Sunday 20 October 2013

David Morrell’s British Adventure

David Morrell is probably best known for creating the iconic character John Rambo [in his debut novel FIRST BLOOD] despite a vast canon of thrillers [spanning over 3 decades of writing]. I have a prediction, he may soon be equally renowned for fictionalizing the adventures of the Victorian writer Thomas De Quincey [‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’] thanks to his latest novel from Mulholland US and in Britain from Hodder and Stoughton [aka Mulholland UK] entitled “MURDER AS A FINE ART”.

David Morrell is a writer never pigeon-holed or constrained by the limitations of genre or theme. He writes about what interests him, and what plays upon his troubled mind – but one thing common in all his writing, is that it thrills. This is why he, together with Gayle Lynds [and other key thriller writers] set-up the International Thriller Writers, to help promote the Thriller Novel, or what was termed at the turn of the century the ‘sensation novel’. Thriller novels [as a loose genre of sorts] have several sub-genres, depending on their topic, be they work featuring espionage, adventure, horror, crime-fiction, romance, literary or historical as a theme. All of Morrell’s fiction can be firmly placed into the thriller genre. He has written novels of espionage, action and adventure, horror, historical, and non-fiction, though his latest work is a real change in direction as MURDER AS A FINE ART is a literary historical thriller, and one firmly rooted in the dark recesses of Victorian Britain.  There is a whiff of Dickens, Conan Doyle, a smattering of Springheel Jack, a shadow of Poe, and the terse uncertainty of Jekyll and Hyde in the proceedings that underpin MURDER AS A FINE ART, but then again, Morrell understands his literature, as a Professor of English [with a Doctorate]. It is obvious that his latest thriller is a labour of love. Although an American, but Canadian by birth, David Morrell is a strong Anglophile, as his father was a British Pilot with the RAF during WW2, and that may further explain his interest in British literature and our heritage.

To discover what MURDER AS A FINE ART is all about, view the book trailer

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.

David discussed the fictionalization of Thomas De Quincey at the Mulholland Books website with fellow literature scholar Dr Robert Morrison

Robert Morrison: I love the idea behind Murder as a Fine Art. John Williams commits a series of sensational killings in 1811. Thomas De Quincey writes his most powerful essay about the killings in 1854. Somebody reads De Quincey on Williams and decides to produce his own version of the killings, far exceeding them in terror. How did this idea come to you?

David Morrell: Robert, coming from a De Quincey scholar, your enthusiasm means a lot to me. I studied De Quincey years ago when I was an undergraduate English student. My professor treated him as a footnote in 1800s literature, giving him importance only because De Quincey was the first to write about drug addiction in his notorious Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I forgot about him until I happened to watch a movie about Charles Darwin, Creation, which dramatizes the nervous breakdown Darwin suffered while writing On the Origin of Species. In the movie, someone says to Darwin, “You know, Charles, people such as De Quincey believe that we’re controlled by elements in our mind that we’re not aware of.”

Robert: It sounds like Freud.

David: Yes. But Freud didn’t publish until half a century later. In fact, because De Quincey invented the word “subconscious,” Freud may have been influenced by him. Anyway, I took down my old college textbook, started reading De Quincey, and became spellbound. I read more and more of his work. Then I got to his blood-soaked essay about the terrifying Ratcliffe Highway murders, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The idea came to me that someone would read the essay and, for complicated reasons, replicate the murders on a more horrifying scale. De Quincey, the Opium-Eater who was obsessed about murder, would then be the logical suspect.

Read More from Mulholland Books Here

The novel was first released in the US and now available in the novel’s setting Great Britain and since release, it has being gathering intense critical acclaim 

A Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly

A killer copying the brutal 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders terrorizes 1854 London in this brilliant crime thriller from Morrell (First Blood). The earlier slaughters, attributed to a John Williams, were the subject of a controversial essay by Thomas De Quincey entitled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” A man who considers himself an “artist of death” duplicates the first set of Williams’s killings by using a mallet and a knife to dispatch a shopkeeper, his wife, their two children (including an infant), and a servant. The similarities send the police after De Quincey, who, aided by his able daughter Emily, must vindicate himself and catch the killer. Morrell tosses in the political machinations of Lord Palmerston, then Home Secretary, who has been promoting revolution in Europe to assure Great Britain’s political dominance. Everything works—the horrifying depiction of the murders, the asides explaining the impact of train travel on English society, nail-biting action sequences—making this book an epitome of the intelligent page-turner.

I loved the way Morrell went back and forth between what felt like pure history (about the enormous percentage of people in 19th-century England who were addicted to laudanum, for instance, or how newfangled the idea of “detectives” was), then to page-turning action sequences, and then to Emily’s account, told in an old-fashioned and likeable voice. The murderer gets his turn as well, and we come to understand his warped reasoning.

This book is fastidiously researched and plotted as well as being pleasingly compelling, despite its dark subject matter. Morrell does not into gruesome detail; he rather transports the reader to the fog- and pig-bound streets of long-ago London, seen through the eyes of believable, fallible, and appealing characters—plus one murderer and one Machiavellian politician, Lord Palmerston. Absolutely recommended. Read More Here

In many ways, this highly entertaining thriller recalls the Sherlock Holmes tales. A fog is forever rolling in off the Thames; a giant “Malay” with a turban turns up mysteriously; we travel to India to glimpse the British East India Company trading opium for Chinese tea; De Quincey uses a ragged band of teenaged “irregulars” as his eyes and ears. Moreover, De Quincey is smarter than the police, has a laudanum addiction to match Holmes’s cocaine habit, and has a companion who is as loyal as Dr. Watson but much prettier: his fiercely independent 21-year-old daughter, Emily De Quincey.

