I began reading The Flesh Market expecting a straightforward historical novel about the nineteenth century serial killers Bill Burke and William Hare. Set against the backdrop of 1800’s Edinburgh and the flourishing schools of anatomy, Burke and Hare carried out the murders of sixteen people in order to supply them to the schools as dissection subjects for a substantial payment. But to my surprise and delight I discovered there was an added twist: zombies! Friends will know that I am rather a fan of this genre.
The novel starts excellently with the ‘Cadaver Riots’, an exciting opening chapter that introduces the theme of the undead and the motive and drive of the eminent anatomist Dr Robert Knox, famous for his open dissection classes. His repugnance at the ‘revenants’ flouting the laws of nature and science forces him to offer large sums of money in return for living cadavers. However the story loses pace from thereon. Considering this is a novel about zombies and murder, the first murder is somewhat feeble, retold in confusion through the hungover inner ramblings of Burke; a missed opportunity for a good shock.
The characterization of Burke himself is rather weak. The author attempts to lead us to feel pity for him, his alcoholism both a cause and symptom of the murders. However, considering the cold calculation behind them, his actions do not elicit this response in the reader and it is very hard not to feel that he was just as culpable as his partner in crime, Hare. The problem lies in attempting to provide the reader with a hero despite there being none.
However, these flaws aside, it really was an interesting twist on an old tale. The ‘revenants’ add a further dimension to the suspense that is kept up throughout the novel and interestingly, to the characters’ rationalization of the murders. It is not only Burke and Hare and their womenfolk who have to justify the murders, but also Dr Knox and his young assistants, who cannot ignore the youth, freshness and lack of evident cause of death of the ‘revenants.’ Moreover, it creates a motive beyond monetary reward for Hare, who is well characterised as the embodiment of monstrous evil.
Following the real historical events fairly accurately, despite its flaws The Flesh Market is a good, creepy read, but if zombies are what you’re really after I’d stick to World War Z (the novel, not the film. That was a horror for different reasons).