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Murder as a Fine Art
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Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.
The blueprint for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.
In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer, whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Inspector of the Dead
Reading Group Guide
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AT FIRST GLANCE, it seems odd that mid-Victorian England, known for its tightly controlled emotions, became obsessed with a new type of fiction called the novel of sensation. When Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White in 1860, he set off what Victorian critics called a Sensation Mania that satisfied the "cravings of a diseased appetite," "a virus… spreading in all directions." This shocking new fiction had its roots in Gothic novels of the previous century, with the difference that sensation novelists set their stories not in ancient, brooding castles but instead in the very real homes and neighborhoods of Victorian England. Darkness didn't come from the supernatural. Rather, it festered in the hearts of supposedly respectable public figures whose private lives hid dismaying secrets. Insanity, incest, rape, blackmail, infanticide, arson, drug abuse, poison, sadomasochism, and necrophilia—these were some of what sensation novelists insisted were concealed behind the Victorian veneer of decorum and reserve.
Upon closer inspection, the mid-Victorian mania for sensation makes sense as a reaction to the rigidly controlled emotions of that era. It's difficult to exaggerate the degree to which middle- and upper-class Victorians separated their personal and public lives, concealing their true feelings from outsiders. The common practice of always keeping draperies closed perfectly represents the Victorian attitude that one's home and private life were sacred domains to be looked out from but not seen into. Secrets not only abounded in each household but also were taken for granted and respected as being no one else's business.
Thomas De Quincey, a controversial Victorian author whose theories about the subconscious anticipated those of Freud by seventy years, had this to say about repression and secrets: "There is no such thing as forgetting. The inscriptions on the mind remain forever, to be revealed when the night returns." De Quincey became famous when he did the unthinkable, exposing his private life in a notorious best seller, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which William S. Burroughs later described as "the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction."
De Quincey's lurid writing, especially "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," qualifies him as an originator of the novel of sensation. That disturbing essay dramatizes the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings that terrorized both London and all of England in 1811. It's tempting to compare the effect of those killings to the fear that engulfed London's East End during Jack the Ripper's blood spree at the opposite end of the century, in 1888. But in fact the panic that resulted from the Ratcliffe Highway killings was far worse and more widespread because those multiple murders were the first of their kind to become common knowledge throughout England, thanks to the growing importance of newspapers (fifty-two in London alone in 1811) and a recently perfected system of mail coaches that crossed the country at a relentless ten-mile-an-hour pace.
Moreover, Jack the Ripper's victims were all prostitutes whereas the Ratcliffe Highway victims were business owners and their families. Streetwalkers feared Jack the Ripper while literally everyone had reason to fear the Ratcliffe Highway killer. What happened to his victims is mirrored in this novel's first chapter, which some might find shocking but which is based on the historical record.
The Artist of Death
Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, grouping, light and shade, poetry, and sentiment are indispensable to the ideal murder. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michelangelo in painting, a great murderer carries his art to a colossal sublimity.
Thomas De Quincey
"On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts"
TITIAN, RUBENS, AND VAN DYKE, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress. Prior to immortalizing their visions on canvas, they bathed, symbolically cleansing their minds of any distractions. They put on their finest clothes, their best wigs, and in one case even a diamond-hilted sword.
The artist of death had similarly prepared himself. Dressed in evening clothes, he sat for two hours staring at a wall, focusing his sensations. When darkness cast shadows through a curtained window, he lit an oil lamp and put the equivalent of brushes, paint, and canvas into a black leather bag. Mindful of Rubens, he included a wig, which was yellow in contrast with the light brown of his own hair. A matching actor's beard was added to the bag. Ten years earlier, a beard would have drawn attention, but a recent trend made beards almost to be expected, as opposed to his increasingly unusual clean-shaven features. He set a heavy ship carpenter's mallet among the other items in the bag. The mallet was aged and had the initials J. P. stamped into its head. In place of the diamond-hilted sword that one artist had worn as he painted, the artist placed a folded, ivory-handled razor in his pocket.
He stepped from his refuge and walked awhile until he reached a busy intersection, where he waited at a cab stand. After two minutes, an empty hansom finally came along, its driver seated prominently behind the sleek vehicle. The artist of death didn't mind standing in plain view, despite the cold December night. In fact, at this point he wanted to be seen, although anyone observing him would soon find it difficult as fog drifted in from the Thames, casting a halo around gas lamps.
