ALA Reading List Award for Best Mystery
GASLIT LONDON IS BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN DAVID MORRELL'S BRILLIANT HISTORICAL THRILLER.
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.
About the Author
David Morrell is best known for his debut 1972 novel First Blood, which would later become the successful Rambo film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone. He has written 28 novels, and his work has been translated into 26 languages. He is also a former professor of American Literature at the University of Iowa and received his PhD from Penn State.
Read an Excerpt
Murder as a Fine Art
By David Morrell
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 David Morrell
All rights reserved.
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 several blocks 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 two blocks, 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 pavers 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 patrolman 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 common person? 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 hallway 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 hallway, 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 store and considered the artistry of the mother and the seven-year-old girl in the blood-covered hallway.
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 hallway, 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 hallway. 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 pants 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 patrolman 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 garbage. A crowd rushed past in the fog, attracted by the din of the patrolman's clacker.
Excerpted from Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell. Copyright © 2013 David Morrell. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The first chapter of Murder as a Fine Art is one of the most disturbing I've read, and I like to read my share of horror and thrillers. Author David Morrell is genius as he starts off the novel by taking the reader into the mind of the 'artist', the killer himself. Based on the real Ratcliffe Highway murders that occurred during 1800's London, this novel was a suspenseful mystery that I found hard to put down. Writer Thomas De Quincey, also known as the Opium-Eater finds himself a suspect in a set of vicious murders that seem to mirror the unsolved Ratcliffe Highway murders of forty years past. De Quincey wrote an essay called "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" where he discussed the Ratcliffe murders in detail and almost as a fan of the detailed work of the murderer. This essay is what makes him a prime suspect. De Quincey, now in his sixties and heavily addicted to Opium, lives with his daughter Emily who helps care for him. De Quincey has arrived in London under mysterious circumstances and soon learns that the killer is the one who lured him back. Detective Inspector Sean Ryan and constable Becker are trying to crack the case. The original Ratcliffe Highway murders were followed by a second set of murders twelve days later and the detectives are afraid the copycat killer will strike again soon. The story takes twists and turns that had me on the edge of my seat as Ryan, Becker, the Opium-Eater and Emily try to put the clues together and discover the identity of the killer. Author David Morrell seamlessly takes us from the mind of the killer to the cat and mouse chase of the investigators with his descriptive and fast paced storytelling. I loved how David Morrell breathed life into these characters and made them jump off the pages. I felt bad for the Opium-Eater as his past comes to light and he reveals the pains he has lived through. At the heart of his existence is his addiction to Opium, it rules his every thought. An interesting and terrifying aspect of his addiction is that as things are happening to him, he wonders whether what he is experiencing is real or if he is in an Opium induced nightmare. I felt myself rooting for Emily and Becker, I wanted these two to get together. What an unexpected facet to the storyline their attraction was. Speaking of Emily, she is an interesting character. I liked that she was no-nonsense but caring at the same time. She's a bit of a rebel and refuses to wear the uncomfortable hooped dresses and tight corsets that are in style, preferring instead to wear comfortable bloomers under her skirts. The relationship she has with her father is well fleshed out and I could easily believe their storyline. David Morrell brings the seedy underbelly of 1800's London to life perfectly. The atmosphere of the novel is dark and mysterious throughout and on top of that, he creates a cast of characters that the reader can root for. The author adds historical facts throughout the storyline which just adds to the reading experience. I love it when a writer of historical fiction does their research. This was 5 star read for me, I highly recommend it to fans of historical mysteries and thrilling stories. Victorian London, murder, mystery, suspense and historical facts and fiction are all woven together masterfully to create a novel that grabs the reader and does not let go until the very end.
A Fabulous Historical Mystery! David Morrell has created a beautifully crafted murder mystery set in London in 1854. It is based around the true Ratcliffe Highway murders that occurred earlier in the century and as the book opens, these murders are being duplicated and worse. The murderer is the "Artist" and the book opens with we, the reader, following him on his acts of horror. What really makes this book excellent is the writing and the character development. Morrell fully shrouds the mystery in foggy, overcrowded, unsanitary London. Scotland Yard is at its beginnings and through the eyes of Detective Inspector Ryan and his newly appointed assistant, Constable Becker, we see early police detective work. English Literature fans will be surprised at the featuring of Thomas DeQuincey ("Confessions of an English Opium Eater") and his forward-thinking daughter, Emily, as detectives themselves. Part of the story is told through Emily's diary entries which are very interesting as they give a woman's point of view.The reveal of who the Artist is was quite stunning. This is a fast-moving mystery that is filled with many unexpected twists and turns. I loved it!
