David Morrell is ITW’s 2009 Thriller Master. Over four decades, from FIRST BLOOD through THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE and CREEPERS, he has pioneered new ways to write thrillers. With his latest, MURDER AS A FINE ART, Morrell journeys into 1854 London, blending fact with fiction in a harrowing exhumation of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders.
For this month’s BIG THRILL, Morrell’s Mulholland Books editor Josh Kendall interviews him about the novel’s main character, Thomas De Quincey, one of the most fascinating personalities of Victorian England.
Readers always enjoy hearing how an author found an idea for a book. What was the origin of MURDER AS A FINE ART?
DAVID: I happened to watch a 2009 film called CREATION. In it, Charles Darwin struggles with grief after the death of his favorite daughter. Meanwhile his wife has religious objections to his theory of evolution and suspects that their daughter’s death was God’s punishment. Under these pressures, Darwin finds it impossible to continue writing ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. He succumbs to a mysterious illness and is basically a mess until a friend visits him and says something along these lines: “You know, Charles, people such as De Quincey are suggesting that it’s possible for our minds to control us in ways that we don’t understand.”
Sounds like Freud.
Exactly. But the film takes place in the 1850s, forty years before Freud’s theories began to be published. The reference was to Thomas De Quincey, who was famous for being the first person to write about drug addiction in CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. I had read some of De Quincey’s work in a Victorian literature course when I was in college, but my professor never indicated that De Quincey anticipated Freud.
Knowing the way your mind works, I bet I know what happened next.
As soon as the movie ended, I went to the bookshelves that contain all the literature anthologies I was assigned in college.
You still have them?
After several decades. When it comes to books, I’m a pack rat. In CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER, this is what I found. “There is no such thing as forgetting. A thousand accidents may place a veil between our consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind. But whether veiled or unveiled, the inscriptions on the mind remain forever, just as the stars withdraw from the light of day, waiting to be revealed when the night returns.”
Definitely sounds like Freud, except that Freud didn’t use that kind of vivid imagery.
De Quincey’s talent is amazing. I discovered that he was a Latin and Greek prodigy when he was young. He ran away from home when he was seventeen and survived on the streets of London for five months, mostly in the winter, living with prostitutes and beggars. One of those prostitutes—a fifteen-year-old named Ann—was the love of his life, more than the woman he eventually married. Ann saved his life when he collapsed on the street. After they became separated, he spent years trying to find her.
Was he a drug addict when he lived on the streets?
That happened a few years later. In the 1800s, the English economy depended on the opium trade. Several wars with China were fought over the drug. Basically England flooded China with opium, and the Chinese emperor objected to his people being turned into addicts. The most common medication in any British home was laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. It could be bought legally and cheaply just about anywhere, from the butcher, a grocer, or a kid on the street. Mothers gave it to crying babies. If you had a headache, back pain, kidney problems, whatever, you mixed a few drops of laudanum with water. A lot of Victorians were drug addicts but either didn’t know it or wouldn’t admit it. For the average person, a tablespoonful would be lethal, but at the height of his addiction, De Quincey was drinking sixteen ounces of the stuff each day.
Sixteen ounces? That’s impossible.
He traveled with decanters of it. And he did travel a lot because his debts forced him to keep moving to avoid bill collectors. At one point, he had five different lodgings in Edinburgh. At the same time, he had books stored in three different houses in the Lake District in England. That’s where he stalked Wordsworth.
You’re making this up.
No, really, he stalked Wordsworth. He kept sending Wordsworth fan letters, and when Wordsworth answered them, De Quincey traveled to the Lake District, just to gaze at Wordsworth’s famous Dove Cottage. Eventually De Quincey rented lodgings in the area and visited Wordsworth as often as possible. When Wordsworth moved to a larger house, De Quincey rented Dove Cottage so that he could eat and sleep where Wordsworth had eaten and slept. De Quincey then befriended Wordsworth’s three-year-old daughter. When the little girl died, he spent weeks lying on the child’s grave.
