SO19 talks with DAVID MORRELL

David Morrell is best known for writing innovative thrillers set in contemporary America: the classic espionage novel The Brotherhood of the Rose, for example, as well as his iconic First Blood, which became the Rambo movie franchise. If someone had told me that nearly thirty books into his career, Morrell would begin to write rich, atmospheric and historically detailed mysteries about a Victorian author and his daughter, I’d have thought that they were on—well, laudanum, to name an appropriate substance. Published by Mulholland Books (Little, Brown & Company) in 2013, Murder as a Fine Art offers a fresh look at the iconic Victorian, Thomas DeQuincey, as well as a new perspective on Morrell’s many gifts. It was a pleasure to talk with David Morrell about Murder as a Fine Art, Thomas DeQuincey, and the process through which DeQuincey and his London were brought to life. —SF

So19: It’s a delight to talk to you about the 19th century—and very unexpected!

DM: No one was more surprised about the switch to the Victorian era than I was. Before Murder as a Fine Art, I wrote a few historicals. One was a fact-based western, Last Reveille, which takes place in 1916 and dramatizes how the United States invaded Mexico to pursue the bandit, Pancho Villa, after Villa raided a U.S. border town (basically, the military was practicing for its entry into World War I). Another project was a historical novella about the 1918 flu pandemic: “If I Should Die Before I Wake.” But I never expected that my imagination would prompt me to go to 1854 London. 

The move makes a lot of sense, though.  This is my 42nd year as an author, an eternity in the publishing world. Some writing careers end after 15 or 20 years because there’s a temptation to repeat—until readers get tired. I think the reason I’m still being read is that I keep looking for new ways to explore what mysteries and thrillers can be. A few years ago, I reached a point where contemporary topics and settings had a “been there, done that” feeling for me. I found it refreshing to go back to 1854 London, where everything was unfamiliar and even the smallest details were fascinating, such as the boot scrapers on gates—necessities because of the filthy streets.

So19: Your interest in the Victorian era began because of Thomas De Quincey.

DM: I happened to be watching a 2009 film about Charles Darwin: Creation. Its plot dramatizes Darwin’s nervous breakdown while he was preparing On the Origin of Species. Darwin was grief-stricken by the death of his favorite daughter. At the same time, his wife—a devout Christian—tried to dissuade him from publishing his theory about evolution because it might threaten people’s belief in God. Darwin began to fear that God had killed his daughter in order to stop him from pursuing his ideas. The breakdown took the form of all kinds of physical ailments that contemporary doctors couldn’t explain.

In the film, one of Darwin’s friends says, “Charles, people such as Thomas De Quincey are suggesting that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions that we don’t know we have.”  That sounds like Freud, but Freud didn’t publish his ideas until the end of the century, and Creation takes place in the 1850s. I started researching Thomas De Quincey to see if the reference was an anachronism. It turns out that De Quincey anticipated the psychoanalytic ideas of Freud by many decades and probably influenced him. It’s significant that De Quincey invented the term “subconscious” and believed that the mind had chasms and secret chambers, depths below depths.

So19: Why else do you feel that De Quincey is significant?

DM: His accomplishments are considerable. He was the first person to write about drug addiction (in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) at a time when opium in the form of laudanum was in everybody’s medicine cabinet and was used the same way we use aspirin. Many people were addicted to the drug, but the hypocrisy of the time was so severe that when De Quincey openly discussed his opium use, he became notorious and was called the Opium-Eater for the rest of his life. His opium dreams were what caused him to theorize about the subconscious.

De Quincey was also an inventor of the true-crime genre. He was obsessed with the Ratcliff Highway mass murders of 1811. Improved roads and the recently developed mail-coach system allowed news about these murders to travel throughout England within two days. The first publicized multiple killings in English history, they paralyzed the entire country and created terror comparable to that of Jack the Ripper three-quarters of a century later.

So19: In the novel, you emphasize De Quincey’s famous—or infamous—true-crime essay about the killings: “Postscript (On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts).”