The artist paid eightpence for the driver to take him to the Adelphi theater in the Strand. Amid the bustle of carriages and the clop of hooves, he made his way toward a well-dressed crowd waiting to go inside. The Adelphi's gas-lit marquee indicated that the sensational melodrama The Corsican Brothers was being performed. The artist of death was familiar with the play and could answer any questions about it, especially its unusual device of two first acts, which occurred in sequence but were meant to be imagined as taking place simultaneously. In the first part, a brother saw the ghost of his twin. The next part dramatized how the twin was killed at the same time the brother saw his ghost. The revenge in the final part was so violent, with such copious amounts of stage blood, that many members of the audience claimed to be shocked, their outrage promoting ticket sales.
The artist of death joined the excited crowd as they entered the theater. His pocket watch showed him that the time was seven twenty. The curtain was scheduled to rise in ten minutes. In the confusion of the lobby, he passed a vendor selling sheet music of the "Ghost Melody" featured in the play. He exited through a side door, walked along a fog-shrouded alley, concealed himself behind shadowy boxes, and waited to determine if anyone followed him.
Feeling safe after ten minutes, he left the far end of the alley, walked across two streets, and hired another cab, no longer needing to wait inasmuch as numerous empty cabs were now departing from the theater. This time, he went to a less fashionable part of the city. He closed his eyes and listened to the cab's wheels shift from the large, smooth, granite paving stones on the main streets to the small, rough cobblestones of the older lanes in London's East End. When he descended into an area where evening clothes were hardly common, the driver no doubt believed that the artist intended to solicit a streetwalker.
Behind the closed door of a public privy, he took ordinary clothes from the leather bag, put them on, and folded his theater garments into the bag. As he continued along increasingly shabby streets, he found stoops, nooks, and alleys in which he dirtied the common clothes he now wore and smeared his leather bag with mud. He entered a filthy mews clean-shaven, with light brown hair, and left it wearing the yellow beard and wig. His collapsible top hat had long since been put in the bag, replaced by a weathered sailor's cap. The ship carpenter's mallet was now in a pocket of a tattered sailor's coat.
In this way, the artist occupied two hours. Far from being tedious, the attention to detail was pleasurable, as was the opportunity to reflect upon the great composition ahead. Through the concealing fog, he came within sight of his destination, a mediocre shop that sold clothing to merchant sailors who frequented this area near the London docks.
He paused on a corner and glanced at his pocket watch, taking care that no one saw it. A watch was so unusual in this impoverished area that anyone who glimpsed it would suspect that the artist wasn't the sailor he pretended to be. The hands on the watch showed almost ten. Everything was on schedule. His previous visits had revealed that the area's policeman passed along this street at ten fifteen. Punctuality was part of the job, each constable navigating his two-mile route every hour. The time it took for the constable to reach this point seldom varied.
The only person in view was a prostitute, whom the chill night had not encouraged to go back to whatever cranny she called home. When she started to approach, the artist gave her a sharp look that made her stop abruptly and disappear in the fog in the opposite direction.
He returned his attention to the shop, noting that its window had a film of dust that dimmed the glow of a lamp inside. A man's shadow stepped out and swung a shutter into place, closing as usual at ten.
The moment the shadow went back inside, the artist crossed the empty street and reached for the door. If it was already bolted shut, he would knock, with the expectation that the merchant wouldn't begrudge the further five minutes necessary for a final sale.
But the door wasn't locked. It creaked as the artist pushed it open and stepped into a shop that was only slightly warmer than the street.
A man turned from lowering an overhead lantern. He was perhaps thirty—thin, pale, and weary-eyed. He wore a black shirt with a band collar. One of the shirt's buttons didn't match the others. The cuffs of his trousers were frayed.
Does a great work of art require a great subject? Does the murder of a queen create a grander impact than that of a commoner? No. The goal of the art of murder is pity and terror. No one pities a murdered queen or prime minister or man of wealth. The immediate emotion is one of disbelief that even the powerful are not immune to mortal blows. But shock does not linger whereas the sorrow of pity does.
On the contrary, the subject should be young, hardworking, of low means, with hope and ambition, with sights on far goals despite the discouragement that wearies him. The subject should have a loving wife and devoted children dependent on his never-ending exertions. Pity. Tears. Those were the requirements for fine art.
"Just about to lock up? Lucky I caught you," the artist said as he closed the door.
