Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Mulholland, May 2013)-Thomas De Quincey, a protagonist of Murder as a Fine Art, was a real person, and he wrote a very scandalous book in 1821 called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It was a sensation at the time, because it was the first time that the dangers, and pleasures of, drug abuse, were discussed frankly and without restraint. He also published an essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” which examined, in all their bloody glory, a series of 1811 killings that were dubbed the Ratcliffe Highway murders, two separate attacks on two entire families that included children. It’s on this basis that Murder as a Fine Art is so skillfully built. In the book, it’s 1852, and De Quincey, and his daughter Emily are in London to promote a collection of his essays, of which “On Murder” is a part. This is both a fortuitous, and calamitous trip for De Quincey and Emily, since it seems that someone is mimicking the murders of 1811, in a gruesome display that shocks and panics the populace, and stumps DI Sean Ryan and his newly minted assistant (and hopeful detective), Constable Joseph Becker. Ryan and Becker, and more importantly (and unfortunately for De Quincey), Henry John Temple, know as Lord Palmerston aka one of the most powerful men in the world, if not the most powerful. Palmerston is convinced that, based on the excruciating detail in the “On Murder” essay, De Quincey must have something to do with the new killings. Ryan and Becker are soon convinced otherwise, but they’ll need to find the real killer in order to convince everyone else. What follows is not only a hunt for a seemingly cold blooded, calculating killer, an artist of death, if you will, but also a look at the life of one of the most interesting historical figures I’ve read about in a long time.
I’ve been a fan of David Morrell since the days of First Blood and The Fraternity of the Stone (one of my absolute all-time favorite books. That is all.), and I was definitely intrigued to find out how he would handle a gaslit historical. I should have known that it would be with the same intricate detail as he handled the Crusades in Fraternity of the Stone, and really, in all that he writes. This book isn’t just an effective suspense novel. Above all, it’s about Thomas De Quincey, a diminutive man passionate in everything he does, with memories of a prostitute, Ann, who saved his life as a young man when he was destitute and homeless on the London streets, and who he hopes he will connect with again. This forthcoming man, whose laudanum addiction all but consumes him, and his equally forthcoming, and fiercely protective daughter, are both conundrums to the much beleaguered Ryan and Becker, but it’s soon evident that events from De Quincey’s past may be the key to catching a killer that shows no signs of stopping his bloody reign.
Morrell does keep you guessing on the killer’s identity, but he doesn’t keep you in the dark about the making of a killer, and his “origin story”, if you will, is another fascinating aspect in a book that’s full of them, but the highlights, for me, were the passages from Emily’s journal, and her interactions with her father. How a book manages to be both utterly charming and terrifying eludes me, but Morrell manages it with Murder as a Fine Art. The devil really is in the details in this one, and you’ll realize, upon finishing it, that it not only entertained you, but managed to be one of the most effective history lessons that you’ve ever had. Morrell is sneaky about these little asides and they only add to the book, never detracting from the rather fast pace that’s set from the get go. It really is the little things, like how every time that it’s suggested (usually by De Quincey) that the killer must be someone skilled, as opposed to someone of a lower class, much disbelief and consternation is shown by the powers that be. In 1856, it’s not even worth considering that someone of the higher class could be capable of questionable morals. We know better now, but then, not so much, and keep in mind, this was a time when law enforcement was on the cusp of newer methods of detection, many of which are employed by Ryan, which he learned from the great French criminal and criminalist himself, Eugene Francois Vidocq.
In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell works his considerable magic as master of the thriller, while painting a portrait of a fascinating man who lived life to the very fullest, in spite of his failings, and maybe even because of them. Fans of procedurals will eat this up, and if you love Victorian London settings, then you won’t want to come up for air. I loathed having to put this one down, and I’ll be first in line for the next book in the series, Inspector of the Dead, out in March 2015. This is how historical suspense is done folks, and it doesn’t get much better.