MURDER AS A FINE ART: David Morrell, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and the Manchester Literature Festival

Posted on: 07/10/2013 with tags: 1854, addiction, crime fiction, David Morrell, drugs, Edgar Allan Poe, Freud, historical crime, historical fiction, historical thriller, Jack the Ripper, laudanum, London, Mulholland, opium, private detective, psychoanalysis, Ratcliffe Highway Murders, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas de Quincey, true crime

International thriller writer David Morrell, best known for his novel First Blood on which the Rambo films were based, is in the UK this week to attend the Manchester Literature Festival on Wednesday evening where he will speak about his latest book, MURDER AS A FINE ART. (You can find out more, and book tickets here.)

Set in Victorian London and expertly blending fact with fiction, MURDER AS A FINE ART is a harrowing exhumation of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders, a series of mass killings that rivaled those of Jack the Ripper. It features a fictional version of Thomas De Quincey, whose obsession with the case prompted him to write his legendary essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.

Ahead of his visit to Manchester, David has written a piece for History Lives about the inspiration behind MURDER AS A FINE ART, and what it was really like to live in London in 1854…

‘In 1811, a series of real-life mass killings terrorized London and all of England the way Jack the Ripper spread terror at the opposite end of the century. They were called the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Improved roads and the recent invention of the mail-coach system allowed news about those murders to spread throughout England within a then-amazing two days.

An infamous essayist, Thomas De Quincey (known as the Opium-Eater because he wrote the first book about drug addiction, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), became obsessed with those mass murders and immortalized them in his blood soaked “Postscript to On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In it, he invented the true-crime genre.

De Quincey had other distinctions. He also invented the word “subconscious” and anticipated Freud’s psychoanalytic theories by a half century. He inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes.

An amazing man. Three years ago, when I happened upon a casual reference to the way De Quincey anticipated Freud, curiosity made me seek out his work. In a long-ago college literature course, my professor had dismissed De Quincey as a footnote, but I now discovered that the professor was wrong. De Quincey deserved to be more than a footnote. His vast influence was rivaled only by his brilliance. The prototype for the first private detective, he became my guide to 1854 London, the year his essay about the Ratcliffe Highway killings was published.

What if someone used that essay as a blueprint for an identical series of killings? I wondered. What if De Quincey, the Opium-Eater, were the logical suspect for the crimes? What if those killings were connected both to him and to the original murders?  Finally, what if this sixty-nine-year old man became furious at this abuse of his writing and, with the help of his 21-year-old daughter, set out to redeem himself?

Echoing the title of De Quincey’s “Murder” essay, I called the novel Murder as a Fine Art, and my research into 1854 London lasted two years. During that time, the only books I read were related to that year. I soon literally felt that I was there. I knew what kind of money was in people’s pockets (gold, silver, and copper coins), how many horses there were in 1854 London (50,000), how many beggars (the same as the horses, 50,000), and how much an upper-class woman’s dress weighed (37 pounds because of ten yards of satin that covered a whale’s-teeth hoop).

I read and re-read De Quincey’s thousands of pages until I felt I had reincarnated him.  One of the astonishing things I learned was that while a tablespoon of laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) might kill someone not accustomed to it, De Quincey was capable of drinking sixteen ounces of it a day. His opium nightmares convinced him that there were chambers within everyone’s mind, where an alien creature could exist. This Freud-like idea is one of the main plot points in Murder as a Fine Art.

My purpose in mentioning all this is to note how much I enjoyed journeying back to 1854 London. John Barth once said that reality is a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there very long.  These days, I change that idea and say, “The present world is a nice place to write about, but maybe there are more interesting alternatives.” Going back to 1854 London, writing a historical thriller about that era’s strange customs and vocabulary (“dippers,” “dustmen,” and “dollymops”) felt like going to Mars. I found it exciting and fascinating to retreat from the troubles of the modern world.’

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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