His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.

1. It’s noted in the novel's Preface that the author was researching information on his grandfather, Donald “Tramp” Macrae, born in 1890. Did you think it a coincidence that his grandfather's name was also the name of one of the children murdered by Roderick Macrae some 21 years earlier? Also, consider what it might be like for you if you uncovered some "bloody" history in your family's past.

2. At the start of the book, Roderick, aged 17, admits to killing three people in his village at Culduie in Ross-shire, Scotland on the morning of Aug. 10, 1869. Dead from the MacKenzie family were: Flora (15), Donald (3), and their father, Lachlan, aka Lachlan Broad. What was your initial opinion of Roddy before you read his account of the events leading up to the murders? What was initial opinion of him after he describes the murders? And what was your final conclusion of him?

3. Given the argument of his status, educational level, etc., do you believe he wrote this “diary”? Or, do you believe like others that someone else, perhaps his advocate, Mr. Sinclair, wrote it?

4. J. Bruce Thomson was the Resident Surgeon in charge of the General Prison for Scotland at Perth, and penned “Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy” where he recounts his examination of Roderick Macrae and his visit to Culduie in the company of Andrew Sinclair. What did you think of Thomson and his internal dialogue while he questioned Roddy? His medical and observational opinions? And his assessment that it was a sexual crime against Flora rather than a hate crime against Mr. MacKenzie?

5. Roddy’s mother was described as “sunny” and loved to sing while she worked. Jetta, his sister, was a source of pride. Roddy, himself, was a favored student. All that changed after his mother’s death. What affect do you think the loss of his mother, the beatings from his father, the withdrawal of his sister and her eventual condition had on the complete series of events? What other conditions might have taken their toll on Roddy, if in fact they did?

6. Mrs. Carmina Murchison described Lachlan MacKenzie as a “bully," while Mr. Kenneth (Smoke) Murchison said he was “vindictive,” yet MacKenzie was never held accountable for his actions. Instead, he was supported by Lord Middleton of Applecross, laird of the district, and by Mr. Allan Cruikshank, factor to Lord Middleton, who believed MacKenzie to be “unquestionably the best constable that has served the estate under my tenure.” Given everything you read about MacKenzie and his treatment, especially of the Macrae family, what is your opinion of the man? Discuss his actions against individual members of the Macrae family: the John, Jetta, and Roddy.

7. Flora’s sexual injuries were addressed by Mr. Murchison and the examining post-mortem physician, Dr. MacLennan, but never included by Roddy in his diary. Neither was his inappropriate groping when he told her his feelings for her. (He said only that he’d buried his head in her hair.) Additionally, nor was his nocturnal peeping of Mrs. Murchison’s daughters through their window while they slept. What do you make of it? Was Roddy in complete denial? Were you conflicted after reading these accounts?

8. The Lord Justice-Clerk instructed the jury that there were four things they must be satisfied upon the evidence:

     a. that the deceased died by the blows and injures described
     b. the blows were willfully administered for the purpose of destroying life
     c. that it was the prisoner in the dock who so administered these blows
     d. that the prisoner was in possession of his reason at the time when he committed these acts. If evidence was defective in any one of these particulars, the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal; but if, on the other hand, they were satisfied with these four things, there remained nothing for them but the stern and painful duty of conviction.

However, when the jury came back, the foreman stated:

     a. in respect of the first count, the jury finds the panel Guilty.
     b. in respect of the second count, we find the panel Guilty.
     c. and in respect of the third count we find the panel Guilty.

What happened to the fourth? And since Sinclair’s entire case rested upon it, why was it never addressed?

9. Given everything, how would you describe Roddy’s overall life experience? For me, Alfred Hitchcock couldn't have come up with a better tale, because Roddy is delivered to the reader as a smart, caring, but abused child. His tale took me on a smooth path from absolute sanity into absolute but logical insanity, all the while justified in his actions and reasons for them. (Although a sane person would have considered a different path.) Would a jury of today be deliberating Roddy's case as “justifiable homicide”? But how does the reader account for the discrepancies based on the medical reports of Flora and all the testimony offered? And, how much of this story is a blurring of the facts as presented by the author? I don’t know, but in its entirety, it leaves this reader satisfyingly mystified.

Questions by Elaine Gallant
Oct, 2017