Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Resurrecting a Scottish Killer

Author Peter Ranscombe with William Burke’s skeleton, which is housed at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum. (Photo by Alex Hewitt/WriterPictures.)

Have you noticed yet that my new Kirkus Reviews column has been posted? Here it is. The subject this week is Hare (Knox Robinson), an imperfect but nonetheless captivating historical thriller by Scottish journalist-turned-author Peter Ranscombe. As I explain in my review, the book resurrects William Hare, who with fellow Irish “navvy” William Burke, murdered at least 15 people in Edinburgh during the late 1820s in order to sell their corpses to an illustrious anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox. After being caught, Hare made a deal to testify against his partner-in-crime in exchange for his own freedom. Burke was hanged in late January 1829, while Hare … well, history has no firm record of what he did after fleeing the Scottish capital.

Which is where Ranscombe comes in. A longtime reporter for The Scotsman newspaper, he imagines, in Hare, what became of Burke’s criminal cohort. The novel is set in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1863, a city that “felt like a powder keg ready to explode,” thanks to tensions surrounding the American Civil War. Worsening the situation are grave robberies and a growing number of murders along the docklands, which police captain Alexander Gillespie thinks he’s on the way to solving when he discovers that William Hare has taken up residence in his city under an assumed moniker. Gillespie and Hare tangled before, back in Edinburgh, when Gillespie was still a police patrolman trying to stop Burke and Hare’s killing spree.

I won’t go to the trouble of repeating everything that I wrote in Kirkus; you can read my review of the book here. However, I do want to offer Rap Sheet readers the results of a short e-mail interview I conducted with Ranscombe, only a few bits of which I was able to squeeze into my Kirkus column. I think our exchange provides valuable background for folks interested in reading Hare.

J. Kingston Pierce: Articles about you and your new novel seem always to describe you as “young.” So how old are you?

Peter Hare: I was born in 1982, and so I’m 32 and will be 33 later this year. I had always wanted to have a novel published before I was 30 … Knox Robinson accepted Hare for publication while I was still 30 and so I hope that counts.

JKP: How long did you work for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday? And you’re now described as a freelance journalist. So when did you leave those newspapers?

PR: I worked at The Scotsman for nine years. I left in January 2014 during a round of voluntary redundancies. I spent nine months as the senior staff writer at Scottish Field magazine before becoming a freelance journalist and corporate copywriter in November 2014. I still write the wine column for Scottish Field magazine and a drinks blog on the Scottish Field Web site.

JKP: Did you write primarily about business during your newspaper period, or was business merely one of your beats?

PR: My first three years at The Scotsman were spent writing for and helping to edit the professional pages--which covered education, government and public affairs, law, media, medicine, and science--and the special projects, which included the “Seven Wonders of Scotland” and the 2007 Nationhood Debates. I then spent six years on the business desk, writing about a range of subjects from food and drink through to renewable energy and life sciences. During my nine years at The Scotsman, I also wrote travel and wildlife articles for the newspaper’s Saturday magazine. So business was my main beat but I always had other irons in the fire.

[By way of explanation, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday are both owned by the same company, Johnston Press. They had separate staff until 2009, when the writing staff for the two titles were merged. From that point forward, I wrote for both titles.]

JKP: You came to journalism, and studied at the apparently now-defunct Scottish Centre for Journalism Studies, after first studying physics. Why the switch of directions?

PR: There was method in my madness! I had always aimed to write about science and so I studied physics and then trained as a journalist. During my time at The Scotsman, I wrote for the Science & Technology pages and then later wrote about life science companies, technology firms, and university spin-outs for the business pages. I still write about science for outlets including The Lancet medical journal’s specialist titles.

[By way of explanation, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Strathclyde used to teach journalism jointly through the Scottish Centre for Journalism Studies--they now each run separate journalism training courses]

JKP: How did you first become interested in the ungentlemanly Burke and Hare? Was it merely the peculiarity of their crimes that drew your attention, or something else?

PR: What attracted me to the story of Burke and Hare was the idea of there being no honor among thieves … or in this case, murderers. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict both men and so Hare was offered a deal by the prosecution to give evidence against his partner-in-crime in return for his own freedom.

