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David Morrell – Murder as a Fine Art

July 20, 2017

35. Murder as a Fine Art by David Morell (2013)

Length: 358 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Started: 22 June 2017
Finished: 04 July 2017

Where did it come from? Bought from Amazon.
Why do I have it? It was my book club’s pick of the month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 May 2017.

Copy-cat murders
set Victorian London
into a panic.

Summary: In 1811, more than seventy years before Jack the Ripper, a series of grisly murders known as the Ratcliffe Highway killings terrified England. They were so well known that Thomas de Quincey, best known for his scandalous “Confessions of an Opium Eater”, which described his intense opium addiction, also published a detailed essay on the killings called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. When a copy-cat murder is committed in 1854, the details of the grisly scene is enough to spark a panic — if someone repeats the first of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, they’re likely to repeat the rest, and no one is safe. Detective Ryan of Scotland Yard is under immense pressure to solve the case as rapidly as possible, but is it the original killer returned, someone who’s read de Quincey’s essay and is using it for a guide, or is the murderer de Quincey – who just happens to be in London with his daughter at the time – himself?

Review: I am generally favorably disposed towards historical mysteries, especially historical murder mysteries, so it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed this book. However, it does have some elements that set it apart from other books in this genre that I thought I’d call out. First, this book is based on (or grounded in?) real events. Despite me never having heard of either before reading this book, both Thomas de Quincey (and his writings) and the Ratcliffe Highway murders are real — only the 1854 copy-cat murders are fiction. The set-up – what would happen if there had been a copy-cat? – is so clear and so grounded in the real world history and personalities that the narrative seems almost effortless. Morrell did what I want my historical fiction to do: find some piece of history that I don’t know about and make it live. He also did a good job of bringing the 1850s London to life, particularly the less posh elements of society, and the attitudes towards women and immigrants.

The story rotates in viewpoint among several characters, primarily alternating between the detectives investigating the case and excerpts from de Quincey’s daughter’s journal (which, seriously, even at the time no one is journaling with that much detail). Morell also starts many chapters with a third-person omniscient brief exposition regarding some element of London society or history, which sounds like it might be distracting, but which I thought made the whole thing feel like an appropriately Victorian pastiche. I enjoyed all of the characters, particularly Constable Becker, a young policeman who is determined to use this case to prove his worthiness as an Inspector. I also thought that the mystery was well done, with clues doled out at a good pace (including chapters from the killer’s point of view), and ultimately having a solution that made sense with the rest of the story. There was some sense of having one too many elements involved – there was a subplot (or not even; it wasn’t developed well enough to merit the name) involving political unrest in Europe at the time that I didn’t think added much to the story and could easily have been omitted. But overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and it’s inspired me to go pick up some of de Quincey’s writings for myself. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like the historical mysteries featuring Jack the Ripper (or other novels set in the slums of Victorian London), this is definitely worth adding to your reading list. It reminded me most of The Meaning of Night in tone, and The Solitary House in content.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Literate Housewife, That’s What She Read, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Titian, Reubens, and Van Dyke, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 21, 2017 7:23 pm

    I enjoyed this book, too. You’re reminding me to pick up more of his books.

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