Burke’s Last Witness is a poignant haunting psychological drama which delves into the mind of notorious serial killer William Burke as he awaits his execution. Using accounts from his 2-day trial in 1828, this telling of the story will challenge the common perception about who the main protagonist was in the deadly partnership between William Burke and William Hare. Burke is not a simple retelling of the duo’s 16 murders. Set in the death-cell of cold, dank Calton Jail days before his execution in front of 25,000 people, Burke languishes with only his jailor Captain Rose for company. This chilling novella follows the last few days of Burke’s life as he awaits his public execution. Chained and racked with cancerous tumours Burke unburdens himself to the honourable Captain Rose who strives to understand why these two men committed such atrocities. Burke’s Last Witness is a novella developed from the popular play (also written by CJ Dunford) which has toured widely and to great critical acclaim.
J A Warnock’s Review
In ‘Burke’s Last Witness’ C. J. Dunford takes on a classic writing challenge; how to write a story that everyone already knows or thinks they know. We see this time and time again when authors tackle subjects like The Titanic (spoiler alert; it sinks), Jack the Ripper (justice is not served) or Sherlock Holmes (he is clever and impolite) to demonstrate just a few. The story of the murderous Burke and Hare is phenomenally well known and as such makes a brave subject which is nicely (pun not entirely unintended) executed.
There are two particularly nice touches in Dunford’s novella. First, she debunks the popular myth that they were grave-robbers or resurrection men and sticks more closely to the known facts than other more romanticised (if such a thing is possible) tellings of the tale.
Second, she focusses more on the reactions of other characters to the story than on the story itself which creates an interesting sense of perspective. Much of the story is written from the viewpoint of Captain Rose, the Governor of Calton Gaol who interviewed both men around the time of the trial. In a wonderfully paradoxical moment, Rose turns to the one man we know is lying to see the truth though I think for truth we should read horror as he is quite obviously discomfited by any moral or philosophical similarities between himself and his prisoner. Motivation is the biggest question running through the novella and both Rose and the reader must decide who they believe.
Edinburgh’s streets and passages come alive and, beasties wriggling in ears notwithstanding will make an indelible impression on the reader. All in all a great little book which can be devoured in a few skin crawling, soul blackening hours. Four stars.
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Contact: Caroline Dunford
Twitter ~ @verdandiweaves
Website ~Caroline Dunford Author Site
Thank you to Caroline Dunford for my review copy of the book.