Will readers ever tire of Victorian London as a setting for mystery fiction? It offers so many outstanding attractions: fog-choked alleyways and flickering gaslights; squalid doss houses and distinguished estates where servants lived on different floors and in discrete worlds; horse-drawn carriages jockeying for passage along cobbled avenues with ravenous pigs rooting through rubbish. Arthur Conan Doyle, a creature of that very place and period, made the Victorian capital familiar through his Sherlock Holmes yarns, and many authors since—among them Alex Grecian, Anne Perry, Peter Lovesey, Lynn Shepherd, David Dickinson and John MacLachlan Gray—have sought to further exploit its prohibitory mores and discordant enthrallment with the macabre.
Oh, and let’s not forget about David Morrell. The now 71-year-old Santa Fe, New Mexico, author—who debuted on the literary landscape with his 1972 action novel, First Blood (introducing Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, a protagonist later to be portrayed in films by Sylvester Stallone), and has followed that with more than two dozen additional books, winning commendations such as the 2009 ThrillerMaster Award—joined the ranks of Victorian suspense weavers with Murder as a Fine Art (2013). That yarn imagined Thomas De Quincey, a rather frail, sexagenarian essayist and psychological theorist (best known to historians for having bared his private life in a controversial 1821 memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), turning detective in 1854 to help solve a succession of horrifying London homicides evidently inspired by Britain’s real-life Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Assuming a Watsonlike role in that adventure was his youngest child, the resourceful and progressive Emily De Quincey.
Both addict-father and devoted daughter return in Morrell’s new Inspector of the Dead, which finds the British government having collapsed after multiple missteps in the Crimean War, and London’s gentry aghast at murders within their ranks. “Respectable people didn’t commit crimes,” Morrell writes, expressing the Victorian era’s prevailing attitude. “That was a lower-class phenomenon.” Yet the vicious slayings of upper-echelon families, an attack on the local police commissioner’s loved ones and clues suggesting links with several attempts on Queen Victoria’s life over the years, prove that conviction erroneous. It falls to De Quincey (if he can keep his head clear of opium’s effects long enough), along with Emily and a pair of Scotland Yard detectives, to expose and seize the malefactor Morrell nicknames “the Revenger” before further slayings, including that of the queen herself, take place.
A former university literary professor, Morrell has long been recognized for the precision of his prose and the propulsion of his plotting. But Inspector of the Dead benefits also from his curious eye for historical detail and a principal trio of fully developed characters—not just the abundantly troubled De Quincey and the brilliantly eccentric Emily, but also the Revenger, whose back story is painful and potent, and whose identity remains elusive until well into this engrossing Victorian potboiler.
Having met David Morrell during last fall’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, I felt no hesitancy in approaching him with questions about his latest work.
I can’t help but be impressed by the level of research necessary to write both Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead. Your grasp of the nuances of life in Victorian London—the respectable, the seamy and the atmospheric—must have been earned through diligent study. How long did it take you, reading through background materials, before you felt able to write Murder as a Fine Art? And how much more research did you have to undertake in order to compose its sequel?
Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead each required two years of research. I have shelves and shelves of books about Victorian culture and history, not to mention a ton of material about my main character, Thomas De Quincey, the opium-eater. He wrote thousands and thousands of pages. I read them again and again until I could readily summon passages from his work and paraphrase them in the dialogue I invented. I love research, but these books required more research than is usual because I knew that as an author of novels set in modern America, critics would be eagerly waiting for me to make a mistake. So I absorbed all those books and my huge map of 1850s London until some days I actually believed I was there.
What was the most remarkable thing you learned about London or England of the 1850s, something that most of us would not know?
Going to 1850s London is like going to Mars. When we read Victorian novels, it’s difficult to understand the subtext without a guide. Here are a few examples. The 1850s were the decade of massive hooped dresses. Most women wore 10 yards of ruffled satin, with voluminous undergarments and weights in the dress hems to keep the hoops from bouncing up. The average weight of all this was an astonishing 37 pounds. Here’s another example. In our culture, surgeons receive more respect than physicians, but in the Victorian era, it was the other way around. Because surgeons touched people and were exposed to blood, they were considered inferior. Worse, they were paid directly by their clients, and that means they were “in trade.” In contrast, a physician seldom touched a patient and wasn’t paid by the client but instead by the druggist to which the physician sent patients. Thus the physician wasn’t “in trade” and could be presented to the queen, while the surgeon could not. A surgeon was paid in pounds, while a physician was paid in a by-then no longer existent currency called a guinea, which translated into one pound and one shilling. Physicians tried to give the impression that they were better than a surgeon by charging a fancier fee.
None of this is explained in Victorian novels. Victorian readers took these details for granted. But a modern reader needs an explanation. Writing Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead, I couldn’t take anything for granted. I had to research every detail in every scene in order to get to the Victorian underlayer.
