Just before Christmas, a new book hit the shelves giving a new lease of life to infamous serial murderer William Hare, written by Peter Ranscombe, yet another of the scores of our fellow Scotsman refugees, who is carving out a new career as a novelist.
Hare tells the story of the one half of Burke and Hare who got away, with the blessing of the state, for turning King’s Evidence against his partner in crime, William Burke who was executed in 1829. In it Peter imagines that William Hare emigrated to America, where he meets Captain Alexander Gillespie, a Boston police officer originally from Edinburgh.
When I call Peter’s writing a piece for Scottish Field, the drinks blog of which he also he regularly writes. Having been at The Scotsman for almost ten years, he still does some work for them as well as The Press & Journal and The Lancet.
How did the launch go?
“It went really well, and it was at Blackwell’s which is just round the corner from where Hare used to sell the bodies, so it was the ideal place to hold the book launch. When they were around, Surgeon’s Hall was actually Surgeon Square, behind what’s now High School Yards down to the Cowgate, it was only later that they built Surgeon’s Hall further along.”
That’s pretty much where the city mortuary is, isn’t it?
“Just a stone’s throw away, so that’s a bit spooky. We did sell out of the book, so I was pleased with Blackwell’s as a venue.”
I’ve only read the first few chapters, so I was unsure if it was going to be more an examination of the Burke and Hare legend or is it more of a hook to hang a beginning of a series. Is it the crime fiction or the history that interested you?
“More an interest in historical fiction. I didn’t set out to write a Burke and Hare story, that was an idea that came to me when I was lying in the bath, when I was doing another assignment, and the final scene of the book popped into my head. It’s not unusual for that to happen because I write in quite a visual manner. What was different this time was that I had an inkling of how the two characters in the final scene had ended up where they were.”
So you worked backwards, you had a scene and worked out how to get there.
“The novel opens with the Boston part of the narrative, and I fill it with four flashbacks that explain what could have happened to Hare between Edinburgh and Boston.”
Four different possibilities or just one narrative?
Having looked into the story, I was struck how odd the idea of King’s Evidence is, that Hare got off scot-free. Do you explore what a strange idea that is?
“Enough to put it in context and explain to the reader what’s going on, and that is what influences where he goes. In real life he was released, put on to a mail coach and bundled out of Edinburgh to avoid the mob. The last time he’s seen is crossing the Border into England near Carlisle and that’s where the trail goes cold. There’s an old tale that he was blinded in a lime kiln and ended his days as a beggar on the streets of London. Proper historians like Owen Dudley Edwards who has written the best non-fiction book on Burke and Hare suggests that that is a Victorian moral tale that was created to pretend that Hare had got his just deserts as well as Burke getting hanged. So I explain King’s Evidence to explain why he’s on the run.”
Was the character Gillespie based on a real person?
“He’s purely a ficional creation. I really liked the idea of taking Hare and seeing what happened next, but also the crowd in Edinburgh were very angry that Burke was hanged but Hare got away scot-free, so I thought that if the crowd were angry the police would be angry as well, so I had a young police officer in his first year on the job so that I could take him off to America as well and come across Hare a second time.”
There is a foreshadowing of that in an early scene where Gillespie feels a knife in his pocket and thinks: “Soon he would see that justice was done”. What crime authors will often do is use the story to examine a wider social context. One of the more obvious ones for this story would be the role of poverty and social exclusion to drive people to commit these crimes in the first place.
“The way I examined the idea of poverty is that I try to draw a contrast between the Old and the New Town of Edinburgh. By that point you’re only just getting people starting to move away from the Old Town into the New Town. The first bit had been built but there was a fair bit to go. I try to draw that as part of the contrast but also the contrast between Gillespie and Hare: he was born in the Old Town in relative poverty but chose a different path to these to Irish labourers. That was how I dealt with that kind of light and shadow. The main thing that came out of the book was redemption. When I was reading up on Burke I came across the story recounting his confession. He seems to have been torn apart by what they did, the realisation that murder is wrong seems to have hit him quite hard. He maybe didn’t have a religious conversion but he was certainly troubled and was confessing to his sins.”
There’s a line you give him when his manacles are removed: “Thank God these are off and all will be off shortly.”
“Exactly. So I wondered what would happen with Hare, would the same thoughts have been going through his head as well, and that’s one of the things I did through the flashbacks.”
You say redemption, and there is a mention very early about the tension between Christianity and science in the lecture theatre. Is religion quite an important part in that for you?
“Yes, I think so. In this context it was because of Burke’s confession and conversion, if you like, while waiting to be hanged. There’s also the whole context of the Enlightenment: though these were very grisly murders, the people who were buying the bodies were men of the Enlightenment looking to train the next generation of doctors, and there’s a conflict between science and religion there.”
Are you writing anything else at the moment?
“I’m in the interesting position that although this is my first novel to be published it’s the second one I’ve written. The first one is sitting in the bottom drawer of the desk and I’ve now got to decide do I take it out again, take it apart and see if it will go back together in a publishable form. Or do I carry on with another idea, which I’m about 3,000 words into. The one in the drawer is not a historical novel. If this one is a historical thriller this would be a science thriller. The other is a historical novel set in the dying days of the Second World War in Europe.”
You joined the Scotsman about ten years ago, what was your route into journalism?
“I did physics at St Andrews then I did my journalism training through in Glasgow on the course that Strathclyde and Caledonian used to run together. I had done work experience at The Scotsman that led into shift work on the professional pages and special projects, and six years on the business desk.”
One last thing in relation to journalism is that right at the start of the book you have a pop at the press for not getting the facts right, calling Burke and Hare’s crimes “grave robbing”. That’s something that, centuries on, still makes sub editors livid.
“It’s hilarious, though, because even the publicity for it, the listings for the event [deleted 21/01/2016] had ‘grave robbers’ in it.
“If nothing else, I’d love people reading Hare to come away with that in their minds, that they weren’t grave robbers.”
Thanks, Peter, hope it does well!
Hare by Peter Ranscombe is published in hardback by Knox Robinson Publishing, ISBN 978-1-908483-83-6