April 19, 2013

Return to London’s bloody history with thriller master David Morrell

Interview by
David Morrell, who has been called “the father of the modern action novel,” may be best known as the creator of Rambo, the scarred American soldier who first appeared in Morrell’s debut, First Blood. Morrell moves in an exciting new direction with Murder as a Fine Art, a taut historical thriller set in Victorian London.
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Murder as a Fine Art takes its inspiration from the real-life, unsolved Ratcliffe Highway murders, two bloody attacks on two separate families in 1811. The gory attacks of random, innocent people threw London into a panic, as the homes of good, law-abiding citizens were no longer safe. Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, dramatized the murders in a postscript to his essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which depicted the events in gruesome, intimate detail and portrayed the killer as an artistic genius.

In Murder as a Fine Art, it has been over four decades since the Ratcliffe Highway murders, and deep in the heavy fog of London, someone has begun to commit identical murders. The only man who may be able to stop the new killer is De Quincey, who is not only a suspect in the case but also a clear target. With the help of his resourceful daughter Emily, two Scotland Yard detectives and a steady stream of laudanum, De Quincey goes toe-to-toe with an evil history.

Morrell has created an atmospheric, precise murder mystery with fascinating historical detail. Like De Quincey, his work conveys chilling insight into the mind of a serial killer.

During many months of research, you plunged into the world of 1854 London and the works of De Quincey. You’ve called this process “method” writing, which begs the question: Having immersed yourself in this world and De Quincey’s thoughts, what is your own opinion of murder’s artistic value?

Yes, for two years I had the adventure of immersing myself in 1854 London. The only books I read were related to that time, and I so focused on the period that I managed to convince myself I was there. As for murder being a fine art, Thomas De Quincey argued that some killings evoke so much pity and terror in the Aristotelian sense that they become the equivalent of powerful dramas while the killers themselves become imaginative authors. De Quincey’s famous essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” is one of the first examples of psychological criticism. He explored the effect of a text on an audience’s psyche, and he felt that a certain type of murder, one that paralyzes an entire country the way the Ratcliffe Highway murders did, could be analyzed as if it were a play.

“There needs to be something about the theme, the subject, the research and the way the book is written that makes me fuller. That certainly happened with Murder as a Fine Art.”

One of the most powerful questions in historical fiction is “What if?” When you were researching this novel, which “What if?” were you most excited to explore?

There were a string of “What ifs,” all of them related. A brief reference to De Quincey in a recent movie about Darwin, Creation, made me curious enough to look at some Victorian literature texts that I still have from my college days. My professor hadn’t said much about De Quincey, but now, as I read De Quincey’s work, I became increasingly excited by his brilliance. Then I found his Postscript to “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which was published in the fall of 1854, and I suddenly thought—I’m not exaggerating about the cascading way this came together—“What if De Quincey came to London in 1854 to publicize his essay? What if someone used that essay as a blueprint for replicating the Ratcliffe Highway murders? What if De Quincey became the logical suspect because of his opium addiction and his obsession about the murders?” Of course, it took two years of research and writing in order to dramatize those questions.

De Quincey suggested that the artistic brilliance of the Ratcliffe Highway murders would raise the aesthetic bar for future murders. Would you call De Quincey the father of the mystery novel? Would you go so far as to call him the father of the modern murder? Why or why not?

We know that De Quincey strongly influenced Edgar Allan Poe, who is generally considered to be the inventor of the detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe then influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes. So if De Quincey isn’t the father of the detective mystery genre, he can justly be called the grandfather of it.

Between Poe and Conan Doyle, there’s Wilkie Collins, whose The Moonstone is usually called the first detective novel as opposed to the detective short stories of Poe. In The Moonstone, Collins uses De Quincey and his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to solve the mystery, so De Quincey certainly had an effect on the genre. At the same time, De Quincey was also one of the originators of Sensation Fiction, which is what we now call thrillers. When I saw the pattern, I realized that De Quincey would make a perfect detective. We can trace a line from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector all the way back to De Quincey’s influence on crime fiction.

De Quincey is best remembered for his addiction to laudanum, a painkilling mixture of opium and alcohol, as memorialized by his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In Murder as a Fine Art, his addiction is clearly killing him. However, it helped him write beautifully, and in this novel, it makes him a formidable opponent to the murderer. Parallels to Sherlock Holmes must be drawn. Why are drugs a classic element of mysteries?

Laudanum was as common in Victorian medicine cabinets as aspirin is today. It was used for baby colic, back pain, kidney ailments, menstrual cramps, cancer, hay fever—just about anything. It had a skull and crossbones on the bottle, along with a label marked “POISON.” Arguably, many Victorians were drug addicts without realizing it, which explains the dark, muffled rooms of the period. A tablespoon of laudanum would probably be lethal. But De Quincey sometimes drank 16 ounces of the stuff each day. For him it worked as a stimulant rather than a sedative, and under its influence, he wrote amazingly evocative, brilliant prose.

Lest someone decide that this is the key to being a wonderful writer, I should add that De Quincey suffered opium nightmares that made him feel that he endured the horrors of 100 years each night. His stomach and bowels shut down. He had massive debts because he spent so much money on opium.

It’s interesting to note that Sherlock Holmes injects himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine. Wilkie Collins was a prisoner of laudanum. Poe claimed to have tried to commit suicide by using laudanum. His narrators sometimes use laudanum, lending a distinctive tone to the prose. But I don’t see an epidemic of drug-affected detectives after the Victorian era ended.

