reports, witness accounts, trial transcripts and news reports – all of which were written by the author in the style of genuine documents of the time. Whether it’s podcasts, books or Netflix documentaries, true crime as a genre is ubiquitous today. As works of fiction, these ‘fake true crime’ books can delve deeper into the psychology – of both the criminals and the consumers – behind it.

For fans of a setting that becomes a character itself…

If you enjoyed the unsettling atmosphere and sense of place that was the backdrop of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, His Bloody Project is for you. In His Bloody Project, the hamlet of Culduie is integral to the story and almost feels to the reader as though it is a character in its own right. In The Essex Serpent, the protagonist Cora, newly resident in the fictional village of Aldwinter, becomes fascinated by rumours of a mythical creature known locally as the Essex Serpent. The setting in The Essex Serpent is fundamental in establishing the sense of claustrophobia in the book.

In His Bloody Project, Culduie (in this case a real setting) is even smaller, consisting of just a few houses whose inhabitants were under the constant close scrutiny and control of the local laird’s vindictive constable, his right-hand man.  If you were truly engrossed by Aldwinter and its dark secrets when you read The Essex Serpent, you will find yourself hooked by the story of Roddy Macrae and his family in their very small community in His Bloody Project.

Whatever the prompt…

… read it for yourself and see. Because a million avid fans around the world can’t be wrong!