Murder as a Fine Art

Written by David Morrell
Review by Kristen Hannum

It’s 1854 in London, and a murderer has just carefully recreated the most heinous mass murder of that century, a brutal, senseless slaughter in 1811. This current, 1854 assassin, however, goes further, killing even more people. Now it’s up to Detective Ryan to figure out who did it before panic sweeps across the city and country, a panic that could possibly even topple the government. Ryan would be out of luck if it weren’t for the help of the brilliant Thomas de Quincey, the Hunter S. Thompson of his era, a sensationalistic journalist and addict who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater and was friends with poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. De Quincey’s beautiful 21-year-old daughter Emily is his loyal assistant, a kind of feminist Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. She’s smart, funny, loyal, earnest, and with a strong sense of social justice. Author Morrell gives over great portions of the story’s telling to her, via her journal.

I loved the way Morrell went back and forth between what felt like pure history (about the enormous percentage of people in 19th-century England who were addicted to laudanum, for instance, or how newfangled the idea of “detectives” was), then to page-turning action sequences, and then to Emily’s account, told in an old-fashioned and likeable voice. The murderer gets his turn as well, and we come to understand his warped reasoning.

This book is fastidiously researched and plotted as well as being pleasingly compelling, despite its dark subject matter. Morrell does not into gruesome detail; he rather transports the reader to the fog- and pig-bound streets of long-ago London, seen through the eyes of believable, fallible, and appealing characters—plus one murderer and one Machiavellian politician, Lord Palmerston. Absolutely recommended.