Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell (Mulholland, March 24th, 2015)-In which we find our heroes, Thomas De Quincey, his daughter Emily, and Scotland Yard Detectives Ryan and Becker at the center of a murder mystery leading back to Queen Victoria herself. It’s been about 7 weeks since the events of Murder as a Fine Art concluded and De Quincey and Emily have been staying at Lord Palmerston’s estate, much to his chagrin, and he’s ecstatic that the time for them to finally leave has come. Unfortunately, murder is afoot again, and De Quincey’s help is invaluable to Becker and Ryan. Poor Lord Palmerston. In 1855, when this book takes place, the Crimean War is in full swing, and the English government has fallen, partly due to the reporting of William Russell, a journalist for The Times covering the war (considered to be one of the first modern war correspondents), and evidence of the gross incompetence of British troops.
The first murder they must investigate is the gruesome killing of Lady Cosgrove at St. James Church. She seems to come into the church of her own volition, in mourning clothes, and escorted by an unidentified man, then she is discovered in her private pew with her throat slit. It’s a daring murder, one that taunts the detectives, but really, the killer is just getting started, and his targets seem to be members of the peerage and their households. Pressure is high to catch this killer, but he seems to be everywhere at once, inciting panic among the populace , and is also leaving notes with each murder, containing a different name each time and also the words Young London.
Murder as a Fine Art was fantastic, and Inspector of the Dead is even better. He revisits the formula he used in the first book, and it’s a good one. We not only follow the investigation with De Quincey and Co., but we also follow the killer as he goes about his dark business. You won’t know who he is to begin with, but when the reveal comes, it’s a shocking, and also heartbreaking one. I consider myself a fairly jaded reader, but this one had me fooled all the way to the reveal. Morrell is darkly inventive with the murders and cleverly mines very real history to aid our villain in his killing spree, yet manages to take a monstrous man doing monstrous deeds and dig deeply into just how he became that monster, especially shining a stark light on how the poor were treated in 1850s London. The stories of young beggars, penny divers, and chimney sweeps aren’t unknown things, but it doesn’t make them any less shocking. The very fact that this kind of treatment of human beings existed at all is shocking.
It’s not all blood and gore, however, and lest you think this is the “men of Victorian England show”, Emily De Quincey is a star all on her own. She’s utterly devoted to her father, loves him because of his brilliance and quick mind, and in spite of his laudanum addiction, seen by others as a weakness, but Emily isn’t so sure of that. She’s convinced that it’s a physical dependency, but of course, at that time, things like drug dependency and alcoholism were not seen as physical problems, but problems of a weak will or constitution. Interspersed throughout the novel are entries from Emily’s diary, and they’re some of the best parts of the book. As dark as things get, I laughed out loud at portions of the diary, specifically during a dinner scene with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in which Emily is sure that her father’s outbursts will get them thrown out, and her hungry belly drives her to create any sort of distraction that she can. It’s very clever, and very funny, and a bit of a reprieve from the darkness at the heart of the main story.
Essayist and author Thomas De Quincey and his daughter Emily were real people, as were many other characters that populate this superior thriller, which, to me, makes the book that much more fascinating. The author brings each character back to life, and they spring fully formed from the page, each with their own hopes and dreams, and of course, nightmares and burdens. This is not only a fantastic historical thriller, but it’s also a finely drawn portrait of England (and the very wide rift between the classes) in the 1850s, and you’ll feel like you’re there, in the thick of it, with De Quincey, Emily, Becker, and Ryan. The author discusses many of the very real events and people he utilizes in the novel in an afterword that’s fascinating on its own. He also discusses his use of third person omniscient in the novel, which is rarely used in modern literature, but was a staple of Victorian novels. This book is a gem, and it’s no surprise that David Morrell is its creator. I first discovered The League of Night and Fog as a teenager, and I’ve been a devotee of his since. His mastery of the historical is not a surprise, but it is a delight, and I dare you to put this down once you’ve picked it up.