Burke and Hare by Martin Conaghan;Â Insomnia Publications;Â 110 pp., ?12.99;Â B&W, Softcover;Â ISBN: 9781905808120
Phantom pipers, white ladies, poltergeists, cÃ³iste bodhar; Edinburgh is a city full of ghosts that have been the basis for much of the cityâs 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 Edinburghâs burgeoning anatomy school. In this new historical graphic novel, Scottish writer and artist team Martin Conaghan and Will Pickering go but anâ ben wiâ the ghoulish duo to examine the facts that have become muddied with legend.
The history is framed by Burkeâs prison-cell confession â his partner having turned Kingâs evidence against him â 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 Pickeringâs 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, itâs doubtful that this book would exist without Eddie Campbellâs work on From Hell, a fact explicitly acknowledged in the appendix, which even apes Alan Mooreâs 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 âtragic whoreâ who falls prey to the murderers and her subsequent recognition by one of Knoxâs students suggests his Biblical knowledge of her. Not only is this inaccurate â Paterson had actually been released from an asylum and left homeless â but enters into a trite discourse that seems to point a finger at the moneyed classes. It shows them as sinister opportunists, exploiting othersâ 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 Hareâs crimes seem like an aberration amidst polite society, and Knoxâs 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 crimesâ 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 Jamieâs 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 Hareâs history, the overall result might have been more worthy of the endeavor. Openly modeling the tale on Moore and Campbellâs work left them open to inevitably unfavorable comparisons. The fact that they begin to gather steam in the bookâsÂ chapters is all the more disappointing in its tantalizing hints of what-could-have-been.