Klavan On The Culture

The Edinburgh Dead

So last week, I put up a small review of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, saying I’d be interested in hearing about other fantasy novels that have some sort of realistic resonance to them.  This one—The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley—I believe popped up on one of the Amazon if-you-like-this-then-buy-this lists and then got what I thought was a pretty noncommittal review in the Wall Street Journal.

And I’m afraid I have to give it a noncommittal review myself.  At first, I loved it.  Great main character, great setting, strong writing and great idea.  I won’t give anything away but it’s basically the Burke and Hare killings embedded in a supernatural detective/horror story.

I’m a big fan of Burke and Hare—if fan is the word I want. They’re the 19th century Irish guys who hit on the brilliant idea of supplying fresh bodies to medical students in Edinburgh simply by killing people and selling their corpses! Is that innovative, or what? Much easier than grave robbing. Not only that, their murder method was so creative—they would pinch their victims’ mouth and nose closed and suffocate them—that it came to be called burking. Okay, shake your head, but do you have a murder method named after you? I didn’t think so.

Anyway, the novel plants these guys and the whole 19th century Edinburgh grave robbing scene at the center of a larger horror plot. It’s a great premise and a terrific set-up with some genuinely exciting moments (nice cover too, as you can see above).  At some point unfortunately—through the last third, say—it all devolves into a series of action/horror sequences without much emotional content to them. Too bad, as there were plenty of good characters to explore and still some good scenes to be had when Ruckley did explore them.

So a good try by a talented writer and an enjoyable read overall, but it peters out toward the end. I’ll definitely check out his next book though.