Harsh tale of triple murder in the Highlands

When novelists take real life events and people as the bedrock for their fictional stories I quite wrongly feel cheated that the narrative is not a journey into the writer’s undiluted imagination.

Clearly my objection to grafting fiction onto elements of real life is ridiculous as ultimately all a writer’s thoughts must in some way be dredged up from their well of experience.

hbp_cm1-page-0Because of this irrational antipathy towards “real-life fiction” His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, sent me twitching one way and then the other.

It claims to be an account of a gruesome triple murder in the remote crofting communities of Scotland in the 1800s. It is embellished with “actual” witness statements, “transcripts” from the trial and even an account penned by the murderer from his prison cell.

Yet the entire account is in fact a fiction, albeit said to have been inspired by the author finding out that a namesake of his had in fact been responsible for such a crime. But is that true, or a fiction as well, who knows.

To confuse matters further some of the testimony in the book is put into the mouths of characters who were alive at the time, and they themselves reference other real people.

So the film between fact and fiction is constantly in flux, making the reader repeatedly ask themselves how much of the tale is truth and how much decoration has been grafted on.

However, the real power of the book is not so much the curious way that it is told but the stunning descriptions of the brutal lives led by crofters held under the yoke of the local Laird.

The gruesomely harsh environment where people share their homes with animals, scratch a desperate living from the land and are in constant debt to the Laird make you glad not to have been born into that kind of life.

It is a fantastic read and although the second half of the book has fewer plot twists you still bizarrely wait anxiously for the verdict in the case although you knew the identity of killer from the very first pages.

The book reminded me of the The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a book where the author Kate Summerscale took a real-life Victorian murder case and laid out the facts, as she could find them, to an audience who never lived through the real event.

His Bloody Project goes to show that a “story” can be more entertaining and insightful than a work of non-fiction and in my case will live longer in the mind of the reader.

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