Monday, December 22, 2014

Murder as a Fine Art

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (2013)

In 1811, England was shocked by the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. Nothing like it was seen before. On two dates just 12 days apart, 7 people were brutally killed, including a 3-month-old baby. The suspect committed suicide in prison. Forty-three years later, an eerily similar murder occurs. The suspect this time is Thomas De Quincey, notorious author of a memoir entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but even more pertinent and incriminating, an essay called "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." De Quincey didn't even live in London, but just happened to be there at the time of the murders. He is determined to prove himself innocent, but is in pretty rough shape from his laudanum habit. Nevertheless, his daughter Emily and some Scotland Yard detectives set on the case, hoping to prevent another set of murders.

What I liked most about this book is that it's filled with fascinating historical details. The Ratcliffe Highway Murders actually happened, but the author also included a great deal about day-to-day life. For instance, the new ability to travel so quickly by train meant that having fixed schedules became important, and schedules meant that it actually mattered that everyone's clocks agreed with each other. Thus, Railroad Time was established. Similarly, opium was a strong theme in the novel, but at the time drug addiction didn't really exist as a concept. Laudanum (which was made with opium) was ubiquitous in society, used extensively for everything from easing menstrual cramps to quieting babies. The novel was filled with such information, proving the author's extensive understanding of that time and place.

Told primarily in third person, the story also included excerpts from Emily's diary. These vexed me a bit as I was reading, because they seemed so unnecessary. Rather than providing additional insight, they served only as another narrative viewpoint. The same could have been achieved by telling her parts of the story in third person just like the rest of the book. In the afterword, Morrell explains that he included the journal excerpts because that was a popular device in sensation novels of the time. Ok, fair enough. But the entries didn't come across as authentically journal-like. For instance, in one entry she clarifies her name, which seems odd.

"Ann," he murmured.
My mother's name was Margaret. Mine is Emily.

Why would you need to explain to your own journal what your name is? The journal excerpts were also not written in as conversational a tone as I would expect, but were rather formal. However this is all fairly minor in the scope of the whole novel.

The solution to the central mystery didn't surprise me a whole lot - there were a few clues early on - but the motive was a whole story unto itself, and one that I didn't come close to guessing. I really liked the whole idea of the story and how it played out. Morrell did a ton of research and it shows in the rich historical details that brought the setting to life, and it was this that I enjoyed the most. This novel isn't perfect, but I found it quite satisfying nonetheless.

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