You explain in Inspector of the Dead that this story, as well its predecessor, are styled in the literary fashion of mid-1800s “sensation novels.” Those novels took it as a given that crime—even the most brutal sort of offenses—could occur in respectable households; crime wasn’t something confined to lower-class environs. In Inspector, you make it quite clear that members of that era’s upper-class did not believe such violence could touch them; certainly, you suggest, members of the upper-classes could not commit murder upon each other. Can I assume, then, that “sensation novels” of the Victorian era were not comfortably received by readers, the majority of whom would have been relatively well-to-do?
The popularity of the sensation novel began with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in 1859-60. A year later, Mrs. Henry Wood wrote East Lynne, another popular sensation novel, and then in 1862, Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote Lady Audley’s Secret. These three authors started the craze. For a time, it seemed that only sensation novels were being published. Servants read them, believing that they were finally learning what their masters were up to, while their masters read them to find out what the servants thought they were secretly doing. Meanwhile clergymen were condemning the craze, and that only made more readers curious about what was in these lurid books.
How, and at what point in history, did upper-class Brits finally realize that atrocious acts of crime could strike them as well?
The change occurred when Collins was writing The Woman in White. In 1860, a well-to-do family living in remote Road Hill House discovered that one of their children was missing. The boy’s body was discovered stuffed into excrement in a privy, his head nearly cut off. All the servants were questioned, but no one could figure out who killed the child. Finally an inspector from Scotland Yard was summoned. His name was [Jack] Whicher, and after a thorough investigation, he concluded that one of the other children, a girl, was responsible. People were outraged. A well-to-do girl couldn’t possibly have done it, they insisted. Whicher had to retire in disgrace. But eventually the girl, now an adult, walked into a police station and confessed.
This was a media-sensation murder that occupied the attention of everyone in England. What made it all the more shocking is that policemen were considered part of the working class, and yet Whicher had gone through the family’s laundry and privy. This appalling murder became the basis for countless murder mysteries—the killing in the remote house, the detective inspector who questions the well-to-do as well as the servants. Kate Summerscale wrote an excellent book about it: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008). People were shocked to their core by the idea that a well-to-do young girl could have committed such a crime. The motive was jealousy, by the way.
Much of the attraction of Inspector of the Dead, as was also true with Murder as a Fine Art, comes from your portrayal of Thomas De Quincey as a brainy but not wholly predictable figure. His quirkiness can be attributed in part to his long-standing addiction to opium, which he ingested (mixed with alcohol) as “laudanum.” How did you determine the best way to portray De Quincey’s behavior, especially his performance under the drug’s spell? Did your research take you as far as sampling opium yourself?
I’m not a drug taker, so my research had a limit. There are very few scenes from De Quincey’s point of view, and that helped me avoid the problem of what opium feels like. The major factor here is that much of the time we see De Quincey through his daughter Emily’s worshipping eyes. She’s a likable character, and I hoped that if she showed her love for him during periodic first-person journal entries, then readers would like him as much as she does.
So let’s talk about Emily De Quincey. She was one of eight children Thomas De Quincey’s wife, Margaret, gave him before she perished in 1837. Where did she fall in their birth order?
Emily was De Quincey’s final child. In De Quincey’s last years (he lived until the age of 74—pretty impressive for an opium addict), she was one of his caretakers, especially after her two sisters married and moved away. So I had a convenient “sidekick” for him, a sort of Watson figure, who would present his eccentricities in the best possible light. She’s the key to these novels. Her intrepid and hilarious personality leavens the darkness. I love the way she makes pompous authority figures look like idiots. Not much is known about her, so I had the freedom to be inventive in a way that I didn’t have with De Quincey.
These books are rooted in the conceit that De Quincey was “an expert in murder.” You also make quite clear that he understood the human subconscious in ways that wouldn’t become familiar to the larger public until Sigmund Freud’s time. But do you think De Quincey might really have made a skilled detective?
He often wrote about violent murder and did so with an eerie understanding of the emotions of the killer. As to whether he could have made a skilled detective, we’ll never know, but that’s the fun of writing about him. I usually explain the detective chronology this way. Edgar Allan Poe was hugely influenced by De Quincey. Poe invented the detective story, using an eccentric detective and a friend who reports about the detective’s adventures. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admitted to “borrowing” Poe’s format when he invented Sherlock Holmes, whose drug habit almost certainly can be traced back to De Quincey. Wilkie Collins explicitly used De Quincey and his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as a major plot solution in one of the first detective novels, The Moonstone.
Did Freud ever acknowledge a debt to De Quincey?
Freud read Baudelaire’s French translation of De Quincey’s work, but I don’t think Freud ever indicated there was an influence. To me, it’s obvious.
Can I assume you’re working on a third De Quincey novel?
I am indeed working on a third De Quincey novel. I always thought of this as a trilogy. I don’t feel comfortable saying what it’s about, except that again I’ll try to combine history and fiction as much as I can. I’ve also written a short work about De Quincey. It’s called The Opium-Eater. It’s set in the English Lake District, in Grasmere, where De Quincey moved into Dove Cottage after [poet William] Wordsworth moved out. It’s a prequel that I describe as being about the coldest of deaths and how De Quincey earned his nickname. There’s an afterword that features numerous photographs of the locations in the story. It’s only available as an e-book. The photographs would have made a printed version too expensive.