Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier. The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.
Historical crime fiction is a genre I seem to be enjoying these days. Murder as a Fine Art is set in 1854 London and is inspired from the works of Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey’s essay are autobiographical and the plot is heavily inspired from them. In the essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” De Quincey detailed the horrific series of murders that terrorized London in 1811. Morrell has weaved an intricate tale from those murders and De Quincey’s essays in Murder as a Fine Art.
A shop keeper and his family are brutally murdered in the manner that is exact with the 1811 Ratcliff murders, which are described in De Quincey’s essay. These murders coincide with De Quincey’s and his daughter Emily’s visit to London. Detective Inspector Ryan suspects De Quincey as the murders are committed exactly as mentioned in his essay. However we soon learn that this is all a trap to incriminate De Quincey himself. Now Detective Inspector Ryan and his constable Becker must work hard with De Quincey and Emily to find the real murderer. It is not easy with De Quincey’s addiction to Laudanum.
The book is humorous and witty and at times brutal in its descriptions of murders. De Quincey and his daughters’ characters are way ahead of their times and this is evident in their dialogues with each other and their prudent practical nature. It is interesting to read about the police procedures during that period and the politics and pressures that are present between ranks and class. The plot is interesting and the characters are complex. I enjoyed reading how De Quincey put himself in the murderer’s shoes and tried to get inside his character to find out his next move. It was a bit of a let-down that it was De Quincey who did most of the work and the inspector and constable acted mostly as his sidekicks. I am not curious to read De Quincey’s essays and his thoughts on psychoanalysis and the way the mind works; a long way before Freud! It was a compelling and engrossing read especially the psychoanalysis of the murderer as I was already reading Freud for my course on philosophy and this book nicely complemented it.