In Mid- Victorian times there developed a thirst for murder. It was during this period that the popular press was full of lurid tales of killings; the detective novel was developed; Penny Dreadfuls sold in their thousands and people flocked to the theatre to watch crimes being re-enacted. This is all very well detailed in Judith Flanders’ “The Invention of Murder” (2011) and the BBC TV series presented by Lucy Worsley “A Very British Murder” (2013) which explored this obsession and showed how some individuals even became collectors of murder memorabilia. Developments in psychology meant that people also became fascinated for the first time by the perpetrators of such crimes. Some of these and their crimes still resonate with us today. Two such names are Burke and Hare, Edinburgh grave robbers who turned to murder once their supply of corpses for local medical students ran out. Burke ended up being executed and becoming the ultimate Victorian collector’s piece when his skin was reputedly used to cover a book (to be seen at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh). Hare, however, was spared the death sentence because he gave evidence against Burke and was quietly released from prison. There was a great initial hoo-hah about this but he soon disappeared . It is this which provides the starting point for Maurice Leitch’s novel.
Retired Policeman Percival Steed is employed by a client to track down Hare. He is on a quest to obtain a life mask for a cabinet of curiosities. In two narrative threads Leitch effecitively explores the lawman and the lawbreaker, the hunter and the hunted. It’s well written, gripping stuff and is well paced throughout. It is an inventive reimagining of what could have happened once Hare was released. A character with a significant part to play is Thomas De Quincy, writer and famous “opium-eater” whose interest in crime led to popular publications such as “On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts.” Steed himself becomes obsessed with his quest to find Hare.
The crimes of Burke and Hare have regularly appeared in print and on film, ranging from the considered classic “The Body Snatcher” (1945) with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to the extremely disappointing black comedy “Burke And Hare” (2010) starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Leitch’s different approach is refreshing.
This is one which will please the crime novel and true crime fan. Maurice Leitch, is a veteran Irish writer who up to now has passed me by. His first novel was published in 1965 and he has won both the Whitbread and Guardian Book Prize. In 1998 he was awarded an MBE. He has written and produced many radio plays and adaptations. He has published 12 other novels and 1 short story collection.
Seeking Mr Hare was published by The Clerkenwell Press in 2013