Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Edinburgh Dead - Brian Ruckley (Orbit, 2011)

George Mann kindly gave me this book as a Christmas present, presumbaly drawn by the fact that (a) it sounds a bit creepy and other-worldly and (b) it's set in Edinburgh, my home town.  Whatever the reason I'm gad he did, because this is one of the more satisfying novels in every respect that I've read recently.

For a start, the author, Brian Ruckley, does a fabulous job of conjuring up Edinburgh in 1828, as George IV Bridge is being erected across the Cowgate and Burke and Hare are up to their infamous tricks in the West Port and Grassmarket.  It helps, obviously, that I've lived in Edinburgh all my life and did a degree in Scottish history, but even so, I've read similar books which did a far less impressive job of bringing Ye Olde Edinburgh to life.  From an ice covered Duddinston Loch to the opulence of the Assembly Rooms, Princes Street in the gloom of newly installed gas lights to the wynds and closes of Leith by the docks, the descriptive passages are wonderful, not least this description of the house of 17th century warlock and madman, Major Weir:

"It was colder in here than he had expected, like a cave.  That shawl draped around Agnes' head did not seem so redundant.  The walls, when his fingertips brushed them, were damp to the touch.  Hundreds of small webs were tucked into the edges of the celing.  The floor had a disquieting hint of softness to it, the layers of dirt giving beneath his feet.  Not a cave, not quite; a tomb.  Quire felt himself to be disturbing a place that had been asleep for a long time.'

Of course, description with no plot and no characters would be a fairly pointless exercise, but here again, the book doesn't fail to deliver.  The protagonist, Adam Quire, ex-soldier and current policeman, is sufficently well rounded to satisfy (though at times I was reminded of the slightly later, and genuine, Edinburgh policeman, James M'Levy - or at least the radio version of him) as are those Edinburgh folk working on the side of good and those for evil.  Actually, thinking about it, the novel has quite an extensive cast, but each is well drawn and distinct, with Agnes the Witch of Leith perhaps the most interesting, for me at least.

As for the story, the author says in the interview which closes the book that the basis for the book was a stray thought - what if Burke and Hare were stealing bodies for more than just anatomists like Robert Knox?  It's a nice if not startling idea, but Ruckley uses this relatively slight thread to create a rich tapestry which I enjoyed immensely.

The only minor comaplint?  When I went to the author's website to see if there were a sequel, there isn't.  With a bit of luck, Ruckley will remedy that fact soon.

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