Burke & Hare

Posted by on December 2nd, 2009 at 3:37 AM

Burke and Hare by Martin Conaghan; Insomnia Publications; 110 pp., ?12.99; B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 9781905808120


Phantom pipers, white ladies, poltergeists, cóiste bodhar; Edinburgh is a city full of ghosts that have been the basis for much of the city’s acclaimed literary output. As is often the case, though, it is the history of the town that reveals its true horrors. Such is the case with Burke and Hare, two canal laborers from Ireland who, in the 1820s, carried out a series of murders in order to sell the bodies to Edinburgh’s burgeoning anatomy school. In this new historical graphic novel, Scottish writer and artist team Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering go but an’ ben wi’ the ghoulish duo to examine the facts that have become muddied with legend.

The history is framed by Burke’s prison-cell confession — his partner having turned King’s evidence against him — as he recounts the crimes and the relationship they established with anatomist Robert Knox who paid them handsomely for their merchandise, no questions asked.

The nine-panel grids and Pickering’s crosshatched pen-and-ink art owe more than a debt of gratitude to the work of another Scotsman who illustrated the acts of a notorious serial killer. Indeed, it’s doubtful that this book would exist without Eddie Campbell’s work on From Hell, a fact explicitly acknowledged in the appendix, which even apes Alan Moore’s own commentary in that volume. While Moore relied on often-speculative sources and his own intellectual acrobatics, Conaghan has the luxury of well-documented evidence, including an actual confession. However, the mainly contemporaneous sources have left his tale blind to new evidence.

This is particularly frustrating in the case of Mary Paterson. She is shown as a “tragic whore” who falls prey to the murderers and her subsequent recognition by one of Knox’s students suggests his Biblical knowledge of her. Not only is this inaccurate — Paterson had actually been released from an asylum and left homeless — but enters into a trite discourse that seems to point a finger at the moneyed classes. It shows them as sinister opportunists, exploiting others’ misery for their own gain.

While the writing concerns itself with this dark portrait of the city and its people, the tone is not really reflected in the art. For one thing, it is far too clean. The Edinburgh of this time was filthy: sewage flowed down open sewers in the streets, buildings were black from coal smoke and the Nor Loch crusted over when it became saturated with waste. Without the dirt, the city appears like a picture postcard, making Burke and Hare’s crimes seem like an aberration amidst polite society, and Knox’s knowing purchases of the victims render him a mere cartoonish villain. The truth was that these were harsh times when most were living in abject poverty and academia was woefully underfunded, facts the book seems to ignore in considering the crimes’ root cause.

As historically flawed as it is, though, Burke and Hare has nevertheless some powerful moments of storytelling. When Pickering breaks free of the grid and his Campbell imitations to tell the story of Daft Jamie’s murder, letting the art and story breathe in panoramic panels at a more decompressed pace, not only does this give the story a fresher, modern aspect, but it also casts the murder in a starker light. The resulting effect is quite moving.

Had Conaghan and Pickering chosen to cut a more individual path through Burke and Hare’s history, the overall result might have been more worthy of the endeavor. Openly modeling the tale on Moore and Campbell’s work left them open to inevitably unfavorable comparisons. The fact that they begin to gather steam in the book’s chapters is all the more disappointing in its tantalizing hints of what-could-have-been.


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10 Responses to “Burke & Hare”

  1. Lisa Rosner says:

    I’m as big on accuracy as the next history geek, and I’m pleased that my own work on Burke and Hare is having an impact on people’s understanding of the case, but I think you are a bit hard on the authors of this fine Burke and Hare graphic novel, especially when it comes to new evidence about Mary Paterson. To the best of my knowledge I’m the first person in 180 years to have discovered that Mary Paterson was not a “tragic whore”, but rather had left the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum only days before her murder, and I discussed it for the first time in my book The Anatomy Murders, released in the US on October 15, 2009. The new evidence was first published in the UK in the form of an interview with The Edinburgh Evening News on October 24, 2009. How could Conaghan and Pickering have known about it before I’d published it?

  2. Gavin Lees says:

    Hi, Lisa. Glad you caught the review and, indeed, your research was a big vindication for what I had already suspected. My issue was not that Conaghan had not examined your work, per se, but more that he chose the popular account of her story (which probably owes its continued existence to Stevenson) to fit a rather tired line of argument. Most people looking critically at the story of Mary Paterson would realise that someone so well presented as she was would be unlikely to be a prostitute, given the context of Edinburgh at the time – and Conaghan apparently spent over 10 years working on his script. I suspect that your book will make a lot of the city’s amateur historians happy with the facts it now presents – my wife worked as tour guide for several years and the “Mary Paterson problem” was a popular talking point.

  3. Lisa Rosner says:

    Hi Gavin,
    I found it really interesting to talk to some of the Edinburgh tour guides when I was working on my book. One of the issues that came up was whether people on holiday really want historically-accurate history. There’s the whole Greyfriars Bobby story: do tourists really want to hear that the rats in Greyfriars churchyard were so big that no wee doggie would be likely to survive the night? That was brought home to me during one of my book talks: One of the women in the audience had been to Edinburgh and very charmingly and enthusiastically told the rest of the audience about Greyfriars Bobby waiting patiently by his master’s grave, etc, and no, I did NOT take the opportunity to tell her about the rats…
    I understand there’s now a Burke and Hare murder tour in Edinburgh — I’ll be interested to hear what kind of tales they tell.

