David Morrell blends horror, history and mystery, in his tale of narco-political terrorism, with a twist. The author opens with a narration by “The Artist,” the antagonist, who in 1854 savagely murders members of a London household near Ratcliffe Highway. This reenactment of of the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings presses the communal panic button. Armed and terrified vigilantes rove the night, groping through the London fog, soot and sewage stench—spurred on by news of the Ratcliffe Highway killings. They attack and slay anyone unfortunate enough to look suspicious, especially foreigners.
There’s a method to “the Artist’s” madness. What better way to destroy the British Empire than to turn the population against itself? “The Artist” resents the Empire’s immense revenue from the cultivation and distribution of opium. Domestically, almost every English house, pub and doctor’s office stocks laudanum—opium, dissolved in alcohol. Used as a pain medicine, a few too many drops can be lethal.The novel explores the dark reach of British East India Company, and its role in the Opium War that forces China to trade tea for opium, despite the Emperor’s protests.
“The Artist” cultivates a personal grudge against Thomas De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. “The Artist” uses as a guide to blood-letting De Quincey’s essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, the meticulous description of the particularly savage 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings. After the Ratcliffe Highway massacre reenactment of 1854, De Quincey becomes a suspect and a detective. In the company of his daughter Emily, he assists and resists the authorities as they stumble to unravel this knotted skein of terror.
An anthology of English literature may include a brief segment of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, representing Thomas De Quincey’s contribution to western civilization. For some, like David Morrell, who profess an unbounded ardor for De Quincey’s writings, these few pages breed a lively fascination. In Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell shares De Quincey’s interest in the Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell describes De Quincey’s analysis of contemporary newspaper reports as the foundation for his essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. The details are so specific, the essay seems to be a first-hand account by the murderer. Morrell and “the Artist” both study De Quincey’s complete works in preparation for Morrell’s literary and “the Artist’s” homicidal exploits.
David Morell recreates London of the nineteenth century with art, science and fashion. De Quincey recalls in the pages of Morrell’s novel, his deceased friends, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, well-known opium-eaters. De Quincey believes that the massive doses of laudanum he imbibes promote creativity by linking his conscious and his subconscious. He discovers the subconscious 70 years before Freud writes of it.
Emily De Quincey, Thomas’ outspoken and “liberated” daughter, proves to be an artful dodger. She protects her father and in her spare moments explains the benefits of the Bloomer dress over the then fashionable hooped dresses and skirts. Her substantial narrations and ploy stand as some of the most interesting chapters of the book. With multiple narrators, the role of protagonist shifts throughout the novel. Along the way, Morrell works both sides of the debate between art imitates life vs. life imitates art.
The Kindle version of Murder as a Fine Art includes discussion with the author, historical background and more details on the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. The author discourages drug use as the key to unlocking creativity.