Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The art of murder

Thomas De Quincey
Writers of historical mysteries have turned everyone from Bertie, Prince of Wales, to Mark Twain to Groucho Marx into an amateur sleuth, but David Morrell's choice of writer Thomas De Quincey as his hero may be the most inspired of them all, even if De Quincey is little known today. If his name is recognized it is probably as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822) in which he describes his addiction to the opium-loaded drug laudanum after first taking it for pain relief. To support both his habit and his large family, he sold countless essays on a variety of subjects to British publications.

It is another of De Quincey's writings, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) that Morrell uses as a launchpad for his 2013 novel, the first in a series, Murder as a Fine Art. De Quincey wrote about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell imagines that, decades later, the crimes by the Ratcliffe Highway killer are repeated, almost death for death, as if to rub them in De Quincey's face.

At first, De Quincey is himself considered a suspect in the new round of bloody murders. Soon, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Emily, he is assisting Detective Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker in trying to solve the crimes. Or perhaps they are assisting him, so sharp is his mind, at least when he has access to a steady supply of laudanum.

Morrell, a literature professor before he became a best-selling author of thrillers (beginning with First Blood), became a Thomas De Quincey scholar before beginning this series of novels, and it shows in the detail he provides about De Quincey and his times. Also, Morrell provides his readers with a short history lesson at the beginning of virtually every chapter, writing about the London police force, the popularity of laudanum as a pain reliever in De Quincey's day, the spread of cholera in London in the middle of the 19th century and other topics relating to his story.

Murder as a Fine Art may be a violent novel, especially in the initial chapter, but it is an unusually fine mystery, one that may inspire some of us to seek out some of Thomas De Quincey's work.

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