What a wonder this book was. Written in the true Victorian sensational style, don't expect a first-person narrative here. Instead, expect a drifting third-person perspective that slowly reveals all the bits and pieces of a good mystery. This book is a trip back to London in the days of closed curtains and opium. And it does all this while incorporating plenty of historical accuracy. Top-notch, enjoyable read.
Gripping and extremely well-researched.... one of the best novels I've read in a while. Historical fiction is best when the lines between reality and fiction are blurred; Morrell is a master of that fine art. Wjj
Creepers was by far my favorite of Morrell's books, but after reading "Murder as a Fine Art" (very quickly I might add) I'm starting to rethink things. This book is truly outstanding. If you enjoy delving back into the past, times reminiscent of Jack the Ripper and a time when no one felt safe, this book will keep you glued to the pages. The history is wonderful, the story terrifying, with a beautiful father daughter story that holds it all together, this is a read not to be missed.
Reviewed by Anne Boling for Readers' Favorite Author David Morrell has long been one of my favorite authors. He has a long list of best sellers including Rambo, the Brotherhood of the Rose, and Creepers. He is well known for his high octane action thrillers. His latest book, Murder as a Fine Art, is a bit different from his previous books but still up to his usual high standards. He deftly transports readers back to London, 1854 where he combines fact and fiction to give readers a satisfying thriller. The main character, Thomas De Quincey, actually existed as did the crime referred to as the Ratcliffe Highway murders – a series of mass killings that equaled those of Jack the Ripper for terrifying London and all of England. Thomas De Quincey was obsessed with the Ratcliffe Highway murders and wrote about them in an essay he titled: On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. He was the first person to write about drug addiction in his essay Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In Murder as a Fine Art, we travel along with De Quincey through the streets and prisons of London as he searches for a gifted killer. There seems to be a hidden connection between the murderer and De Quincey. Suspicion falls on De Quincey and he must fight to clear his name. De Quincey’s daughter is a very intelligent and capable character. However, she was a woman in 1854 where women were not encouraged and in fact discouraged from thinking. I also loved Constable Becker. This tale demonstrates the culture of the era. Once again David Morrell has stretched and exercised his great talent.
Factual( non-fiction) history in a fictional setting. Very entertaining and readable.
Horror! Thriller! Mystery! This book does not disappoint. One of the most violent things I have ever read. And still it is a page turner. Brilliantly written.
This book is superb!! I am a huge fan of mysteries set in Victorian England and this one is top notch. THe plot is interesting but I really enjoyed the historical research on the culture of the period that the author incorporated. I've read dozens of books set during this time period and know a lot about it, but Morrell shines a light on Victorian thinking & beliefs that were eye opening for me!! A great read.
Set in Victorian England, this story is an action-packed thriller. Hisrorical references were fascinating and added to the complexity of the characters.
This is some tale. Sure is a good one.
The author's dedicated immersion into his subject matter has gifted us, his readers, with a brilliant story that is both entertaining and educational! Besides an excellent mystery, I feel as if I also received a riveting lesson in both History and in the Humanities. It's even written in a style similar to novels written in the Victorian Era. I don't recommend this book if you're looking for a bit of fluff that can be read while doing 3 or 4 things at once, or that can be read in 1 and 2 minute increments. Save this wonderful book for when you can indulge in some solid reading. I can't wait to start the sequel!
David Morrell includes hugely interesting facts about 1850's London. If you have interest in early criminology, the monarchy, how London's police force evolved, or pre-Freud psychology this is the book for you. As you read you want to know more about the characters and what motivates them, so I am glad he wrote a sequel! Be warned, the story line can be a bit dark as it does chronicle a series of viscous murders, but you will be pleased with the ending!
This book was a pleasure to read! Intriguing characters, witty dialogue, humor, tight, fast-paced plot, great historical detail... Thoroughly enjoyed this book. I don't think you'll be disappointed!
The story grabs you early on and keeps you guessing until the end. Very submersive, great environmental detail and a great plot. The author delivers again.
If I could give this book more than five stars I would. A fantastic thriller with great characters. I highly recommend this book.
Based on a real character who wrote numerous things in Victorian England, Thomas DeQuincy, who was sometimes knows by the title of one of his books CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER, this tale of horrific murders builds on real murders known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. Morrell has definitely done his research in playing "what if" in building a murderous character whose whole life has been one tragedy creating tragedies! The historical times are portrayed wonderfully, describing manners, citizenry, police forces, and the building of the terrors and financial spread of the opium trade throughout the world. DeQuincy and his "modern daughter", Emily, team up with a policeman and a detective to catch a murderer who is fooling everyone in London. I thoroughly enjoyed this imagined murderer in a story that tells so much about real history.