When I completed The Opium-Eater, my biography of De Quincey, I thought his story was told. Little did I know that in 2013 he would be vividly brought back to life as the dynamic hero of an action thriller set in Victorian London.David Morrell, creator of Rambo (see his 1972 novel First Blood) has done an excellent and ingenious job of creating De Quincey as a credible fictional character, closely based on authentic biographical sources, and set him to work pursuing a serial killer through the London of the 1850s.
Morrell has immersed himself in every detail of his setting. Police work and prisons, street life, taverns and prostitution, crime-scene procedures, political high-life and chimney-sweeping: it’s all there, recreated with all the sounds, smells and discomfort of an overcrowded, insanitary nineteenth-century metropolis, where a vicious psychopath is recreating the series of murders described by De Quincey in his epoch-making essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.
Naturally De Quincey himself becomes a prime suspect, because the murders seem to be following the sequence of the essay he published many years before. If he is to stop the murderer in time, he will have to escape the clutches of the corrupt and stupid police who are holding him as the likely culprit. And – to make him look all the more guilty, as well as rendering it harder for him to think, plan and act – De Quincey has to contend with his lifelong opium addiction. A recipe for a nail-biting (and at times stomach-churning) suspense, created by an acknowledged master of the action thriller genre.Morrell has taken great pains to base his De Quincey on what is known of the real man. He makes the Opium-Eater’s dialogue – thoughtful, a touch pedantic, and full of sharp insights – exactly right. And he creates De Quincey’s daughter, the tough-minded Emily, as a resourceful feminist with ideas and plans of her own: a worthy companion for her adventurous father.
Morrell makes De Quincey’s crime-fighting intelligence and imaginative knowledge of how the criminal brain works completely credible, and in tune with the fact that De Quincey’s stories and his essays ‘On Murder’ are important elements in the early pre-history of crime fiction, still influential today. And if De Quincey in Morrell’s fast-paced and violent action thriller seems a touch fitter and more athletic than I imagined him, well, it’s great to find my old friend in such good shape!
Murder as a Fine Art is a breathlessly good read which will delight De Quincey addicts, entertain lovers of Victorian fiction, and grip anyone who enjoys the very special flavour of murder in the foul and fascinating labyrinths of Victorian London.