Formerly a locus of medical science, Edinburgh held one of the world’s leading positions in the area of biology and human anatomy in the early 19th century. The city one of the first to lift legal restrictions on the usage of corpses for research, arriving at that point was not without a little drama, however. A couple of enterprising men had moved beyond grave robbing into actively creating their own ‘research material’ in order to earn a few crowns. Some of the guests at their communal house coming down with strange illnesses, disappearing, or outright dying, they made relatively profitable trade before authorities latched on and put an end to their ‘business venture’. Set in Edinburgh of the same era and building a darkly fantastical narrative around the infamous Burke & Hare murders is Brian Ruckley’s The Edinburgh Dead (2011).
Once a soldier in the Napoleonic wars and bearing the scars to prove it, Adam Quire is now a sergeant in the Edinburgh police force. A gruff, stubborn man, he has few friends in the force, and spends most of his time alone on the beat, investigating crimes in the district or trying to stop the rash of grave robberies that have broken out in the city. When a body turns up in a dark alley, murdered savagely, Quire starts to look into the matter, starting with the silver locket he found on the body bearing the name of one John Ruthven. At the man’s house, Ruthven is polite but cold. He thanks Quire for returning the locket but is elusive in his answers to questions regarding the identity of the murdered man. Quire’s detective work turning up a business connection to Ruthven, he has little time to investigate before being attacked one night at his boarding house in the most bizarre fashion. The attack turning up evidence that even the coroner cannot explain—the supposed expert on dead bodies at that, little does Quire know that he has been sucked into the dark underbelly of Edinburgh’s scientific research…
Tim Powers is known for his wonderfully written secret histories. Taking real world events and lightly mixing in elements of the fantastical to fill remaining gaps, I cannot help feel very similarly Ruckley’s novel occupies a similar niche. Where Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard looks at a secret vampire society behind the lives of some of Britain’s most famous poets, The Edinburgh Dead takes the natural sciences that were burgeoning at the time in Britain—the discovery of galvanic electricity in the human body, knowledge of the organs’ inner workings and interaction, etc.—and adds a touch of research and discovery beyond factual science—knowledge and discovery thought very likely for a hundred years after, even to this day among some circles. The classic interepretation of ‘zombie’ never appearing in the novel, Ruckley tells a dark and gritty story that sticks primarily to reality, but squeezes in a dash or two of the supernatural to spice up the novel, resulting in a narrative part historical fiction, and part gothic horror.
As a whole, The Edinburgh Dead is a solid novel that asks to be read given the manner in which Ruckley presents his material, which, at some fundamental level, is the greatest compliment one can pay a book. An inventive secret history that wraps itself around the Burke & Hare murders of Scotland in the early 19th century with horror overtones, Ruckley’s pacing nicely reveals the story as much as the atmosphere captures both the era and type of tale being told, capping things off with a satisfying conclusion. There are perhaps moments where the prose could have been tightened up and maybe a little more could have been done to give it a stronger period feel, but the overall approach works, making for an entertaining read.