You might know David Morrell as the author of First Blood, the book that spawned the Rambo movies starring Sylvester Stallone. If it is any comfort to you, the original novel is a great thriller, and in the context of the Vietnam War, was much more believable than the movie. Moreover, the ending of the original novel was radically different (and much more logical) than the ending of the movie.
That said, Morrell has not been one of the authors whose next novel I greatly anticipated. That will likely change having just finished Murder as a Fine Art. Morell has produced a fast-paced action thriller mystery (his forte) set in London in the mid-1800s using real historical characters with great literary license.
The novel is based on an essay written by Thomas De Quincy titled "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (a real essay) about murders (real murders) that terrorized London some forty years earlier. Morrell recreates the story with De Quincy as the main character. The historical De Quincy was also the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a scandalous (and way before his time) exploration of his real addiction to opium. In 1854, the novel sets De Quincy as the key suspect as well as the key investigator (along with his daughter and a couple of classic Scotland Yard types) of a series of totally brutal and lurid copycat murders that recreate the panic of the originals.
Morrell writes in the style of the past, using a narrator to fill us in on the information we need for full context. Moreover (and you should read the afterword) Morrell's research on London at this time would appear to be meticulous, voluminous and put to incredibly good use in bringing the sights, sounds, smells and wonder of London to life.
Morrell takes us through the entire spectrum of London Society - from the Prime Minister to the Chief of Police, to the cops on the beat, to the ladies of the evening walking the parks and streets. He also does a wonderful job in drawing the major characters. De Quincy himself is educated, erudite and insightul regarding motive and modus operandi of the murders (in between bouts of self-medication with the laudanum his is addicted to) and his daughter, Emily, is perfectly drawn as the daughter brought up by the father - willing to risk convention to help him and by having the ability to empathize with all stratums of people - the workers to the exalted. The two beat cops are also well done - providing some real insight into how the early "coppers" operated.
Morrell integrates the history, the mystery, the characters, and the context into a quick-action, fast moving and compelling story. This really a well written and exciting piece of work. No surprise really. Morrell, it turns out, did his Master's degree thesis on Hemingway and his PhD dissertation on John Barth. He spent 16 years as a Professor of American Literture at University of Iowa (home of the Iowa's Writer's Workshop) and his bibliography prints our at more than 20 pages. Murder as a Fine Art is is latest effort and it showcases all he has done, learned, and practiced.
What fun. I am going to have to try all the stuff in between his first and his latest.