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.
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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.
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