Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Murder as a Fine Art.
Morrell sets his historical thriller in 1854, centering it on the machinations of the Metropolitan Police and its detective bureau headquartered in London’s Whitehall district. Carefully dissecting a society that was still obsessed with the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, Morrell uses the night that caused a wave of terror throughout England to set up a bloody clash between the inscrutable powers of light and darkness.
With the gripping Ratcliffe stories still popping up like a chill on the fog-laden and grimy cobblestone streets of the
city, it is left to Detective Superintendent Sean Ryan and his assistant, Constable Becker, to investigate a multiple murder that has occurred in the East End’s Wapping district.
As the odor of blood and gore remains strong, the detectives notice that the crime scene is a startling imitation of the original Ratcliffe Highway Murders.
The mythology of the Ratcliffe Murders (and journalist Thomas De Quincey’s part in perpetuating them) plays an important role in this foreboding drama of secrets, murder and betrayal. The mystery is entwined with a well-balanced sense of period atmosphere and detail.
Along the way to catching the perpetrator, Morrell highlights many facets of the British Empire. London is growing at an disturbing rate in the mid-nineteenth century. Building is everywhere, increasing the thunderous racket of the metropolis
and adding to the desperation, squalor, thievery, gambling and prostitution.
Into this mix comes Thomas De Quincey and daughter Emily, fresh from Edinburgh, both oppressed by debt and by Thomas’s opium addiction. Intent to pursue journalism as the one way available to him to pay his bills, De Quincey finds himself pulled further into the murder investigation--first as an investigator and, later, as a suspect. Regardless of his station in life, all of London is keen to meet the infamous Opium-Eater, most recognized for his treatise “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which details the gruesome killings that occurred in 1811.
The current murder scene remains a welter of activity; it’s impossible to ignore the horrifying presence of the shopkeeper’s blood-soaked body. For De Quincey, the killer perverts his work to suit his foul intentions. A clue comes in the form of a “dolly mop” who claims she saw a stranger: “Tall.
Big shoulders, a sailor’s coat and cap. A yellow beard.” No fan of notoriety, De Quincey pleads with Ryan and Becker and then to Lord Palmerston, but he rebuffs them all, deciding he wants De Quincey locked away so the public can breathe easier. Imprisoned in Coldbath Fields with the murderer still on the loose, an attack causes injures to both De Quincey and Ryan but finally forces Palmerston to pay attention to Thomas and Ryan and their concerns for the fate of the
Although his prose style doesn’t really lend itself to such an intricately plotted story, Morrell’s strength is that he can seek the truth about a great man who discovers that all is not what it seems. Revealing attitudes towards women, the iron-cast class hierarchy and the desperate grinding poverty just a stone's throw from sumptuous mansions, Morrell moves us between Emily’s diary of her own fears that
the killer might torment her and a terrifying series of fog-shrouded scenes in London’s dark alleyways,
leading to a nearly fatal confrontation with the artist of death. Flawed, human and utterly believable, the perpetrator himself is plagued by nightmares: images of swirling bones and corpses, as if he too were under opium’s influence, just like his arch-nemesis, Thomas De Quincey.
Morrell’s intricate expose of the Victorian bureaucracy, corruption, and morality is interlaced with many gore-soaked crime scenes and harrowing chases through London’s lowly docklands. The result is far more intricate than a series of shocking murders.
Rather, it’s an unveiling of a series of long-held animosities toward a group of detectives who are barely able to survive the moody, fog-riddled streets in order to bring a vicious killer to justice.