In 1854, a series of senseless killings in London so closely echo the literary work of Thomas De Quincey that he becomes the principal suspect.
Writer Thomas De Quincey, best known for Confessions of an English Opium Eater, his frank memoir of his experiences with opium, also published a satirical essay entitled "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," in which he describes in appreciative detail the early-19th-century Ratcliffe Highway murders. While he's in London on a promotional tour, accompanied by his outspoken daughter, Emily, someone re-creates the Ratcliffe murders in a way that suggests the killer may be using De Quincey's piece as a blueprint. De Quincey falls under suspicion and must use his extensive knowledge of the nature of violence and regret, and his pre-Freudian theories of the subconscious, as well as his resourceful daughter and two policeman who believe in his innocence, to catch and stop the true killer, all while dealing with his crippling opium addiction. Meanwhile, the ongoing murder spree spreads increasing terror throughout London, putting the entire empire at risk. Morrell (First Blood, 1971, etc.) fills his work with extensive detail on life in London in 1854, usually in service to his story but sometimes in a gratuitous fashion. His De Quincey is quite convincing, but most of his other characters lack the same depth. Some sections are oddly and distractingly repetitive—for instance, the reader is given a detailed introduction at two different points in the novel to the real-life Dr. John Snow, who traced a cholera epidemic to a contaminated water source. In trying too hard to bring certain threads full circle, the book's climax comes across as a bit contrived. But the charming central conceit—a laudanum-chugging De Quincy chasing a killer through fog-shrouded Victorian London—goes a long way toward making up for the novel's glaring shortcomings, as do several tense, well-paced action sequences.
Fans of Victorian and/or quirky mysteries will find much to enjoy and will likely be willing to forgive the book's substantial flaws.