Seeking Mr Hare, by Maurice Leitch
Imagining the fate of an Irish bodysnatcher allows Leitch to explore the feral side of human nature
Seeking Mr Hare
The Mr Hare being sought in Maurice Leitch’s intriguing new novel is the one who, with his fellow Irishman William Burke, terrorised Edinburgh in the late 1820s with a series of murders whose victims they then sold, for about £10 a time, to the local medical faculty.
The entitlement of what Hare here calls “scientific butchers” to their research materials seems to have gone pretty much unchallenged at the time. Burke and Hare, on the other hand, became legendary bogeymen and graverobbers as well as killers.
Leitch’s Hare may vehemently deny being a “resurrectionist”, but those who have previously spoken for him, among them Robert Louis Stevenson and Ian Rankin, prefer the legend. This novel takes another tack in its unnerving success in bringing Hare down to earth, allowing him his voice, his amorality, his superior survival instincts. The evil that men do is all too recognisably banal in his account of himself, in which he’s as unselfconscious as he is unapologetic, and where it’s the pressure of the present and not the ghosts of the past that keep him going.
Though it’s set in 1829, Seeking Mr Hare is not quite a historical novel. That’s because after Burke was hanged (largely on Hare’s testimony) Hare was sent away from Edinburgh. The last recorded sighting of him was outside Carlisle, as Leitch tells us, which is almost the point at which Hare’s narrative begins.
As he searches for a life for himself, and for Hannah, the mute servant girl who attaches herself to him, his opportunism and improvisation are a set of imaginative performances, the peculiar appeal and novelty of which have the reader imagining along with him, adding a layer of complicity to the proceedings.
We might like to pretend that Hare the murdering monster is not one of us, but there’s no denying that he is, and this realisation has a further resonance as the bulk of the action takes place in his native northern Ireland. It was there that he cut his teeth as a Whiteboy (he claims), and where he and Hannah are subjected to casual violence, observe the ether-sodden yeomanry of mid Co Antrim, and decline the offer of life in a circus only to join a more spectacular show, the evangelical revival in Belfast, a city in which, Hare observes, “people . . . had only two things of import in life, making money and going to church”.
Such supposedly worthy disciplines furnish Hare with his most elaborate and sustained openings for both rip-off and performance, although even in this case exploitation of the credulous doesn’t last forever, and Hare and Hannah have to go back to England and oblivion.
One reason for their flight back to England is that since he left Edinburgh Hare has been sought. The seeking Hare lives on his wits, his appetites and the promptings of the moment. The seeker, a prototype private eye named Speed, is all method and convention, a rational antidote to his quarry’s instinctual improvisations. Speed has been engaged to pursue Hare by a Lord Beckford, an amateur criminologist with a decadent streak. By the time Speed is in a position to complete his assignment, Beckford has lost interest, and nothing comes of the eventual meeting between seeker and sought, neither explanation nor redemption, suggesting that the only reality the two share consists of their both looking for something.
Seeking is everything
Seeking is everything. The worlds they occupy are parallel and opposed, yet at the same time together Hare and Speed – the names are a hint – also embody related approaches to the fundamental modern need to go on making progress.
Both approaches are equally valid. Each man’s narrative has its integrity. Neither outlook is superior to the other. Right and wrong are a mixed bag, at best, a conclusion Speed has already come to when he eventually does meet Hare, having had his standing undermined by the moral swamps into which his seeking has led him.
One particularly influential turning point occurs during a visit made at Beckford’s behest to the Antrim estate of Viscount Massereene. There Speed happens on his host in the arms of his black manservant Ptolemy, whose superior physique is also instrumental in humiliating Speed’s right-hand man Slack, a Bible-reading former pugilist.
It is at the viscount’s, too, that Speed encounters laudanum-bibbing Thomas De Quincey, whose nose for a good story results in Speed revealing his hunt for Hare. The author of Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts, which mentions Hare and which was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, De Quincey approximates the murderer’s counterpart. For him also, nothing human is alien; the difference is that in the writer’s case he can hold what is alien in the forceps of language, while Hare remains both prisoner and exponent of the visceral level of relatedness.
Difference: in each of Leitch’s previous nine novels that’s one of the words that matter, not only as a mark of character but as an object of the sense of quest that is so central to the novelist’s business. And as in his other works, Leitch here continues to venture down thematic roads not usually taken, in the company of both social misfits and intimate strangers. These often provocative deviations may be one reason for the strange neglect of his never less than searching novels. His output is too restless, too committed to difference as subject and motive to support a Leitch brand (thankfully).
Not that he goes out of his way for his material: his settings are eminently recognisable, his characters entirely plausible. But Leitch always pushes beyond surfaces on into the other side, into the dark that often turns out to be what we’ve suspected or feared or denied all along.
In Seeking Mr Hare, the narratives of quarry and hunter also reveal how light and dark, reason and murder, science and crime, theology and theatre are intertwined, largely because none of them can afford to examine its own nature. Getting by and getting on allows no time for such scrutiny. All that’s admissible is the lust for control and the urge to survival. Control asserts itself through institutions, survival through subversion. Of the two, Hare’s progress is by far the most candid, inscrutable and engaging. “Hare by name as well as by nature,” Speed says, “sly and secretive to the very last.”
This Hare is not for turning. Away he goes on his maze-like course, always veering, always testing the limits of those (the majority) who proceed as though they are certain they can tell right from wrong, untamed, irrepressible, impenitent, unavoidable: human, all too ferally human, knowing no different.
Seeking Mr Hare by Maurice Leitch is published by Clerkenwell Press, 295pp, £12.99
George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010 has just been issued in paperback.