Set in Victorian-era London, Canadian-American author David Morrell’s historical novel Murder as a Fine Art
(2013) follows the fictionalized attempts of the real-life author Thomas De Quincey to catch a serial killer. The Washington Post
calls Murder as a Fine Art
"a highly entertaining thriller."
The year is 1854. Sixty-nine-year-old essayist Thomas De Quincey, best known for writing 1821's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
, is still addicted to the opium tincture laudanum, which he uses to treat severe pain associated with facial neuralgia. The first chapter is from the perspective of a killer who brutally murders a shopkeeper and his family. Calling himself "The Artist of Death," the killer stays at the scene of the crime to savor the gruesome display before him until he hears a knock at the door. At that point, he flees in a taxi to the Theatre District where he blends in with the crowd.
To De Quincey, the murderer looks to be a copycat-killer, modeling his crime on 1811's Radcliffe Highway murders in which the seaman John Williams was accused of killing seven people. De Quincey and Williams were slightly acquainted, having shared a mutual friend. Williams killed himself in his cell before his case went to trial. Because De Quincey had written about Williams's crimes in detail, Scotland Yard considers him a suspect. Meanwhile, De Quincey's twenty-one-year-old daughter, Emily, is his constant companion, caring for him during his alternating fits of withdrawal and intoxication owing to his laudanum abuse. Fiercely loyal to her father, Emily defies modern Victorian conventions by forgoing dresses, instead, wearing bloomers, a new garment invention offering an alternative to the heavy, constricting dresses women are expected to wear.
Meanwhile, British Home Secretary Lord Palmerstone runs an elaborate criminal campaign to destabilize the rest of Europe in order to allow Britain to maintain its position as the world's leading empire. He does so by employing hired goons, supplying them with ammunition, explosives, and alcohol, and setting them loose in places like France and Germany. Meanwhile, at home in Britain, Palmerstone wants more than anything to keep the peace. When the shopkeeper murders cause public panic, Palmerstone orders Scotland Yard to arrest whoever happens to be its prime suspect. That suspect is De Quincey. While Sean Ryan, the lead detective on the case, doubts that De Quincey is really responsible, he arrests him anyway, both to satisfy Palmerstone's demands and in hopes of gaining insight into the case from De Quincey.
Sensing that he has been railroaded by powerful forces, De Quincey fears someone will try to murder him in his cell. When he hears suspicious footsteps down the hall, De Quincey hides under his mattress. Nevertheless, the assailant finds him and attempts to kill him. De Quincey barely manages to fight the man off before Constable Joseph Becker arrives to chase the assailant. Shortly after, Ryan reveals that more murders were committed while De Quincey was locked away, thus clearing his name.
Severely displeased that the police plan to release their only suspect, Palmerstone sends his security guard Robert Brookline to relay orders to Scotland Yard that it keep De Quincey in custody. Resigned to follow these orders, Becker puts De Quincey in handcuffs. As he does this, Ryan secretly passes a universal handcuff key to Emily, who in turn puts it in her father's pocket when she gives him a goodbye hug. Later that night, De Quincey escapes and disappears.
When Ryan, Becker, and Emily return to Scotland Yard, a woman named Margaret Jewell approaches them. Shaking with fear and remorse, Margaret insists on speaking with Ryan alone. Once in private, Margaret tells him that Williams was wrongly accused in the Radcliffe Highway murders. The real murderer was an ex-lover of hers with whom she fathered a child. The man disappeared, but the child inherited his name: Robert Brookline, Palmerstone's security guard.
Brookline's full story is revealed: As an agent for the British East India Company, Brookline committed murder-for-hire against enemies of his employer. While in India, Brookline learned about opium and the work of Thomas De Quincey on the subject. Disgusted by what he read, Brookline sought to break Britain out of its supposed opium-induced lull by sowing panic and implicating De Quincey in the murders, De Quincey being something of a celebrity who inadvertently helped popularize the use of opium through his drug narratives. Brookline is clearly haunted by both his father's crimes and his own crimes committed under the employ of the British East India Company. Fortunately, De Quincey comes out of hiding to help the police track down Brookline, who is shot dead at his father's grave.Murder as a Fine Art
is a gripping detective yarn set in a detailed recreation of Victorian Era London and its East End slums.