While drug use plays a role in this book, the roots of the problem are British imperialism, the wars waged in the name of colonialism and the British East India Company’s opium trade. The shady opium dealings detailed in Murder as a Fine Art force the reader to question who really is to blame—and whether or not the murderer is validated in his actions. As deplorable as the opium trade was, was it bad enough to justify murder? Can murder this gruesome ever be validated?

Now we get to the central theme of the novel. Because of De Quincey’s opium addiction, the plot pivots around that drug. The concept of physical and mental addiction wasn’t understood for much of the Victorian era. They thought of it as a habit that could be overcome by fortitude. The British East India Company, which was powerful enough to lend money to the British government to finance wars, made most of its money from opium. Some of that opium was shipped home to England (along with opium from Turkey). But much of it was smuggled into China (the emperor didn’t want it in his country) in exchange for Chinese tea, which was more valuable than opium on the international market. Huge fortunes were made in this way. Many universities (including American Ivy league ones) have endowments that started with donations of opium profits. The murderer in my novel isn’t a sociopathic maniac. Without giving away a major twist in the plot, I think it’s safe to say that he’s extremely sympathetic, which is an odd thing to say about a mass murderer, even a fictional one, but given his experiences, his torment seemed heartbreaking.

Throughout Murder as a Fine Art, characters are unable to escape their pasts: De Quincey is haunted by memories on every corner of London; an Irish cop tries to hide his red hair; the killer’s motivations come from secrets in his past; horrifying murders are repeated. How inescapable is our past?

The burden of the past—how we can’t escape our origins—is certainly one aspect of the novel. My own past had nightmarish aspects. After my father died in combat, my mother couldn’t raise me by herself and put me in an orphanage. Later she reclaimed me, although I sometimes felt I was adopted without being told. After she remarried, it turned out that my stepfather disliked children. There were constant terrifying arguments between my mother and him. Fearful, I used to sleep beneath my bed. I went to sleep, telling stories to myself. I’m still telling those stories.

The challenge is to overcome the imperfection of our past. In Murder as a Fine Art, the murderer is as much controlled by his childhood as De Quincey is.

This historical thriller is certainly a departure for you. You took real characters, true works and actual events, but went further: Murder as a Fine Art doesn’t simply recreate the original murders, but even extrapolates theories and solves the original crime altogether. Without giving too much away, do you truly believe you solved it, or did you make fictional leaps in your conclusion?

My solution to the motives for the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway mass murders is consistent with the information that’s available about them. The detail that almost no one addressed is that in the second set of killings, the supposed murderer John Williams killed a tavern-keeper named John Williamson. When I first read this, I thought it was a typo. I’m aware of only one commentator, G.K. Chesterton, who thought that this was weird. “It sounds like a sort of infanticide,” Chesterton said. Because my novel’s main character, Thomas De Quincey, invented the term “subconscious” and anticipated Freud’s theories by more than half a century, I decided that the psychological implication of Williams killing Williamson would provide the explanation for not only that set of killings but the ones that occurred 12 days earlier. I can’t suggest that mine is the only explanation, but my solution is logical and fits the details.

In the book’s afterword, you call Murder as a Fine Art “[your] version of a nineteenth-century novel.” How was writing in this 19th-century style different from crafting your other novels?

Flaubert, Henry James and Hemingway are three authors who drastically changed the way novels came to be written, largely due to their development of the third-person limited viewpoint. Before them, novels tended to be written in an omniscient third-person historian’s voice or else in the first person. The omniscient voice is almost never used these days.  It relies on telling, not showing. Its narrator can be intrusive. It’s so different from the third-person limited viewpoint that these days it draws attention to itself, even though it once was taken for granted. In Bleak House, which Dickens released in 1853, a year before the events in Murder as a Fine Art, he alternates an omniscient viewpoint with a first-person viewpoint. All of this would now probably be rejected in a creative writing class. But I decided that because my novel is set in 1854, it needed to be written in a way that evoked 1854. I needed to make it a modern version of a Victorian novel.

The other thing I realized was that for me the omniscient viewpoint was essential because 1854 London is as foreign to us as Mars. The things that Victorians took for granted are so weird that they need to be explained. What’s a dollymop or a dipper? How much did a respectable woman’s clothes weigh? (Thirty-seven pounds.) Why could physicians be presented at the queen’s court while surgeons were restricted? Why did prison cells have boxes with cranks on the walls? I couldn’t have the characters talking about these things, which they took for granted and would never think about discussing. The only way I knew to solve the problem was to use a Victorian omniscient narrator, who periodically steps forward and in effect says to the reader, “You can’t understand this scene unless I tell you about Victorian burial customs.” It’s a liberating technique that made Murder as a Fine Art a great pleasure to write because by definition the third-person limited viewpoint is limiting.

Where do you hope this book will take you as an author?

My goal has always been to keep moving forward and find new ways to write about action and suspense. A few people were surprised when they learned that I’d done the unexpected and written a Victorian thriller, but it’s very much in keeping with my attitudes. Before I start a project, I write a letter to myself, answering this question: “Why is this book worth a year or two or three of my life?” There needs to be something about the theme, the subject, the research and the way the book is written that makes me fuller. That certainly happened with Murder as a Fine Art. By going to Victorian London, I moved ahead personally and saw the world in a different way. Response to the book has been very encouraging, with numerous requests for me to do another De Quincey novel. I’ve written very few sequels, but in this case, I have much more to say about this remarkable man.

Get the Book

Murder as a Fine Art

Murder as a Fine Art

By David Morrell
Mulholland Books
ISBN 9780316216791

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