I was also interested in the consequences of their murder spree. Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims to one of Edinburgh’s medical schools, with the corpses being dissected to teach training doctors about the human body. A very positive result from a very dark crime.

JKP: I have heard various theories about what really happened to William Hare--that he retreated to Applecross, in the northwest of Scotland, or that he died in a London lime pit after being attacked by a furious rabble. Do you have any better idea of his actual fate?

PR: I don’t have an idea about what happened to William Hare in real life. After a civil case against him was dropped, he was bundled out of Edinburgh on a mail coach to avoid the angry mob. He was last seen crossing the border into England near Carlisle and after that the historical trail goes cold. Historians--including Owen Dudley Edwards, who wrote Burke & Hare [1980], arguably the best book on the topic--think that the idea of Hare being blinded in a lime pit in London was simply a Victorian morality tale. Edwards discovered four accounts of Hare being lynched in different towns and cities.

JKP: I read that you delved into the archives of The Scotsman to learn about what life was like in Edinburgh in the late 1820s, when Burke and Hare were committing their crimes. What sorts of things did you discover in those back-issues that you wouldn’t have known otherwise?

PR: What jumped out at me from the press reports of Burke’s hanging was the anger that the crowd felt towards William Hare. The mob was not happy that Hare was being set free. I used the press reports to add color and atmosphere to the first of the four flashbacks that I use during the novel.

JKP: Since there’s no conclusive proof of what became of Hare, you had pretty free rein to invent his later years. But why move him to Boston of all places? Did you have a previous interest in the Massachusetts capital?

PR: When I was a wee boy, I watched a television series on the BBC called The Civil War, which Ken Burns had made for PBS. The series fascinated me. So I’ve always had an interest in the American Civil War and I had always wanted to set a novel in this period of history. Boston felt like a good fit--I know that the city has a lot of strong Irish connections and, with both William Hare and William Burke being Irish, it felt plausible that Hare could have escaped to America.

JKP: Through your writing of this novel or your research into Hare, did your impressions of him change?

PR: While there have been a lot of words written about Burke--based around the confessions he gave--relatively little has been written about Hare. We don’t even know for sure in which year he was born. So, just like his ultimate fate, there was a lot of free rein when it came to creating my fictional version of Hare. One interesting theme that struck me during the research was that Burke confessed his sins after being convicted--he appeared to be distraught by his actions. So I wondered if perhaps Hare may have felt the same guilt later in life. I think the motivation for their crimes was simple--greed. They were paid a lot of money for the bodies.

JKP: Hare comes off in your novel as a pitiful man, whose efforts to redeem himself were forever frustrated. Yet he has considerable courage, if only the courage of the condemned. Is that how you intended that he be viewed?

PR: Those are certainly two aspects--courage and pity--that I wanted to explore over the course of the book. I wanted to keep the reader guessing, but also to have the reader change their opinion about Hare (and about Gillespie) over the course of the book. It wasn’t just about taking Hare on a journey, but also taking Gillespie on a journey.

The two Edinburgh killers themselves.

JKP: How did you go about creating the character of Alexander Gillespie? And why was he your perfect fictional adversary/companion for Hare in this book?

PR: Gillespie was there at the very start of the process of creating Hare. I wanted to have a strong link with Burke and Hare’s crimes in Edinburgh, and so having a policeman who had worked in first Scotland and then America gave me that connection. I wanted to play around with the idea of who was the hero and who was the villain--Gillespie is a policeman, but hopefully he has both light and shade, while Hare is a murderer, but a murderer who is looking for redemption. Whether he has found that redemption or not is up to the reader to decide. I think Gillespie is the ideal foil for Hare because they both have light and dark sides--they both came from similar backgrounds but chose differing paths.

JKP: Now that you’ve had success with Hare, are you working on a second novel? Is it again a historical mystery of some variety?

PR: Although Hare was my first novel to be published, it was the second book that I wrote. So I now have to decide whether to go back to the first one and redraft it and see if it’s suitable for publication, or whether I choose to start something different. If Hare is an historical thriller, then the first book is a science thriller set in the present-day. The other ideas for books--of which there are many--are mainly set in the past.

1 comment:

Lewis said...

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Perhaps, at some time in the future when my blog is up to speed, you will visit and comment every now and then. Today's question centers upon Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels.

Well, that's enough for now. All the best from the American south.