Book review: Seeking Mr Hare by Maurice Leitch

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Maurice Leitch is 80 this year, an age when a novelist’s best work will almost always be behind him. Robert McLiam Wilson has called him “the finest Irish novelist of his generation”, which is an exaggeration but a venial one.

Seeking Mr Hare by Maurice Leitch

The Clerkenwell Press, 295pp, £12.99

Long years as a BBC radio producer have restricted his output without drying up his inspiration, as has happened to others immured in Broadcasting House. I suppose he might have written more otherwise, not necessarily, of course, better.

Still most of his previous nine novels are very good indeed, notably The Liberty Lad (with what is claimed to be the first description of a gay bar in Ulster, fiction) Silver’s City, which won the Whitbread Prize, and Gilchrist.

Seeking Mr Hare is, it must be admitted, not quite in this class, though entertaining enough. The Hare of the title is a man rarely mentioned alone, more usually following his confederate Burke, as a staple of Edinburgh lore, nowadays of the tourist industry. Their story has been told countless times, definitively by Owen Dudley Edwards. Leitch acknowledges that it was this “masterly” work which set him off on his own “literary hunt”.

Hare, who saved his life by turning King‘s Evidence against his partner, has always seemed less interesting than Burke. The future Lord Cockburn, who defended Burke’s paramour, Helen MacDougall, observed that “except that he murdered, Burke was a gentlemanly fellow”. After Burke was hanged, Hare was smuggled out of the jail and put on a coach to Carlisle, at which point he seems to disappear from history (though there is a legend that he died as a blind beggar in London), and Leitch’s novel begins.

It is told in two narrative voices. The first is Hare’s, recounting his own picaresque adventures. The prose flows easily, with an Irish – or stage-Irish? – rhythm.

This is convincing, or at least credible, even though the range of reference and variety of tone, may run counter to the reader’s preconceived idea of Hare as a dull and brutal villain. Still, the narrative is lively and continuously interesting and full of incident.

After Hare has returned to Ulster, Leitch offers a rich picture of provincial life, with its brawls, travelling folk, grasping peasantry, fairs and low entertainments. There are moments of comedy and of tenderness, the latter relating to the dumb girl who attaches herself to Hare.

The other voice is that of a former Bow Street Runner in pursuit of Hare in an attempt to obtain the mask made of his face in the jail. He has been commissioned to secure this by a rich patron, a collector of curiosities, who is identified as “Lord Beckford of Bath”. There was no such person, but I suppose Leitch means the eccentric aesthete, William Beckford, who built the astonishing Fonthill Abbey.

The former Runner is accompanied by a retired Bible-reading pugilist, who supplies much of the novel’s comedy. His own tone is precise, reserved, rather flat.

Leitch does not romanticise Hare. He is a mean, quarrelsome fellow and regrets neither his crimes nor his betrayal of Burke. This saved his own neck and so made sense. I am not wholly persuaded that he is a wholly convincing figure, though his resentment of a world that has offered him so little and the consequent self-pity he displays ring true. And it should be said that his self-satisfied pursuer is no more agreeable. There are also a couple of pleasing discussions with Thomas De Quincey, whose own interest in the doings of Burke and Hare provided a spark for his “Essay on Murder Considered as a Fine Art”.

Although engaging, inventive, assured in manner, deft in arrangement, this lacks the intensity which characterised Leitch’s best books. Unlike them it never, despite the infamy of its main character’s reputation, really examines the nature of murder as an assertion of the primacy of the individual will over the demands of civil society. But perhaps this is its point: a man like Hare may not, on account of his own nature and experience, recognize that there are indeed such demands.

Maurice Leitch is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 22 August