Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.
So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.
It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?
In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.
The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey – an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.
Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.
And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.
How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?