08 June 2013

Books: Murder As A Fine Art by David Morrell (2013)

Three years ago, I read Dan Simmons Drood, a fictional account of writer Charles Dickens last five years as he toiled to finish what was to be his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood –which he never did. Simmons was able to mix a factual biography from the lives of Dickens, Wilke Collins, and other literary and historical figures of the Victorian era into a complex plot, which was long, but well executed.

David Morrell does the same here, somewhat, by using a real person, essayist Thomas De Quincey, and landing him into a 1854 London, a city that is suddenly and violently thrown asunder when a murder resembling a mass killing from 40 years ago takes place. De Qunicey was famous for writing his account of being addicted to laudanum - tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight (the equivalent of 1% morphine) - in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. At the time, and many decades later, the idea of a man of well means –the stiff upper crust of Victorian England- would lower his “station” and broadcast his personal life for all the world to read was seen as horrifying. 

He also wrote On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, a fictional, satirical account of an address made to a gentleman's club concerning the aesthetic appreciation of murder. It focused particularly on a series of murders allegedly committed in 1811 by John Williams in the neighborhood of Ratcliffe Highway, London. Williams was the one and only prime suspect, though today everything the police had on him seemed circumstantial at best. As it was pointed out, the courts of that time gave greater weight to logic and eyewitness testimony than to any forensic evidence. The concept was that if a narrative fit the facts and made sense, then more than likely that person was guilty). Williams, who was arrested just before Christmas, never lived to stand trial, as he hung himself over the Christmas holiday. His suicide, it was then recorded, meant he was guilty.

Morrell’s novel brings the aged De Quincey and his devoted daughter Emily to London in December of 1854. Though the author is in debt, the trip and their lodgings were paid for by someone else, a person who also claims to have knowledge of a prostitute named Ann whom De Quincey fall in love with fifty years ago, but is desperate to learn her fate. Then a series of ferocious mass murders, identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier, takes place and De Quincey becomes the number one suspect, as the blueprint for the killings seems to be his classic essay on the Ratcliffe Highway killings. Desperate to clear his name but also crippled by his opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his outspoken Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

The book is a fine psychological thriller, and Morrell has created some wonderful characters that crackle off the page. De Quincey’s addiction runs through the entire book and the author has obviously done a lot of research into addiction and into the mind of a killer. Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienst, the book is also somewhat about the early days of forensic science, when investigators began looking at killers and their victims differently. Also present you see the dark side of London, the fog (which at times could be considered a character), the soot, the class structure that seems to persist even today. 

Much like what Simmons tried to evoke with Drood, Morrell's does a great job in blending fact and fiction and reads like a Wilke Collins novel (the man that is credited for creating the first real novel of suspense) from the 19th-century. You’ll swear, as you turn the pages, “that you'll hear the hooves clattering on cobblestones, the racket of dustmen, and the shrill call of vendors.”

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