In the later Freudian era, he would have been a good candidate for psychoanalysis.
That’s what De Quincey’s writing was for him—self-psychoanalysis. But again, De Quincey’s psychological theories came a half-century before Freud. He invented the term “subconscious” and wrote about dream-horrors in which someone finds a terrible alien version of himself housed within a separate chamber of his brain.
And more. De Quincey actually anticipated the theory of multiple-personality disorder by suggesting that someone’s mind could harbor as many as five horrid alien versions of oneself. Wanting to learn more, I read De Quincey’s famous three-part essay: “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” It’s no exaggeration to say that De Quincey was obsessed with violence and murder. Even today, his essay about the murders in MACBETH is favorite reading for anyone who admires Shakespeare’s play. The third part of his “Murder as a Fine Art” essay focuses on a series of killings that occurred in London’s East End in 1811: the notorious Ratcliffe Highway multiple murders.
An early version of the Jack the Ripper murders.
Yes, except that the Ratcliffe Highway murders probably caused more terror. In December of 1811, a shopkeeper, his wife, his assistant, and his infant son were found brutally murdered, their heads bashed in and their throats slit. The child’s crib was smashed to pieces. With the rise of newspapers and the efficiency of the British mail-coach system, reports about the murders traveled fast, all the way to Scotland and Ireland in a matter of days. A century earlier, similar murders would have been only a local concern. But rapid communication spread terror throughout Britain. In every town and city, people refused to leave their homes for fear that they’d be murdered. They nailed their shutters closed. They hired bodyguards and then suspected the guards. Imagine the shock when, twelve days later, it happened again. A tavern owner, his wife, and their servant were found dead, their heads bashed, their throats slit. A sailor named John Williams was charged with the crimes, but he hanged himself in prison before he could be questioned.
In the novel, you emphasize that the tavern owner was called John Williamson and that his supposed killer was named John Williams.
A weird coincidence. Or was it? G. K. Chesterton later commented, “A man named John Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named John Williamson. It sounds like a sort of infanticide.” This nagged at me until I decided that it would be fun to write a thriller in which Thomas De Quincey would use his psychological theories to explain that the names weren’t a coincidence and to reveal the true nature of the murders.
Then you decided that a later killer would use De Quincey’s third “Murder as a Fine Art” essay as a guidebook for recreating the original crimes.
That third essay is a hair-raiser. De Quincey puts us in the killer’s mind as the crimes are about to be committed. Then he switches to the viewpoint of the victims. For page after page, the suspense and dread are palpable, as is the description of the violence.
You make De Quincey sound as if he could have been a thriller writer.
He would have been brilliant at it. But back then, most thrillers were set in far away places and long ago times, with loads of gothic devices such as clanking chains and old castles. Very unrealistic, compared to the actuality that De Quincey’s essay makes us feel.
When did he publish that third “Murder” essay?
Eighteen fifty-four. The year in which my novel is set.
That’s six years before Wilkie Collins wrote THE WOMAN IN WHITE, which is usually regarded as the first modern thriller.
Yes, Wilkie Collins is credited with inventing the NOVEL OF SENSATION, a perfect definition of a thriller. In my author’s note, I mention that Victorian critics complained that sensation novels appealed to diseased appetites. Collins and his imitators certainly were sensational. They suggested that behind the closed draperies of respectable-looking houses, all sorts of horrors were occurring.
In your author’s note, you also suggest that, even though De Quincey was primarily an essayist, he had a major influence on Collins.
There’s no doubt. The climax of Collin’s THE MOONSTONE, the most famous early detective novel, explicitly refers to De Quincey’s CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER and uses sections of it to solve the mystery.
How did you prepare to write the novel?