"The missus is getting dinner ready, but there's always time for one more. How can I help?" The lean shopkeeper gave no indication that the artist's beard didn't appear genuine or that he recognized the man, who in another disguise had visited the shop a week earlier.
"I need four pairs of socks." The artist glanced behind the counter and pointed. "Thick. Like the kind you have on that shelf up there."
"Four pairs?" The shopkeeper's tone suggested that today they would be a sizable purchase. "A shilling each."
"Too much. I hoped to get a better price buying so many. Perhaps I should go somewhere else."
Behind a closed door, a child cried in a back room.
"Sounds like somebody's hungry," the artist remarked.
"Laura. When isn't she hungry?" The shopkeeper sighed. "I'll add an extra pair. Five for four shillings."
When the shopkeeper walked toward the counter, the artist reached back and secured the bolt on the door. He coughed loudly to conceal the noise, aided by the hollow rumble of the shopkeeper's footsteps. Following, he removed the mallet from his coat pocket.
The shopkeeper stepped behind the counter and reached for the socks on an upper shelf, where the artist had noticed them a week earlier. "These?"
"Yes, the unbleached ones." The artist swung the mallet. His arm was muscular. The mallet had a broad striking surface. It rushed through the air and struck the shopkeeper's skull. The force of the blow made a dull cracking sound, comparable to when a pane of ice is broken.
As the shopkeeper groaned and sank, the artist struck again, this time aiming downward toward the slumping body, the mallet hitting the top of his head. Now the sound was liquid.
The artist removed a smock from his bag and put it over his clothes. After stepping behind the counter, he drew the razor from his pocket, opened it, pulled back the shopkeeper's now misshapen head, and sliced his throat. The finely sharpened edge slid easily. Blood sprayed across garments on shelves.
The overhead lantern seemed to brighten.
A fine art.
Again, the child cried behind the door.
The artist released the body, which made almost no sound as it settled onto the floor. He closed the razor, returned it to his pocket, then picked up the mallet next to the bag and reached for the second door, behind which he heard a woman's voice.
"Jonathan, supper's ready!"
When the artist pushed the door inward, he encountered a short, thin woman on the verge of opening it. She had weary eyes similar to the shopkeeper's. Those eyes enlarged, surprised by both the artist's presence and the smock he wore. "Who the devil are you?"
The passage was narrow, with a low ceiling. The artist had seen it briefly when pretending to be a customer a week earlier. In the cramped area, to get a full swing, he needed to hold the mallet beside his leg and thrust upward, striking the woman under her chin. The force knocked her head backward. As she groaned, he shoved her to the floor. He dropped to one knee and now had space to raise his arm, delivering a second, third, and fourth blow to her face.
To the right was a doorway into a kitchen. Amid the smell of boiled mutton, a dish crashed. The artist straightened, charged through the doorway, and found a servant girl—someone he had seen leave the shop on an errand a week earlier. She opened her mouth to scream. In the larger space of the kitchen, he was able to use a sideways blow that stopped the scream, shattering her jaw.
"Mama?" a child whimpered.
Pivoting toward the doorway, the artist saw a girl of approximately seven in the corridor. Her hair was in pigtails. She held a ragdoll and gaped at her mother's body on the floor.
"You must be Laura," the artist said.
He whacked her skull in.
Behind him, the servant moaned. He slit her throat.
He slit the mother's throat.
He slit the child's throat.
The coppery smell of blood mingled with that of boiled mutton as the artist surveyed his tableau. The rush of his heart made him breathless.
He closed his eyes.
And jerked them open when he again heard a child's cry.
It came from farther down the corridor. Investigating, he reached a second open door. This one led into a crowded, musty-smelling bedroom, where a candle revealed a baby's cradle, its wicker hood pulled up. The cries came from beneath the hood.
The artist returned to the kitchen, retrieved the mallet, proceeded to the bedroom, smashed the cradle into pieces, pounded at a bundle in the wreckage, and slit its throat.
He rewrapped the bundle and put it under a remnant of the cradle's hood.
The candle appeared to become stunningly bright. In absolute clarity, the artist noted that his hands were covered with blood. His smock was red with it, as were his boots. Finding a cracked mirror on a drab bureau in the bedroom, he determined that his beard, wig, and cap were unmarked, however.
He went to the kitchen, filled a basin from a pitcher of water, and washed his hands. He took off his boots and washed them also. He removed the smock, folded it, and set it on a chair.
