God save the queen—or failing that, send in the opium sot.
Morrell’s sequel to his Victorian-era thriller, Murder as a Fine Art (2013), finds Thomas De Quincey, the scandalous opium-addicted author, again embroiled in a lurid series of murders as he employs his unique psychological and philosophical insights in an investigation of the slayings of prominent members of English society. Aided by his progressive-minded daughter, Emily, and two stalwart detectives of Scotland Yard, De Quincey makes for an offbeat but entirely credible protagonist in the Sherlock Holmes mold. Morrell deftly blends actual historical persons and events—De Quincey remains well-known for his proto-addiction memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are major characters—with the morbid thrills of a contemporary serial-killer narrative as the victims are arranged in grotesque tableaux, each bearing a letter naming various failed assassins of Queen Victoria and referencing a secret society known as Young England, a terrorist organization bent on the overthrow of the British government. It’s a potent formula, with genuine thrills and a satisfying mystery leavened with well-observed and meticulously researched details of Victorian life and attitudes. The villain is sympathetically drawn, with clearly defined and understandable motivations, and De Quincey’s team of intrepid investigators is a cracklingly compelling group of misfits and damaged heroes. Morrell also entertainingly plays with formal conventions, recalling the tropes of Victorian “sensation novels,” and the whole enterprise is ripping good fun at every delicious twist and turn.
A propulsive, richly imagined yarn that never loses steam or insults the reader’s intelligence.