Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
Author: David Morrell
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / London / Thomas DeQuincy / Laudanum / Serial Killer)
Publisher/Publication Date: Mulholland Books (5/7/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Loved -- will likely make my top ten of 2013.
Did I finish?: Oh yeah.
One-sentence summary: A serial killer in 1854 London replicates -- and exaggerates -- a series of violent crimes from decades before, and laudanum-addicted writer Thomas DeQuincey is seen as the prime suspect.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's not super compelling but certainly evokes the feel of the novel: soot, fog, London, guys in hats.
I'm reminded of...: Matt Rees, Dan Simmons
First line: Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyke, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress.
Did... I die of surprise when I learned the author was the guy who invented Rambo?: YES. Morrell wrote First Blood in 1972 and was involved in the subsequent films. Crazy! I actually enjoyed this one so much I went out and got First Blood to read.
Do... I love the videos Morrell shares on his website about his research?: YES. He especially talks about how weird London in the mid 1800s was, which I appreciate, because hello, the Victorians were weird.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like historical mysteries, the Victorian era, or unusual historicals.
Why did I get this book?: I've never seen DeQuincey featured in fiction -- how could I resist?
Review: I had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I made myself slow down and enjoy the journey -- I could have taken another 300 pages and been only slightly satisfied.
Set in 1854, the novel opens with 'the artist', a violent serial killer bent on replicating -- and improving upon -- a series of violent murders from 1811. (And ew, are they grim.) For the police and the London public, these crimes are chilling and frightening, and one suspect immediately comes to mind: writer/philosopher/laudanum-addict Thomas DeQuincey whose essay 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' detailed the 1811 murders and seemingly offered admiration for the killer.
DeQuincey, now in his 60s, is still infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater, perhaps the first tell-all drug memoir published. Chased by creditors, DeQuincey returns to London after a mysterious missive promises to reunite him with a woman from his past, accompanied by his smart, pragmatic, bloomer-wearing daughter, Emily.
Two London police officers -- an Irish detective named Ryan and a British constable named Becker -- are tasked with arresting notorious writer/drug addict Thomas DeQuincey for the murders -- and that's when things get really hairy.
This book hit every note for me: wonderful sense of place and era, fascinating characters, a gossipy treatment of history, and a narrative style that has as much personality as the characters. In the (wonderfully fascinating) Afterward, Morrell explains this novel is his take on the 19th century novel; he employs a third-person omniscient viewpoint and intersperses the narrative with excerpts from diary entries. The effect is fun without being exhausting (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was fun, but felt a bit much at times) and offered that lovely mix of 'education' (the narrative is peppered with trivia about the era) and escapism (there were some moments that were positively cinematic).
Hands down, Emily was my favorite character -- she might rank up there with my favorite heroines -- as she was smart, sympathetic, 'modern' (for the times), and vibrant. Morrell conveyed a Victorian woman raised with a rather unconventional thinker of father who still felt authentic to the era. She wasn't a contemporary woman in corsets (because Emily doesn't wear them, but you know what I mean.). I enjoyed every character, though, even our creepy 'artist of death', and I couldn't stop reading. There's non-stop action but the feel of the book isn't bombastic or exhausting -- having the cerebral DeQuincey helped temper the speed, I think, and balanced out the police officers and murders. He was certainly a fascinating foil for the story.
If you like Victorian London, take this trip. If you like historical mysteries, consider this one: the focus is less on the mystery since we know 'who' the murderer is (just not his name) and has a hint of the police procedural with a good helping of psychological profiling. I can't say whether or not DeQuincey nerds will approve of Morrell's portrayal of him and his daughter, but I just loved him and am super eager to read his works. (I kind of wish this would become a series with DeQuincey and company.)
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