After leaving the mallet on the kitchen table, he stepped into the passageway, admired the servant's corpse on the kitchen floor, and closed the door. He shut the door to the bedroom also. He walked to the front of the shop and considered the artistry of the mother and the seven-year-old girl in the blood-covered passageway.
He closed that door also. The shopkeeper's body could be seen only if someone looked behind the counter. The next person to enter the shop would encounter a series of surprises.
Terror and pity.
A fine art.
Abruptly someone knocked on the door, making the artist whirl.
The knock was repeated. Someone lifted the latch, but the artist had made certain that the bolt was secured.
The front door did not have a window. With the shutter closed on the main window, whoever knocked on the door could not see inside, although the lamplight was evidently still detectable through cracks around the door.
"Jonathan, it's Richard!" a man shouted. "I brought the blanket for Laura!" More knocking. "Jonathan!"
"Hey, what's the trouble there?" an authoritative voice asked.
"Constable, I'm glad to see you."
"Tell me what you're doing."
"This is my brother's shop. He asked me to bring an extra blanket for his baby girl. She has a cold."
"But why are you pounding?"
"He won't open the door. He expects me, but he doesn't open the door."
The door shook.
"How many people live here?" the policeman's voice asked.
"My brother, his wife, a servant girl, and two daughters."
"Surely one of them would hear you knocking. Is there a back entrance?"
"Down that alley. Over the wall."
"Wait here while I look."
After grabbing his bag, the artist opened the door to the passage, stepped through, and remembered to close the door. The risk made his heart pound. He hurried past the bodies of the mother and child, almost lost his balance on the slippery floor, and unlocked a back door. Stepping into a small outside area, he again took the precious time to close the door.
The fog smelled of chimney ashes. In the gloom, he glimpsed the shadow of what he assumed was a privy and ducked behind it, just before a grunting man pulled himself over a wall and scanned his lantern.
"Hello?" The man's voice was gruff. He approached the back door and knocked. "I'm a policeman! Constable Becker! Is everything all right in there?"
The constable opened the door and stepped inside. As the artist heard a gasp, he turned toward a murky wall behind the privy.
"God in heaven," the constable murmured, evidently seeing the bodies of the mother and the girl in the passageway. The floor creaked as the constable stepped toward them.
The artist took advantage of the distraction, set his bag on top of the wall, squirmed up, grabbed his bag, and dropped over. He landed on a muddy slope and slid to the bottom, nearly falling in slop. The noise when he hit seemed so loud that he worried the constable must have heard him. The legs of his trousers were soaked. Turning to the right, he groped along the wall in the foggy darkness. Rats skittered.
Behind him, he heard a distinctive alarm. Every constable carried a wooden clacker, which had a handle and a weighted blade that made a rapid snapping sound when it was spun. The constable now used his, its noise so loud that it couldn't fail to be heard by other patrolmen on their nearby routes.
The artist reached a fog-bound alley, guided by a dim streetlamp at the far end.
"Help! Murder!" the policeman shouted.
"Murder? Where?" a voice yelled.
"My brother's shop!" another voice answered. "Here! For heaven's sake, help!"
Windows slid up. Doors banged open. Footsteps rushed through the darkness.
Nearing the light at the end of the alley, the artist could see enough to hide the razor behind a pile of rubbish. A crowd rushed past in the fog, attracted by the din of the constable's clacker.
When the crowd was gone, the artist stepped from the alley and went in the opposite direction, staying close to the obscured buildings, prepared to vanish into an alcove if he heard anyone running toward him. The babble of the mob became a faint echo behind him.
He found a public privy, pulled off the yellow wig, and dropped it down the hole, then did the same with the beard. Five minutes later, in an alley near the edge of a better district, he removed his sailor's clothes and put on the theater clothes that he'd folded into the bag. He tossed the sailor's clothes, including the cap, into a corner, where someone would gladly take them in the morning. The mud-smeared leather bag he dropped among garbage a little farther on. It too would readily find a new owner.
In the better district, he followed the noise of hooves through the fog until he arrived at a main street. An empty cab waited at a stand near a restaurant. The driver looked down from his perch and assessed the artist's evening clothes, deciding that he was a safe passenger at this late hour.
As the driver took him to a music hall in the West End, the artist used a handkerchief to wipe mud from his shoes. He established a presence at the music hall, pretending to be just another theatergoer who wanted mellower entertainment after the bloody climax of The Corsican Brothers. Then he hired a final cab and went home, wondering if Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyke had ever felt as satisfied by their fine art as he did.