  4. Gavin Lees says:

    Oh, yes, of course – while the tour guides are all very interested in historical accuracy (most of them are history majors), they still peddle the stories of Walter Scott’s mother awakened from a premature burial and people cooked alive in the South Bridge Vaults. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Burke and Hare stories once the Simon Pegg/David Tennant film is released!

  5. mrkeeper says:

    Two things: you’ve either not read this book properly, or you’re deliberately being objectionable. I can’t think why you would intentionally trash an indie book in such an ill-informed manner, so I can only assume you haven’t read it properly – especially given the other largely positive reviews this book has recieved. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion – poorly-judged though it may be.

    I’ve read this book at least three times now, and I went back and re-read the Mary Paterson chapter (and the notes associated with it) again after reading your review. You couldn’t be further off the mark. Conaghan clearly states that the Paterson segment is taken from Hugh Douglas’ book, and at no point does he state that it’s the correct version of events – it’s just a representation of what possibly happened, based on the available information (I don’t know anything about Lisa Rosner’s evidence, but I plan to pick it up and find out what she’s referring to). The rest of the book is the same – it’s all about context and blending the sources to tell a fact-based story and correct any historical errors. As Conaghan states right at the beginning of his notes, it’s all very straightforward – and it’s a thoroughly-well researched story as far as I’m concerned.

    I’ve been reading about Burke and Hare since I was a kid, and this is as close as you’ll get to something that represents what actually happened, as far as I can tell. As for him using “mainly contemporaneous sources” – what are you on about? Conaghan cites Owen Dudley Edwards, Allana Knight and Brian Bailey among his sources – all of which were written fairly recently. Again, this demonstrates ill-informed criticism that betrays ignorance of the facts presented before you in the notes.

    As for your comments about the artwork not being representative of the filthy streets: it’s a comic. What were you expecting? Sewage pouring from every cobblestone?

    I think Will Pickering has done a remarkable job of recreating some of the contemporary etchings and paintings of the time, given how few there probably are. The buildings and streets are excellently captured.

    I suggest you go back and read it again and drop the agenda, whatever it is.

  6. Gavin Lees says:

    “It’s a comic” – I think this summarises your perspective quite succinctly. Just because something is a comic does not mean that it should be treated as literature-lite or be excused from its failings. I’m not sure how familiar you are with The Comics Journal, but if there is any agenda here, it’s that comics can, and should, be better. “Burke and Hare” had a great premise – one I’ve been fascinated with for a long time – but chose to execute it as a pale imitation of “From Hell” (and if you want to see the dirt of streets captured perfectly, Campbell’s work on this book is stunning).

    And, yes, the Mary Paterson segment is taken from Douglas’s book – but it is a version of events that most historians are highly skeptical of. Conaghan spent ten years on this book, so I was extremely disappointed that he used events that are widely believed to be false. But, then, “it’s a comic” – so maybe I should just have let him away with it, eh?

  7. mrkeeper says:

    Conaghan doesn’t say anywhere in the notes that he worked on Butke and Hare for 10 years. He says in the notes (and in an interview on the FP website) that he origianlly scripted it in the 1990s, then returned to it recently.

    Comparing it to From Hell is neither valid, not fair – irrespective of how much it influenced the book.

    I have a strong suspicion you haven’t even read it – if you have, then you’ve totally missed the point of the inclusion of certain scenes – or you haven’t even bothered reading the notes that explain the rationale behind them.

    They’ve produced a well-written, well-researched and perfectly well-drawn book for an indie publisher – probably for no cash up-front – whereas Moore and Campbell worked for 10 years straight on a tome extending into about 600 pages – earning full page rates (not to mention having the weight of a comics legend behind it). Yet, you’ve chose to pan it for no other reason than you reckon they shouldn’t “get away with it” because it somehow doesn’t match up to your literary standards or your ill-informed notion of the actual facts.

    I have a personal interest in the Burke and Hare case – I’ve made a point of going back over some of the books I own on the subject (Bailey, Douglas, Knight, Edwards – all reasonably good books) – and Conaghan’s version of the Paterson murder concurs with all of them. You clearly haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

  8. Gavin Lees says:

    (Berlatsky’s right – we need a forum for this kind of thing)

    If you disagree with my opinion of the book, that’s fine – I’m actually glad that other people like it, since I’m a champion of the Scottish small press – but I take exception to being accused of not reading the book when you haven’t read my review properly or the comments that have preceded these ones.

    I did not “pan” the book – there are sections of it that I thought were very well-crafted and give some fairly high praise for them. The Mary Paterson aspect was only a small part of my review which you have incorrectly chosen to focus on as its thesis.

    And, once again, you’re saying that indie comics should be judged by different standards – because the creators aren’t paid up front. Using a publisher’s financial model as a basis for criticising its work is perhaps the most ludicrous thing in your comment…had you not gone on to say that I didn’t like the book “because it somehow doesn’t match up to [my] literary standards”. That’s how reviews work! Or should we all be writing glowing puff pieces for every publication just because the poor, underpaid artists deserve a wooden spoon award for effort?

  9. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Gavin: Interesting discussion you have here. I think it would be a good idea to tag your posts as being “Reviews” so that they turn up when a reader clicks the “Reviews” link on the left side bar. I almost missed your articles because of the way the site is set up.

  10. Kristy Valenti says:

    The message board is still available if you click on the Blood and Thunder link.

    We are working on getting categories set up in the dashboard and little identifying logos on the front page posts, so hopefully that will be squared away in the near future.