An accomplished writer with a devoted following, Morrell’s historical authenticity renders
this novel (set in England during the Crimean War) not only believable but compelling. The characters and situations portrayed, some drawn from real life and the evolution of criminal investigative techniques, create a story that has all the elements of drama and mayhem that make scenes vivid and realistic. The tale begins with a family tragedy as poverty drives a family of recent arrivals from Ireland into a conflict with the law. Already reviled in England for their status as poor immigrants, the family ekes out a meager existence in an unfriendly village, an Irish wife and mother cast into prison--her innocence never considered. In attempting to gain her release, her husband and small children are subjected to such heinous circumstances that eventually all but the young,
desperate boy Colin are destroyed by an indifferent legal system and hostile population who
cast them aside.
Fifteen years later, as failures of leadership in handling the war threaten the stability of the monarchy, a series of brutal murders of high-level government officials and their families terrify the upper class.
The spate of killings starts with a spectacular murder during a church service.
Each murder is carefully staged to indicate the revival of a vendetta against the monarchy, particularly Queen Victoria, and the intended assassination of the queen. As Scotland Yard detectives attempt to unravel the messages behind the murders that have frightened the upper class, Detective Inspector Sean Ryan and Detective Sergeant Joseph Decker are joined by Commissioner Mayne and assisted by the insights of the infamous “Opium Eater” Thomas De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, who have been staying with Lord Palmerston. Palmerston finds his guests a burden but has offered shelter while Sean Ryan is recovering from wounds from a prior case (Murder as a Fine Art).
As the investigation continues, the threat grows more pervasive, with attacks that terrorize common folk at any venue where they feel safe, even a local tavern. Morrell contrasts the chasm between wealth and poverty that is endemic to English society, the desperation and incipient violence of people with nothing to lose and the disdain of those out of touch with the suffering of the masses. The politics at play in the pursuit of the Crimean War, especially critical plans for the creation of the Suez Canal, elevate local politics--and the current threat to the throne--to
another level as Britain’s status as a world power is threatened by
international events. The greater ramifications that begin with a gruesome
murder only become apparent as the investigation moves forward and all the
pieces fall together.
Certainly De Quincey has had his share of difficulties, perhaps most caused by his inability to relieve the curse of opium addiction.
But his addiction, while debilitating, has not diluted his brilliance or his ability to apply new ways of thinking in solving cases, a psychological element that was never considered in the early days of criminology. None of those close to De Quincey--his daughter, Ryan, or Decker--ever doubt the man’s insight or ability to view circumstances from a fresh perspective, despite the limitations on the body of a man forced to consume ever larger doses of the drug. Eventually, circumstances demand an audience with the queen,
and Emily and her father are ushered into the royal presence as an attack on the queen grows imminent.
Morrell delves into the darkest corner of his killer’s heart in a novel that draws attention to the plight of the poor in an unequal society and a proliferation of wrongs that fester among the disenfranchised, giving birth to an organization devoted to the destruction of the monarchy led by a man unhinged by the tragic events that formed his view of the world. It is a clever and insidious plan only foiled by the thinking of detectives inspired by De Quincey’s views, a man made infamous for his opium habit but perceptive enough to understand the tortured psyche of a killer.