The Man Who Concealed His Red Hair
LONDON'S POLICE FORCE was established in 1829, the first organized law enforcement in England. Earlier, the city's security had depended on elderly night watchmen who were given a clacker along with a dusky lantern and told to call out each half hour as they made their rounds. Frequently, however, the old men passed the night sleeping in tiny watch-boxes. As London's population swelled to one and a half million, the city authorized Sir Robert Peel to create the Metropolitan Police, whose initial thirty-five hundred members were known as "bobbies" or "peelers," in allusions to his name.
By 1854, London had a population of almost three million, making it the largest city on the planet. Meanwhile, the police force had merely doubled, to seven thousand, with hardly enough personnel to control the city's seven hundred square miles. To supplement the regular force, a detective bureau had been created—eight plainclothes officers who roamed the city in disguise. Their anonymous existence unnerved many Victorians whose obsession with privacy gave them a morbid suspicion of being spied upon.
These detectives were chosen from the ranks of regular police officers. They already knew the streets, but what distinguished them was an extraordinary attention to detail, the ability to scan a busy hotel lobby or a crowded railway station and identify behavior that didn't fit: a possible robbery lookout who stood still while everyone else was moving, a possible pickpocket who surveyed the crowd before focusing on an individual within it, a possible pimp whose features were calculating while everyone else was merry.
The Metropolitan Police and its detective bureau were headquartered in London's Whitehall district, the site of numerous government buildings. Because the entrance was on a street called Great Scotland Yard, newspaper reporters referred to the police force by an abbreviated version of that street's name. Unmarried detectives and constables could live in a dormitory near headquarters, and it was there, at twenty-five minutes past midnight on Sunday, 10 December 1854, that Detective Inspector Sean Ryan, forty years old, was wakened by a constable who informed him that a multiple murder had occurred in the East End's Wapping district. While violence in the East End was common, murders themselves were rare. That year, only five murderers had been hanged in London, and those crimes had each involved a single victim. Even in the largest city in the world, a multiple murder was shocking.
Ryan, who had eaten a dinner of boiled beef and dumplings and slept poorly as a consequence, took only five minutes to dress, making sure that his gloves were in his shapeless jacket. Along with ten constables with whom he lived he stepped outside, noted that the cold air frosted his breath, and climbed onto a police wagon that he had ordered to be waiting for them. The chill, fog-laden streets had almost no traffic, allowing the group to reach the murder scene within forty minutes.
A crowd had gathered, as if at a public hanging, forcing the driver to stop the horses a distance away. Ryan and the constables stepped onto grimy cobblestones and followed the din of voices until a wall of bystanders prevented them from proceeding farther.
"It's Spring-Heeled Jack what did it, I tell you!" someone shouted, referring to a fire-breathing man with claws and springs attached to his boots, who had allegedly attacked a handful of Londoners seventeen years earlier and became a figure of local folklore.
"Naw, it's the Irish! Everywhere I turn there's a damned mick beggin' money! That famine was a crock! There weren't no famine!"
"Damned straight! The micks just lied to come here and steal our jobs! Ship 'em back home!"
"Hell, no. They're all thieves. Hang 'em!"
Ryan, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland when he was a child, had tried hard to replace his Irish accent with a London one. His clothes were equally anonymous. Accustomed to working undercover, he wore a newspaperboy's cap that was pulled down so that his red hair wouldn't be noticed.
"Constable," he told a man who accompanied him, "make a path."
The so-called bull's-eye lantern that each policeman carried had an interior reflector and a magnifying lens over the single aperture. The numerous harsh beams emphasized their gruff voices as the ten policemen pushed through, bellowing, "Step aside! Police! Clear the street!"
Ryan followed, hoping that the sight of so many police officers would distract the crowd's attention from him and preserve his anonymity. They came to one of many small shops in the area that catered to merchant sailors from the nearby London docks. This close to the Thames, the smell of excrement was strong. Without a sewage system, all the city's body wastes seeped into the river or were dumped there.
A constable stood guard outside the shop, the windows of which were shuttered, concealing the interior.
- "Masterful . . . brilliantly plotted . . . evokes 1854 London with such finesse that you'll gear the hooves clattering on cobblestones, the racket of dustmen, and the shrill call of vendors."—Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)
- "Morrell writes action scenes like nobody's business."—New York Times Book Review
- "A literary thriller that pushes the envelope"—Associated Press
- On Sale
- May 7, 2013
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Mulholland Books