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Murder as a Fine Art (Thomas and Emily De Quincey) Hardcover – May 7, 2013
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Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey's essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.
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I read Thomas De Quincey's CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER a few years ago when I was researching addiction memoirs. I used to be an historian and now write and teach creative writing. What captured me with Morrell's book was his deft handling of character, atmosphere, historical research, and the plot components of a ripping good mystery yarn. During the academic year I am often reading three books at once: a couple for classes I'm teaching that week, and always something just for me. I'm afraid Morrell secreted me away to my own version of an opium den. I was lost inside his book and didn't emerge until I'd finished. My only regret was that I devoured it too fast. I read it in a weekend and was left wanting to read another one.
I'm at a loss to explain why some folks seem to have struggled with the book. Perhaps being immersed in Victorian London is not for the weak of stomach. The city's streets were thick with horse offal, rotting corpses of horses, dogs, and the poor unfortunate souls who had no place else to go. If you think that England in the 1800s was all Austen manor house and garden tea parties, you will be disappointed. There's not much of this there, I'm afraid. But if you like getting down in the muck and slopping your way through it to find the answer to the questions that come to you with every new detail Morrell introduces; that is, if you want a smart, literate mystery that assumes that you are intelligent enough to follow a complex plot even while you're being distracted by the smells off the wharf, or blinded by the sulfurous London fog, this just might be what you're looking for.
This period murder mystery is one of those books I truly found hard to put down. Densely researched and very suspenseful, the book offers multiple pleasures, not just action, mystery, and suspense; but details of life in 19th Century England, the origin of police procedures, and an unflinching look at the dark side of the British Empire. Morrell deliberately follows the structure of a 19th Century "sensation" novel, but readers will still find familiar Morrell touches: motivation tied to the past, damaged characters, dark conspiracies, even a faint echo of the literary Rambo. The suspense and violence are extreme, but there is also the tremendous fun of learning the stories behind certain familiar words such as Pall Mall, bloomers, and Piccadilly; how people lit candles before the invention of matches; and, most gratifyingly for me after nearly half a century of wondering, why prison guards are called "screws".
The book also pays homage to Conan Doyle, in the person of its brilliant, opium addicted hero; a real life individual who comes off more than a little Holmesian in his deductions.
If I have any quibbles, they are these two:
1. The villain is revealed too early and too casually, with little fanfare, to the point where a speed reader might miss the revelation (wait! what? It's ____?) and the book loses some steam at that point.
2. In his enthusiasm to impart his vast and fascinating research, Morrell too often resorts to expository "radio dialog" that sounds unnatural and too loaded with information for real conversaation.
These are, as I said, quibbles. On my train ride to work, I nearly missed my station, so engrossed was I in this novel. I think you will be, too.