Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Murder as a Fine Art.
Morrell sets his eerie tale in 1854 London. There the infamous Thomas De Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, has returned in hopes of drumming up more funds from his most recent essay, “Murder as a Fine Art”--enough to pay the creditors who have been plaguing him in Edinburgh. Staying at lodging paid for by an anonymous donor, De Quincy has been taking his daughter, Emily, on a tour of the places he lived during his darkest days on the streets.
Inspired at first by the use of opium (in the form of laudanum) to aid his literary imagination, De Quincy is now in its throes, addicted and unable to function without his “medicine.” It is more than ironic, then, when De Quincy again finds himself in London during a new spate of shocking murders that replicate the terrible Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811. The slaughter of an entire family sends shivers of terror throughout the city and fears that the killer has returned despite a stake through his heart. It is in the nature of Londoners to turn to hysteria when murder is afoot, mobs and fear a heady brew.
Two pivotal characters in the novel are red-haired Irish Detective Superintendent Sean Ryan and Constable Becker, who yearns to become a detective. Becker is first on the murder scene and of invaluable assistance to Ryan, who quickly learns to rely on the eager constable. Ryan quickly ascertains the need to interview the unfortunate De Quincy, who is eagerly pointed to by frightened citizens despite his small stature and age. Her father’s most determined advocate, Emily refuses to be pushed aside or sidetracked from the unfolding events. She accompanies her father at every stage of the investigation, first when he is asked for his expertise and later when he is arrested on suspicion of murder.
More is going on here than just a deadly scenario. Morrell deftly adds other nefarious individuals and explores their intentions as he molds a thriller steeped in the politics of the British Empire and the influence of the East India Company. From the highest levels of government to the lowest corners of depravity, from the office of the Home Secretary to the streetwalkers who ply their trade by night, the disparate elements of a frightened city come together in a stunning cataclysm of violence and death.
With ample use of landscape, the infamous London fog and the stench of the stews, the expanses of grassy gated parks and luxurious estates, De Quincy is a centerpiece in a deadly scenario, an easy target for a repetition of the nightmarish Ratcliffe Highway Murders and the panic that ensues, where mobs of drunken, angry men roam in search of the killer. De Quincy isn’t the only tormented character: the “artist” preparing his gory canvas for discovery lives with his own particular demons and harrowing history.
While captains of industry and an Empire hungry for power embrace the future, the murders evoke the past, a grim reminder of a dark history of mob-driven assaults on the innocent, violence bred of fear and the superstitions of common folk too easily thrown into poverty by circumstance. Morrell uses all these elements in constructing an elaborate, multi-level plot that plunges London into chaos: “The horrors that madden the grief that gnaws at the heart.”