Thomas De Quincey and the Afflictions of Childhood
Action and brilliant twists of plot are at the crux of David Morrell’s two historical thrillers, Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead, both of which are set in 1850s London, and both of which feature assassins whose killing sprees are as ingenious as they are ruthless. What sets the two novels decisively apart from other Victorian murder mysteries, though, is the fictionalized presence of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), the notorious English author and opium addict.
Morrell seamlessly weaves details from De Quincey’s writings into the fabric of both novels, but he also exploits in full the circumstances of De Quincey’s remarkable life, as indeed De Quincey himself did in some of his finest essays. Born into prosperity, De Quincey exhausted his patrimony by the time he was 30 (primarily because he could not stop buying books), and spent much of the next forty years harried by debt and debt collectors. He read widely as a boy, and acquired a reputation as a brilliant classicist, especially in Greek. At 17 De Quincey bolted from Manchester Grammar School, and spent four harrowing months penniless and hungry on the streets of London. He entered Oxford University in 1803, but left five years later without taking his degree and moved to the English Lake District to be near his two literary idols, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1813 De Quincey became dependent on opium, a drug he started experimenting with during his student days at Oxford, and over the next few years he sank deeper into debt and addiction, before launching himself as a professional writer.
It is, however, the close ties of his family life that most clearly fascinate Morrell. Death cast a terrible blight on De Quincey as a very young boy, and in many ways he never fully recovered. Before he was 8 he had lost his sister Jane, his father, and then another sister, Elizabeth, who was his dearest childhood friend, and whose sudden passing never ceased to haunt him. His portrait of Ann of Oxford Street, the young London prostitute he met as a teenage runaway, and his overwhelming sorrow at the death in 1812 of Wordsworth’s three-year-old daughter Catherine, are clearly shaped by his grief over Elizabeth’s death, as is Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Depths”), De Quincey’s great 1845 sequel to his Confessions.
In Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell memorably conjures the anguish of these losses in the scene where De Quincey enters Vauxhaul Gardens, and sickly prostitutes hired by the killer call out to him with names that bring his deepest griefs surging back to the surface: “I’m Ann!” one of the women yells. “No, I’m Ann!” cries another. “I’m Jane!” bawls a third. Then more voices and other deaths: “Elizabeth!” “Catherine!” “Love us, Thomas!” De Quincey sinks to his knees, unable to endure the memory of so much sorrow, and horrified to think that the assassin knows so well how to wound him.
Morrell is equally interested in De Quincey as a father. In 1806, as he wandered through the Lake District, the 21-year-old De Quincey made a manuscript list of twelve “Constituents of Happiness,” one of which was the “education of a child.” But by 1816, when he became a father for the first time, his life was already spiralling out of control, and in the years that followed he was often unable to provide for his wife Margaret and a family that grew ultimately to eight children. Perhaps most devastatingly, in 1834, as his teenage son William lay writhing in the grip of leukaemia, De Quincey listened as his son told the doctor of his physical pain, but also of his mental anguish, for the boy’s mind was full of “family distresses” – the fear, and penury, and despair that had surrounded him for his entire life. When William died, De Quincey’s grief – and guilt – were intense.
De Quincey’s youngest daughter Emily was twenty-one months old at William’s death, and while she never really knew him, she grew up like him in chaos – running from bill collectors, sneaking through back streets to deliver her father’s manuscripts to publishers, and watching helplessly as his drug addiction drove him down to rock-bottom. Yet by the 1840s the family’s finances had started to stabilize, thanks to the caution and courage of Emily and her two older sisters Margaret and Florence, all three of whom were devoted to De Quincey, but acutely aware of his failings. “I think no one will make much out of my father who does not take in the extreme mixture of childish folly joined to a great intellect,” Emily once declared.
In Inspector of the Dead, De Quincey’s relationship with Emily is center stage, and Morrell crafts marvellous exchanges between the two, as he plumbs the workings of their relationship, and demonstrates the ways in which Emily has been both constrained and liberated by her father. Yet perhaps the most moving moment in the novel comes when the two discuss – not the present or the future – but the traumas of the past, and De Quincey confesses his guilt. “In many ways, you are the parent, and I am the child,” he tells Emily. “I only wish that I had watched over you with as much devotion. I’m deeply sorry.” In such moments, Morrell brings De Quincey vividly before us, as a man who moved many to deep affection, despite courting the disasters that so often overtook him.
Morrell’s masterful handing of characterization and pace – his ability to combine heart-pounding action with forceful moments of pathos and emotional insight – are what distinguish both Murder and Inspector. De Quincey’s writings on drugs and violence are key to the process, but no less important are those incidents from his private life that both shattered and inspired him.
About the book
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Genre: Historical Mystery
Genre: Historical Mystery
Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater,confronts London’s harrowing streets to thwart the assassination of Queen Victoria.
The year is 1855. The Crimean War is raging. The incompetence of British commanders causes the fall of the English government. The Empire teeters.
Amid this crisis comes opium-eater Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant personalities of Victorian England. Along with his irrepressible daughter, Emily, and their Scotland Yard companions, Ryan and Becker, De Quincey finds himself confronted by an adversary who threatens the heart of the nation.
This killer targets members of the upper echelons of British society, leaving with each corpse the name of someone who previously attempted to kill Queen Victoria. The evidence indicates that the ultimate victim will be Victoria herself. As De Quincey and Emily race to protect the queen, they uncover long-buried secrets and the heartbreaking past of a man whose lust for revenge has destroyed his soul.
Brilliantly merging historical fact with fiction, Inspector of the Dead is based on actual attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria.
Praise for Inspector of the Dead
“Riveting! I literally thought I was in 1855 London. With this mesmerizing series, David Morrell doesn’t just delve into the world of Victorian England—he delves into the heart of evil, pitting one man’s opium-skewed brilliance against a society where appearances are everything, and the most vicious killers lurk closer than anyone thinks.” —Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author of Crash & Burn and The Perfect Husband
What the Victorian Experts Say:
“Even better than Murder as a Fine Art. A truly atmospheric and dynamic thriller. I was fascinated by how Morrell seamlessly blended elements from Thomas De Quincey’s life and work. The solution is a complete surprise.” —Grevel Lindop, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey
“The scope is remarkable. Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War, regicide, the railways, opium, the violence and despair of the London rookeries, medical and scientific innovations, arsenic in the food and clothing—all this makes the Victorian world vivid. The way Morrell depicts Thomas De Quincey places him in front of us, living and breathing. But his daughter Emily is in many ways the real star of the book.” —Robert Morrison, The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey
“I absolutely raced through it and couldn’t bear to put it down. I particularly liked how the very horrible crimes are contrasted with the developing, fascinating relationship between Thomas De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, who come across as extremely real. It was altogether a pleasure.” —Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime
About the Author
David Morrell is an Edgar, Nero, Anthony, and Macavity nominee as well as a recipient of the prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master away from the International Thriller Writers. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic espionage novel. The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only television mini-series to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. A former literature professor at the University of Iowa, Morrell has a PhD from Pennsylvania State University. His latest novel is INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, a sequel to his highly acclaimed Victorian mystery/thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, which Publishers Weekly called ”one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013.”
For more information visit David Morrell’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.
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