In early April of 2015, I heard David Morrell give a talk in Denver. He said he spent three years researching London of 1854—and reading nothing but books about that time and place—before he began writing this book.
The work paid off. At least, Morrell convinced me that he knew this particular world and time period. Reading Murder as a Fine Art, you will feel completely transported. Morrell sees everything. We see and smell the streets, the alleys, the neighborhoods, the dank jail cells.
Even better, Morrell found a powerful central character to drive the story—the real-life Thomas De Quincey. At the time of this story, he’s 69 years old. He’s five feet tall. He’s slight. And he pounds laudanum in quantities that would kill others who hadn’t built up a tolerance for the stuff. De Quincey wrote “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.” His world, shall we say, is hazy. Withdrawal from his addiction is a real threat. De Quincey is a terrific character. (As others have noted, using De Quincey as a central character is light years from Rambo, a fictional creation from Morrell’s early days, two dozen or so books ago. Hats off to Morrell for his range.)
Murder as a Fine Art starts with grizzly killings in the squalid neighborhoods of London’s East End. Morrell doesn’t hold back—throats are slit, skulls are whacked. We are inside the head of the “artist of death” as he slaughters a family and, of course, gets away.
A policeman recognizes that some details from the crime scene mimic the real-life, so-called Ratcliffe Highway Murders from four decades ago. (Ratcliffe Highway was one of the main roads in and out of London). The cop realizes, too, that the first Ratcliffe Highway crime was followed by the similar slaughter of a second family a few days later so the police must be ready for a second bloodbath.
When a journalist recalls that De Quincey published, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, which discussed the details of the Ratcliffe slaughter, De Quincey quickly becomes a suspect, despite his relatively frail condition and small stature. To save himself, De Quincey must prove the killings are the work of another.
The set-up is gripping and the characters are strong. De Quincey’s analytical skills, despite his mental state, are intriguing. The suspense factor, however, sags as the story progresses. Morrell uses multiple points of view to tell the story, including diary entries from De Quincey’s daughter, Emily, who isn’t afraid of pushing societal boundaries for dress and behavior. We know long before the end “who done it.”
I could have used more De Quincey, a minor quibble. Murder as a Fine Art has more of a “novel” flow than traditional mystery that brings us to the last page with our fingernails in tatters. As a novel, and trip back to this specific place and time, this is a satisfying tale.
At some point, I will pick up Inspector of the Dead (the follow-up about De Quincey). By the way, I “read” this on audio CD, with narrator Matthew Wolf, and his reading was superb.