David Morrell’s New Novel, ‘Murder as a Fine Art,’ Tracks a Serial Killer in Victo

Gourmet Girl | - May 4, 2013

Santa Fe bestselling author David Morrell has been called the master of suspense, the father of the modern action thriller: "First Blood," the novel that introduced the world to Rambo.

He's written more than 30 books, including the classic spy trilogy "The Brotherhood of the Rose," which became the only television mini-series to air directly following a Superbowl.

Now, he's completed his 34th book, "Murder as a Fine Art," a historical novel based on the notorious Victorian author Thomas de Quincy and the real-life murders by a serial killer who terrorized London during the 1800s.

Morrell will talk about his new novel during a book launch event on Monday, May 13 at 6 p.m. at Collected Works Bookstore.

The book was published on May 7, and already it's received rave reviews from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Entertainment Weekly and other publications. Publishers Weekly named "Murder as a Fine Art" one of the Best Summer Books of 2013, calling it a "brilliant crime thriller. . . . Everything works—the horrifying depiction of the murders, the asides explaining the impact of train travel on English society, nail-biting action sequences–making this book an epitome of the intelligent page-turner.”

The story revolves around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, in which a shopkeeper and his family were brutally slain and then a tavern keeper’s family was killed 12 days later. Now, 43 years afterward, Thomas De Quincy arrives in Victorian London, infamous for having written "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which graphically chronicled the Ratcliffe Highway killings as if he had been on the scene when they took place.

Caught up in the investigation and aided by his brilliant daughter Emily and two determined Scotland Yard detectives, De Quincy must uncover the truth before London itself becomes the next victim. Fogbound streets become a battlefield between a literary luminary and a brilliant murderer whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

"Murder as a Fine Art" is written in the style of the Sensation Novel, a type of fiction first introduced in mid-Victorian England. "This shocking new fiction had its roots in Gothic novels of the previous century, with the difference that sensation novelists set their stories not in ancient, brooding castles but instead in the very real homes and neighborhoods of Victorian England," Morrell writes in the book's introduction. "Darkness didn't come from the supernatural. Rather, it festered in the hearts of supposedly respectable public figures whose private lives hid dismaying secrets."

So how did the creator of Rambo become intrigued by an opium addict and a brutal series of murders that terrorized London some two centuries ago?

"A film called 'Creation,' about Charles Darwin's nervous breakdown, mentions De Quincy at the end," Morrell told me when met for lunch recently. "I became curious enough that I pulled out my old college literature texts and that's when I discovered his essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’ about the Ratcliffe Highway murders. It's a three-part essay written over some 30 years. The first two are satires that, like Jonathan Swift, are meant to be funny, but the third part is the invention of the true crime genre and it is virtually blood-soaked. It employs all the techniques we now use for suspense. It's very modern, and reading it, we feel as if we’re there, on the scene."

The third installment of the essay was published in 1854, prompting Morrell to ponder what might have happened if De Quincey went to London to promote his writing and someone began to use the essay to recreate the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

De Quincy makes a fascinating character in "Murder as a Fine Art." He was the first person to write about drug addiction. He invented the word "subconscious," anticipating Freud’s theories by a half-century. He inspired Edgar Allan Poe who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. 

Equally fascinating is De Quincey's daughter Emily, who Morrell brings to live vividly with excerpts from her journal, which help propel the story.

"I was determined to make the book an imitation Victorian novel, so I had to have some first-person journals,” Morrell said. “All the sensation novels by Wilkie Collins, almost all of "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White" are journals by different people. I got to thinking, all right, I need a journal, so whose will it be? I didn't necessarily want to do it from the villain's perspective. One of the problems in writing the book was how to write about a guy who was drinking 16 ounces of laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol) a day. If I couldn't do scenes from his unique viewpoint, how was I going to present him, and that's when I decided I'll do it from his daughter's point of view. Because if you think about it, the guy's a flawed main character. So one way of making the reader warm to him is through the daughter talking about him."

Morrell felt as if he tapped into some otherworldly medium when he wrote Emily's journal excerpts. "It's very eerie, I don't know how these things happen," she said. "She just started speaking to me. Then I knew the book was going to work. She's the book's secret weapon."

Morrell hopes that "Murder as a Fine Art" will get readers to realize what a masterful, influential writer De Quincey was. "Maybe there'll be a renaissance about him," he said. "De Quincey wrote what he called psychological criticism about Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’ He was so fixated on the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders that he collected every newspaper article about the murders that he could find, filling rooms with them. He makes it seem as if he were in London at the time."

While Morrell was working on "Murder as a Fine Art,' he contacted one of De Quincy's biographers, a Canadian professor. "On an impulse, because I had been a professor, I emailed the biographer and he became very interested in the idea that Thomas De Quincey would he a hero in a historical thriller," Morrell said. "I sent him the manuscript, hoping he’d point out any factual mistakes. Thank heaven, there were few. Then he began sending me De Quincey material that I didn't know about."

Morrell plans to travel to England in the fall and give a talk at the oldest library in Manchester, the city where De Quincey was born. He'll also give a talk at Dove Cottage, where De Quincey took up residence after the English poet William Wordsworth moved out.

Ultimately, Morrell hopes that people will see "Murder as a Fine Art" as a different way to write a thriller. "It's true to its time period. I want readers to believe that they are actually in 1854 London and that I used the conventions of the Victorian novel to create something new."