DM: He published it in 1854, recreating the Ratcliffe Highway murders (two sets of them within twelve days) in vivid, blood-spattered detail. He used modern techniques of suspense, crosscutting between the killer and his victims. It’s a breathless, chilling essay that influenced sensation novelists of the next decade. The sensation novel. I love that term. It’s a perfect way to describe a thriller.

I decided to make De Quincey and the Ratcliffe Highway killings the basis for a Victorian mystery/thriller. The idea is that after De Quincey publishes that blood-soaked essay in 1854, someone starts using it as a guidebook for recreating the murders. Because De Quincey is an opium addict who’s obsessed with those murders, he becomes the logical suspect. In fact, though, he’s the killer’s ultimate intended victim.

So19: So you place De Quincey at the start of the detective-story tradition. He’s a good choice, given that he seems part of what we might call the DNA of crime fiction.

DM: Exactly. Edgar Allan Poe was strongly influenced by De Quincey, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was strongly influenced by Poe, so there’s a continuity. Wilkie Collins understood how important De Quincey was in the crime genre and used Confessions of an English Opium Eater in the climax of The Moonstone, where references to De Quincey form part of the solution to the crime.

So19: De Quincey was a pretty unusual guy on a personal level. He was an addict, of course, and didn’t he have what we’d today call a hoarding problem as well?

DM: At the worst of his addiction, De Quincey was drinking 16 ounces of laudanum a day.  A tablespoon might kill someone who wasn’t used to it—and remember, that's not only opium; it’s also alcohol. So he was both an opium addict and an alcoholic. By all standards, you’d expect someone like him to accomplish nothing. Instead, for him, opium was a stimulant. He wrote thousands of pages of brilliant prose. Another of his “firsts”: he invented what he called psychological criticism when he wrote the first “modern” essay about Shakespeare, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.”

And yes, as you note, he was a hoarder.  He loved books so much that between opium and book collecting he was constantly on the run from debt collectors.  At one point he paid rent on four cottages, all of which couldn’t be lived in because they were crammed with his books.  One of those places, Dove Cottage, is famous because Wordsworth lived there, but De Quincey was associated with the place much longer than Wordsworth was. De Quincey was also partly responsible for establishing the reputation of Wordsworth and Coleridge. His essays about his literary friends are amazingly candid, especially when De Quincey describes his daily walks with Wordsworth and the intimate details of their conversations—not to mention that Wordsworth used a dirty butter knife to cut pages in a book.

So19: De Quincey’s daughter Emily is very important in the novel and the murder investigation. For me as a woman reader, it was great to have that female sensibility in a book that has very strong male characters. In addition, there’s a lightheartedness about her that balances the moments of violence and horror.

DM: In 1854, De Quincey was 69. I felt there needed to be a young person with him. His children were a logical possibility—he had three daughters and five sons. One of the sons died from a childhood illness. Another died horribly from a brain tumor that made him blind and deaf. Another died from malaria in India. The three daughters survived, but by the time of my novel, two had established their own homes. Emily, the youngest, was 21 in 1854. Her days were devoted to taking care of her father. For me, she’s the star of the novel. Her youth and vitality are contagious. She’s so engaged in things, so passionate, that she persuades prison wardens, important politicians, and even undertakers to do almost anything she wants. In an age when women were supposed to be reserved and deferential to men, she’s refreshing—but not anachronistic. Her refusal to wear restrictive hooped dresses and instead to prefer skirts with “bloomer” trousers under them is due to the influence of Amelia Bloomer, an early advocate for women’s rights. 

So19: How did you go about the research for Murder as a Fine Art?

