Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview with David Morrell

I'm not reading much since having a baby, but thankfully the books I am reading are just fab. I'd been breathlessly waiting for Inspector of the Dead, the second novel by David Morrell to feature Thomas DeQuincy, and I just loved it. (The heroine, Emily, is so fabulous, I love her so.)

I'm delighted to share my interview with Mr Morrell -- read on to learn more about this book, the 19th century setting, and the inspiration -- Thomas DeQuincy, the Opium-Eater. Be sure to enter the giveaway, too!

David Morrell
Was Inspector of the Dead the original title of your book?

Sometimes a title insists on being chosen. During my Victorian research, I came across the expression “inspector of the dead.” It applied to the official who examined corpses when they were brought to what we call a morgue but what the Victorians called a death house. The many levels appealed to me. Inspector of the Dead is a mystery/thriller, after all. One of its characters is a Scotland Yard detective inspector, so the title applies to him, but it also applies to the villain’s motive for selecting his victims. And most important, it applies to my main character, Thomas De Quincey, who was the first author to write about drug addiction (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). In De Quincey’s nightmares, the ghosts of his dead sisters, children, and wife haunted him. I saw the title as a metaphor for his sorrows and regrets.

As you were writing Inspector of the Dead, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Just about all of Victorian society surprises me. Novels that were written in the mid-1800s seem to describe a recognizable world. But the truth is that authors of the time took for granted a vast number of details that are strange and surprising to us.

Can you give us an example?

Early in Inspector of the Dead, there’s a murder during a church service. It happens in plain view of the congregation, and yet no one sees it. This is possible because the seating arrangement in churches was different back then. While we assume that church seats are in bench-like rows that stretch from aisle to aisle, the seats in mid-Victorian churches were in self-contained boxes that not only had benches but also a table, carpet, and cushions—perhaps even a charcoal brazier for heat. Some had curtains. They resembled a small living room. Families rented them, and to make sure that no one else used them, the box pews had doors with locks that only the church’s pew opener could unlock. Victorian novelists took this arrangement for granted and didn’t bother to describe it during a church scene, but a modern reader is at a disadvantage and can’t fully understand a church scene without this information.

Do you have any other examples?

We put surgeons on a higher social level that we do physicians, but in the Victorian world, surgeons were held in low repute because they dealt with blood and gore whereas a physician never laid hands on his patients but only listened to their complaints. Surgeons were paid by their clients and were thus “in trade” whereas physicians were paid indirectly through pharmacists and thus were seemingly above money. For this reason, a surgeon could not be presented to the queen, but a physician could. When a surgeon is mentioned in a Victorian novel, a modern reader might think that the reference is to a socially respected character, but in fact, the author is describing someone whom Victorians hardly respected at all. A Victorian novelist didn’t need to explain this. Everyone knew it. One of my tasks in writing Inspector of the Dead was to learn what the Victorian characters in my novel would truly have thought rather than what a modern reader would assume—for the most part wrongly—that they thought. In addition to what I hope is an exciting plot, the novel is filled with Victorian details of this sort.

According to your website, before starting a project, you ask yourself "Why is this book worth a year of my life?" Can you share your answer for this book?

Partly because of my research, I take at least a year to write a novel and sometimes more. Inspector of the Dead is a two-year novel, for example. There needs to be something about the theme, the research, and the way the book is written that’ll make me feel I’ve grown when I finish a project. With Inspector of the Dead, I had always been interested in the Victorians, but it wasn’t until recently that my disenchantment with the modern world persuaded me to go back there. There’s a film called Somewhere in Time that’s based on a Richard Matheson novel, Bid Time Return. In the film, a character portrayed by Christopher Reeve concentrates so hard that he transports himself back to a more interesting era. I wanted to do something similar and convince myself that I was in 1855 London. More than that, I wanted to convince readers that they too were truly on those intriguing, fogbound streets.

Do you have any associations -- food, drink, music, scents -- with the writing of Inspector of the Dead?

In the novel, I describe a dinner with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. I provide a typical menu for that kind of occasion. One of the eighteen items is Filet de Boeuf with Spanish Sauce. That sounded tasty, so I looked into what Spanish Sauce amounted to. It turned out that it was beef or chicken broth that was cooked with sautéed chunks of celery and Spanish onion. Not exactly mouth watering. Most of the recipes of the time were similarly bland. As for drink, a lot of the water wasn’t safe, so if you were in the middle or upper class, brandy mixed with soda water was popular, as was sherry, port and claret. But if you were a laborer, gin would be your drink, although as I describe in Inspector of the Dead, the tavern owner would probably have mixed sulfuric acid, sugar, and juniper berries into the gin to make it go farther. The major piece of music in the novel is a hymn that was popular during the Crimean War (being fought at the time of my novel): The Son of God goes forth to war/A kingly crown to gain. The primary scents of London would have been the odor from the Thames and the smoke in the air. London had a half million chimneys. Its notorious fogs—which were known as particulars—were basically more smoke than fog and had a brown color, which Londoners compared to the color of pea soup

What inspired you to write about Thomas De Quincey?

When I was in college, my 1800s literature professor mentioned De Quincey briefly and dismissed him as a footnote, because after all how important could someone be who wrote something with a title like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? Years later, I came across a movie called Creation, which is about Charles Darwin’s nervous breakdown after his favorite daughter died. In a pre-Freudian world, physicians couldn’t find a physical explanation for his headaches, heart palpitations, and stomach problems. At the film’s turning point, a character says to Darwin, “You know, Charles. There are people like Thomas De Quincey who believe that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.”

Sounds like Freud.

Exactly, but the film takes place in the 1850s, and Freud didn’t publish until the 1890s. Curious, I started reading De Quincey and discovered how wrong my long-ago professor was. De Quincey invented the word “subconscious” and anticipated Freud’s psychoanalytic theories by more than half a century. He invented the modern true-crime genre when he wrote the third installment of “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” recreating the first media-sensation mass murders in England, the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. He inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. He helped establish the reputations of Wordsworth and Coleridge when their poetry was dismissed by contemporary critics. The more I learned about him, the more I became fascinated until I couldn’t resist putting him at the start of the detective tradition.

Read any good books recently?

Most of my reading continues to be about the Victorians. I admire Dickens, of course, especially Bleak House, which was published only a few years before the events in my novels. I’ve become a big fan of Trollope’s work, especially The Way We Live Now and The Prime Minister. I’m also fond of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Collins even explicitly uses De Quincey and his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to solve part of the mystery in The Moonstone. Mary Elizabeth Braddon is another of my favorites. Her Lady Audley’s Secret helped start the sensation-novel craze, which Inspector of the Dead continues.

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My thanks to Mr Morrell for his time and thoughtful answers. You can learn more about him and his books on his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Inspector of the Dead to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/3. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.

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