Thursday, June 27, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

     Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell, is part historical novel, part mystery, part thriller, and wholly enjoyable. It contains real people--essayist Thomas de Quincey--and fictional counterparts, like his ahead-of-her-time daughter, Emily de Quincey. The atmosphere of fog-shrouded Victorian London in 1854 is researched down to the last weapon and sewer detail, and we are steeped in the atmosphere of that time with tidbits like the 37 pounds of clothing women wore with their corsets and pantaloons. But, most importantly, Morrell has based his plot on a real set of ghastly East End murders called the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. If you look on the internet you can even hear a folk song about those murders.
 It is 1854 in the East End of Victorian London and a series of murders has occurred that exactly duplicates the Ratcliffe Highway murders forty-three years earlier. Unfortunately for Thomas de Quincey, his writings described those murders down to the smallest detail and now someone is using them as a blueprint for murder. De Quincey wrote the memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater which was so scandalous that everyone read it. Now he becomes the major suspect in these 1854 murders.
     The killer seems to be using de Quincey's essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, as a manual for the killings. (De Quincey's essays influenced such classic mystery writers as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.) This sets up a superb plot involving two intrepid Scotland Yard detectives, de Quincey, and his daughter, Emily. They struggle to prove his innocence and find the real killer. Time is of the essence because the vicious murderer is set to strike again.
David Morrell is known for his Rambo novels and his thrillers, but he has taken a totally new turn in writing historical fiction. However, his research is meticulous and the reader feels like she is in the streets of London dashing through the fog; watching the police department of that time; seeing the work of fledgling detectives; speaking to the prostitutes who know the streets; learning about the opium trade, whalebone hoops, and corsets; visiting prisons with horrible living conditions; and seeing how the lower classes live. All of this is told in dramatic style and is never pedantic.

     The point of view is actually one that is prized by Victorian novelists: an omniscient narrator who can give us background on the details of the plot. And Morrell does this in a masterful fashion. Obviously, this was a deliberate choice on his part to echo the books of that time. It reads like spun silk.
     I have always liked novels with "spunky" heroines who figure out how to solve problems head on. Murder as a Fine Art has one of the best in the form of Emily de Quincey. She took off her corset, wears bloomers so she can keep up during the chases, and does not act at all in appropriate Victorian female style. While others raise their eyebrows at this behavior, her father supports her unflinchingly. She is ahead of her time. She acts in defense of her father and literally saves the day on many occasions because she uses her wit, feminine wiles, and intuitive empathy to figure out what has to be done. She is a wonderful creation.

   In short, this is an entertaining read, a page turner,
and a book you won't be able to put down.


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