In 1972, David Morrell’s debut novel, “First Blood,” gave the world that pioneering action hero John Rambo. His new novel, “Murder as a Fine Art” — his 26th and surely one of his best — introduces a new hero who could hardly be more different from Rambo. He’s the real-life writer Thomas De Quincey, best remembered for “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” who, as this story unfolds in 1854, is 69 years old, five feet tall, frail and hopelessly addicted to the opium-based drink laudanum — yet able enough to use his intellectual powers to lead the search for a serial killer who fancies himself an artist.
At the outset, a killer who calls himself “the artist of death” slaughters a shopkeeper, his wife, his child and his servant girl in a most gruesome manner in the impoverished East End of London. A police official with a long memory realizes that the details of these murders are identical to those in the real-life Ratcliffe Highway Murders in the same neighborhood in 1811. He realizes, too, that the first Ratcliffe Highway crime was followed by the similar slaughter of a second family a few days later, and that the police in 1854 must therefore fear a second attack as well. It soon occurs, creating widespread panic in London and across England.
A journalist recalls that De Quincey published an essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which details the Ratcliffe Highway slaughter — and which could have been the blueprint for the new crimes. The essay also seems to the police to glorify the murderer. Upon learning that De Quincey is in London, promoting his latest book, suspicious police officials call him in for questioning, despite his age and frailty. To save himself, De Quincey must find the real killer, since the police seem unable to do so.
In many ways, this highly entertaining thriller recalls the Sherlock Holmes tales. A fog is forever rolling in off the Thames; a giant “Malay” with a turban turns up mysteriously; we travel to India to glimpse the British East India Company trading opium for Chinese tea; De Quincey uses a ragged band of teenaged “irregulars” as his eyes and ears. Moreover, De Quincey is smarter than the police, has a laudanum addiction to match Holmes’s cocaine habit, and has a companion who is as loyal as Dr. Watson but much prettier: his fiercely independent 21-year-old daughter, Emily De Quincey.
Emily demonstrates her strength of mind not only by standing up to authority but by insisting on wearing the controversial new style of dress called bloomers. Quite a few men “looked with disapproval at Emily’s unorthodox unhooped dress, in which the movement of her legs was visible.” In her own defense, Emily points out that the hoops and necessary undergarments can weigh 37 pounds. Given that, she says, along with the idiotic idea that the ideal waist size for a woman is 18 inches, “it isn’t at all surprising that many women faint.”
In addition to bloomers, Morrell spotlights several innovations that are changing life in the mid-19th century, including the telegraph, railroads, matches (called Lucifers) and the flush toilet, often called “the necessary.”
Police work itself was in its infancy, with the first London Police Department having begun in 1829. We meet the all-powerful home secretary, Lord Palmerston, who is quite willing to toss De Quincey in prison if that will quiet the angry street mobs who will beat or kill anyone suspected of being the mass murderer — particularly if the suspect’s Irish.
But the focus remains on De Quincey, who has dealt with his opium addiction since his teenage years. He needs the drug to combat “facial pains” and a delicate stomach, all the while supporting himself and a large family by magazine writing. In this story, the old writer must finally confront the “artist of death,” who proves to have good reason to model his murders on those 43 years in the past.
Morrell tells all this with gusto. “Murder as a Fine Art” may or may not be fine art, but it’s an inspired blend of innovation, history and gore. Murder is rarely this much fun.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
MURDER AS A FINE ART
By David Morrell
Mulholland. 358 pp. $25.99