In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell transforms Thomas De Quincey into a detective who is pursuing a killer copying the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811.
What led you to De Quincey as the lead for a thriller?
I watched a film set in the 1850s in which a character mentions Thomas De Quincey’s theory that we’re controlled by levels in our minds that we’re not aware of. That sounded like Freud, but Freud published his ideas 40 years later. Curiosity made me pull down one of my old college textbooks that featured De Quincey. I wasn’t prepared for the revelations.
What surprised you the most about him?
His influence. De Quincey wrote the first book about drug addiction, the notorious Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He invented the true crime genre with his blood-soaked description of the Ratcliffe Highway murders in On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. He introduced the word “subconscious.” He influenced Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn prompted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes.
Why are the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which terrorized London more than Jack the Ripper’s murders, obscure today?
The Ripper slayings are remembered because of their sexual element and because the killer was never found. But back in 1811, the Ratcliffe Highway murders created greater terror, not only in London but in all of England. Because of improved roads and the newly invented mail-coach system, word about the two sets of killings spread all over England in a couple of days, creating a national panic. This had never happened before.
What was the hard part about writing it?
I wanted readers to feel that they were actually in 1854 London, where much of the novel occurs. The research took two years. I read De Quincey’s thousands of pages several times until I became a ventriloquist for him. I studied everything I could find about Victorian culture. I became friends with De Quincey’s biographer, Robert Morrison, who vetted the manuscript. Eventually I even knew how much a woman’s clothes weighed then: an amazing 37 pounds because of 10 yards of satin over a hoop of whale’s teeth.
Does Murder as a Fine Art share anything with your first book, the Rambo novel First Blood?
Some people might be surprised that Rambo’s creator has a doctorate in American literature. One of my influences is Henry James, whose major theme is awareness. Whether I’m writing about military personnel, law enforcement, or De Quincey, the persistent theme is paying attention in a hostile world. De Quincey constantly talks about awareness throughout the novel.