London fog and a cunning Victorian-era mass murderer: thoughts of Jack the Ripper are a given, but author David Morrell has something different in mind. In his novel Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell regards another set of sensational 19th century slayings, and vividly extrapolates upon the titular theme. In 1811, the historical Ratcliffe Highway Murders paralyzed London. In Morrell’s narrative, the heinous slaughters are being re-enacted 43 years later, and the copycat killer has a diabolical agenda involving notorious writer Thomas De Quincey.
For the unfamiliar, De Quincey was an essayist, best known for his scandalous work Confessions of an English Opium Eater. In Murder as a Fine Art, De Quincey fictionally becomes a sleuth. Psychological astuteness and a addiction to laudanum work in tandem, making De Quincey think in unusual ways. Morrell deftly molds De Quincey into a viable detective, and populates his story with fascinating characters. Best of all, the author infuses the atmosphere with vibrant images that illuminate the economic inequities of the time. In turn, social commentary is presented not only through dialogue, but also in descriptions of squalor and wealth. Morrell’s expert research also provides a sensory awareness of the time, as the sights, sounds, and smells of the period are brilliantly depicted. And as to the murders, they are thoroughly detailed by Morrell in all their crimson glory.
The killer, referred to throughout as The Artist, employs De Quincey’s satirical essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” as the very serious template for the murders. In the treatise, De Quincey chronicles the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, discussing the tableaux of terror with an eerie, unflinching canniness. Like De Quincey’s emotionally removed study of the bloodbaths, The Artist has inured himself to pain inflicted by others: “He learned to ignore the threat of pain and death. Fear became an unfamiliar emotion, even as he vowed to make the enemy suffer fear in the extreme.”
Igniting havoc in London, the slayer cuts a wide swath of mayhem. The body count is high and, consequentially, parts of the populace go berserk, harming innocents who fit aspects of the killer’s profile. On the side of rationality are Constable Becker and Inspector Ryan, who begrudgingly come to respect De Quincey, as well as appreciate the writer’s intelligent and opinionated daughter, Emily.
Emily’s point of view is central to the narrative. Her comments about the deplorable poverty, her father’s drug habit, and the constraining era-appropriate fashions of London women are edifying as well as entertaining. Simultaneously lovely and empathetic, Emily becomes an active participant in the investigation. She doesn’t shock easily, courtesy of her father’s history in the field, and her keen observations enliven and propel the tale.
While seemingly unflappable, Emily is concerned about her father’s increasing reliance on laudanum. Part of the problem is she is trying to wean him off a substance that is easily obtained. In the period, it was prescribed for a variety of ailments and even administered to children, and thus, widespread addictions, oblivious to class barriers, ensued. As historically evident, one of the components of laudanum is opium. Opium functioning as a lucrative commodity factors into the plot, providing another link between De Quincey and The Artist.
As expected, The Artist’s psychological makeup is astutely discerned by his adversary. While it may seem that De Quincey is applying Freudian analysis in a pre-Freudian age, Morrell states in the novel’s afterword that De Quincey’s “theories about what he called the separate chambers of our minds (including the invention of the term ‘sub-conscious’) were initially developed in the 1820s, seventy years before Freud.”
Simply put, Murder as a Fine Art is an engrossing mystery novel. It brims with atmosphere, has extremely memorable characters and features enough sanguinary slayings to warm the heart of the horror fan. For some jolly good suspense in not-so-merry-old-England, follow David Morrell into Victorian London’s fog.
– By Sheila M. Merritt