DM: I have a Ph D in American literature and was a professor of the University Iowa. For Murder as a Fine Art, I decided that I needed to become an academic again and approach the novel as if I were studying for a doctorate in Victorian culture. For two years, the only books I read were related to London in the 1850s. I studied De Quincey’s thousands of pages and tried to become a ventriloquist for him, absorbing his thoughts and incorporating passages from his work into his dialogue. I became friends with the two leading De Quincey biographers, Grevel Lindop and Robert Morrison as well as with a brilliant Victorian scholar, Judith Flanders, all three of whom graciously gave me advice. With the same intensity, I accumulated several shelves of Victorian histories. I have a large 1850s map of London in my office and studied it until I knew my way around what was then the largest city in the world, as if I were living at that time. I taped a note to the side of my computer screen. “Make readers believe that they’re in 1854 London.”

So19: I think you’ve said that you reached the point where you knew how much a woman’s clothes weighed.

DM: That’s when I decided that I’d absorbed the period enough to write about it. Middle- or upper-class women wore hooped dresses in the 1850s. The hoops were made from metal or else whale’s teeth. They were so wide that banisters on staircases needed to be modified to accommodate them. It took ten yards of ruffled satin to cover those hoops. Several layers of undergarments were needed under them.  Because the hoops kept popping up, weights were sewn into the dresses.  Estimating the weight of this and that and especially the ten yards of satin, I concluded that many women were carrying thirty-seven pounds.

So19: What was it like, writing about 19th-century rather than modern forensics?

DM: We take crime-scene investigation techniques so much for granted that we forget they’re a recent development. When London’s police department was established in 1829, it was revolutionary for the police to keep a record of details about each person who was arrested. It was also revolutionary for police officers to ask questions throughout neighborhoods where crimes were committed. In part, this new attitude was due to the influence of Richard Mayne, a barrister who co-founded London’s police department and acted as one of its two commissioners. Mayne (a character in the novel) understood that the collection of evidence was as important as merely arresting a suspect. What ultimately mattered was convincing a court that the suspect had in fact committed a crime. One early CSI technique involved making plaster casts of footprints.  In the novel, when a detective prepares the plaster, it causes a lot of interest among other policemen. I had the interesting challenge of locating the recipe for the casts.

I also emphasize that middle- and upper-class people treated police officers with suspicion. Victorians worshipped privacy. They felt that what happened in the home was absolutely separate from what happened in public view. They objected to police officers intruding into their private world and asking impertinent questions. This intrusion was all the more objectionable because policemen were laborers, members of the working class. With the establishment of London’s detective division in 1842, the middle- and upper-classes became even more suspicioous, fearing that anyone they spoke to on the street might be a plain-clothed police officer spying on them.

So19: Murder as a Fine Art has some truly eerie scenes. Even some of the more ordinary moments can be chilling. Mobs of angry people chasing suspected criminals, giant pigs eating garbage. In one of the scariest sections, emaciated elderly prostitutes emerge from the woods in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

DM: I looked for weirdly distinctive locations that no longer exist. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens really did have all these ruins jumbled together, the Parthenon and the Coliseum and so on. In the novel, De Quincey feels as if he's walking through an opium illusion when in fact that weird jumble of fake ruins actually existed. The pigs that you mention were plentiful throughout the city, devouring the constantly accumulating garbage. There were sand-filled boxes on the walls of prison cells. Inmates needed to turn a handle on them 10,000 times before receiving food. Some of the details are so strange that I couldn’t possibly have imagined them.

So19: Is another De Quincey novel in the works?

DM: The response to Murder as a Fine Art was very gratifying. Publishers Weekly called it one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013. Library Journal put it in the top five. Many readers sent me emails, asking for a follow-up. I don’t often write sequels, but I have a lot more to say about De Quincey and was happy to re-immerse myself in his world. The second novel is called Inspector of the Dead. This time, the fog on London’s harrowing streets is replaced by a historical snowstorm that struck London in early February of 1855. The novel is set against the background of the Crimean War and the several attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria. Mulholland Books will publish it in March of 2015. 

Author David Morrell at Dove Cottage,
famous as Wordsworth's home but also
one of Thomas DeQuincey's residences.
Photo courtesy of author.

David with DeQuincey scholar Grevel Lindop at a talk
to the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, UK.
Photo courtesy of author.