Emily demonstrates her strength of mind not only by standing up to authority but by insisting on wearing the controversial new style of dress called bloomers. Quite a few men “looked with disapproval at Emily’s unorthodox unhooped dress, in which the movement of her legs was visible.” In her own defense, Emily points out that the hoops and necessary undergarments can weigh 37 pounds. Given that, she says, along with the idiotic idea that the ideal waist size for a woman is 18 inches, “it isn’t at all surprising that many women faint.”

In addition to bloomers, Morrell spotlights several innovations that are changing life in the mid-19th century, including the telegraph, railroads, matches (called Lucifers) and the flush toilet, often called “the necessary.”

Police work itself was in its infancy, with the first London Police Department having begun in 1829. We meet the all-powerful home secretary, Lord Palmerston, who is quite willing to toss De Quincey in prison if that will quiet the angry street mobs who will beat or kill anyone suspected of being the mass murderer — particularly if the suspect’s Irish.

Read Patrick Anderson’s full review here

But don’t take the opinions of the critics on their own, why not sample an extract of the novel which is available for download from the Hodder and Stoughton website here [‘left click’ to read online or ‘right click’ and ‘save as’ to your hard drive]

I have been a long term reader of David Morrell, and I discovered much about Morrell’s work when I first met him at Bouchercon Las Vegas in 2003, when we recorded a very lengthy interview which is archived here part one and part two. So when I heard that David was back in the UK to promote the UK release of MURDER AS A FINE ART as well as research the follow-up, I packed my camera and head off to Dove Cottage in Britain’s Lake District [operated by the Wordsworth Trust] to hear him speak with fellow literature academic Grevel Lindop. The talk was fascinating, with lively questions from the floor. We learned that Morrell needed De Quincey to have a foil, a helper due to his occasion intoxication from his beloved Alkaloid Laudanum, so Morrell used De Quincey’s daughter Emily.  Emily De Quincey is a fascinating character that adds an exciting and amusing dimension to the narrative. 

Another interesting aspect is De Quincey’s existential digressions, such as mention of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical writings on the objective nature of reality. Morrell indicated that De Quincey’s influence extended to Edgar Allan Poe, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, and even major 20th-century writers such as Jorge Luis Borges admired and claimed to be partly influenced by his work. If you have read David Morrell’s work, you’ll see subtle influences in his own characters; people who are troubled in the reality they find themselves in, people in desperate situations like Thomas De Quincey.

During the conversation at Grasmere with Grevel Lindop, David Morrell did a reading from MURDER AS A FINE ART which I recorded for Shots Readers here

So if you’re new to the work of David Morrell, Shots eZine have organized a competition to coincide with the release of MURDER AS A FINE ART by David Morrell in which we are giving away three prizes –

First Prize a signed copy of MURDER AS A FINE ART
And two runner prizes of signed book plates by David Morrell

All you have to do is answer the following question –

David Morrell’s debut novel FIRST BLOOD featured the character [John] Rambo, can you tell us where the genesis of the name Rambo came from?

[A] The name of an American Aircraft
[b] The name of an American Apple
[c] A brand of Canadian Maple Syrup
[d] The maiden name of Thomas De Quincey’s mother

All you have to do is email the answer together with your name and postal address to and ensure you place ‘David Morrell MURDER AS A FINE ART’ in the subject line of your email.

If you need a hint, check out the Shots interview with David Morrell from a decade ago here with part one and part two available from our archives.

Terms and conditions for the Shots eZine / MURDER AS A FINE ART competition

  • Closing date for entries is Sunday 3rd November 2013 12:00:00 AM
  • All correct entries will be entered into a prize draw and the first correct answer picked at random on 3/11/2013 will be declared the winner of the signed book, and the second and third name will receive a signed bookplate.
  • The winner will be notified by email within 14 days of the promotion closing date and is required to accept their prize by email or phone call within 14 days of notification.
  • In the event of non-acceptance within the specified period, the promoter reserves the right to reallocate the prize to the next randomly drawn correct and valid entry.
  • The winner will be notified within 28 days of the closing date. No responsibility can be accepted for lost or misplaced entries
  • The prize is non-transferable and there is no cash alternative
  • Only one entry per person
  • Incorrect or illegible answers or entries received after the entry date will not be entered into the prize draw
  • The judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into
  • No geographical restrictions apply

Good Luck, but if you don’t win, you should explore the work of David Morrell and his work which can be purchased from the Shots Bookstore Here

Shots Ezine would like to thank David Morrell, Grevel Lindop and Andrew Forster [and Carrie Taylor] of the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere [The Lake District, UK] for their assistance in this article.

If you wish to purchase a hard copy, or an eBook via download of David Morrell’s MURDER AS A FINE ART and wish to read more about the real life of Thomas De Quincey in Grevel Lindop’s THE OPIUM EATER [this is a 2012 revised text for eBook and iBook only], or Robert Morrison’s work on De Quincey – we would really appreciate you doing so from the Shots Bookstore [links embedded above], as this supports the Shots eZine operation which is a not-for-profit internet resource that promotes crime, mystery and thriller fiction – we thank you in advance.

Further information on the books mentioned in this article [or if you wish to visit Dove Cottage – part of the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere] is available by clicking the links below -

Photographs © 2013 A S Karim featuring -
David Morrell
Grevel Lindop
Andrew Forster
Amanda Lindop and Donna Morrell

Painting of Thomas De Quincey and daughter Emily

Bust of the late Robert Woof CBE first director of the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere

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