I use a Method actor approach when it comes to research. For a year, I felt as if I lived in 1854 London, almost the way Jack Finney describes the experience in TIME AND AGAIN. Every book I read was focused on the Victorian 1850s, and there were a lot of them, non-fiction as well as fiction. I needed to convince myself that I was physically in the places I described. That meant I needed to know what the streets were made of and what sorts of coins were in people’s pockets. I needed to be able to smell the streets and hear the hooves of the city’s 50,000 horses. I used maps of the time to take mental journeys. More than anything, I channeled De Quincey. He wrote thousands of pages, which I read again and again, just as I read and re-read biographies about him. Wherever possible I used passages from De Quincey’s writing in his dialogue. In a sense, De Quincey is a co-author of MURDER AS A FINE ART.
You also adapted some techniques from other Victorian authors.
For hundreds of years, novels were written either in the first person or in the third-person omniscient viewpoint. The famous opening of Dickens’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a good example. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s the author speaking directly to the reader as a kind of historian rather than presenting the information through a character’s viewpoint. Flaubert, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway helped to change all that by dramatizing scenes through a character’s perceptions—the third-person limited viewpoint. It feels realistic since we can only experience reality through our limited viewpoints. But it’s a pain to use. An author needs to go through all kinds of hoops in order to set a scene just for the sake of revealing information through a character’s viewpoint. Writing instructors constantly tell students about viewpoint lapses. Many times, I simply want to tell the reader directly whatever I think needs to be revealed.
Right, giving the reader information the way a historian would. As I immersed myself in the Victorian period and read all sorts of Victorian novels, it became obvious to me that I would need to use Victorian techniques, partly to be true to the period, and partly because the world has changed so much since Victorian times. Much of what people took for granted back then is lost to us. What’s a dustman? A pew opener? A costermonger? A dollymop? A dipper? Why was the wife of a physician allowed to be presented at the queen’s court while the wife of a surgeon wasn’t permitted that honor? Concepts that were widely accepted are now so alien that 1854 London might as well be a colony on a distant planet. I decided to be a tour guide and explain the many fascinating and sometimes appalling things about Victorian culture.
In addition to the omniscient viewpoint, you also include first person.
If I was going to write an imitation Victoran novel, I didn’t have a choice. The first-person viewpoint was another favorite device back then. Sometimes it was mixed with third-person omniscient as in Dickens’s BLEAK HOUSE. Other novelists, especially Wilkie Collins, used a string of first-person narrators, many of them in letters and journals. I incorporate that device by including portions of a first-person journal kept by De Quincey’s daughter, Emily.
One of the most captivating characters in the novel. Tell us about her.
De Quincey had eight children, three of whom died before he did. The last was Emily, who was 21 in 1854. Little is known about her, except that she looks very becoming in a family photograph that shows her with De Quincey. She has long thick hair gathered behind her head and a surprising amount of neckline showing. As her sisters married, she became the person who tried to keep De Quincey out of trouble. Since little is known about her, I had the freedom to imagine that she had a spirited mind of her own, the sort of person you’d expect to emerge from De Quincey’s weird household.
At one point, she talks about being a spy.
De Quincey was constantly on the run from bill collectors. He trained Emily to watch for them. She’d crawl out a back window, over a fence, and into another window where De Quincey was hiding and writing. He’d give her manuscripts to take to his publisher. She’d crawl through more windows and over fences. After receiving money from the publisher, she snuck it back to De Quincey, who kept a few shillings and sent the rest of the money home to his wife. In the novel, Emily keeps coming up with schemes to improve the lives of the poor, manipulating officials into doing what she wants. I greatly enjoyed the scenes that featured her and her father.
Is there anything about De Quincey that you couldn’t fit into MURDER AS A FINE ART but that you wish you had.
A landlord once held him prison for a year. De Quincey owed him so much money that the landlord locked him in a room, forcing him to write all day to pay his debt.
For a year? You’ve got to be making this up.
I swear it’s true. So De Quincey wrote and wrote for a year and tried to figure out how to escape. Eventually he smuggled a message to his publisher, asking for laxative salts. The publisher snuck the packets to De Quincey by hiding them in bundles of blank manuscript paper. Opium made De Quincey constipated, so even if the landlord discovered the packets, De Quincey could explain them. Anyway, De Quincey swallowed all the laxative powders and spent the next week in the building’s outdoor privy. The problem was that the privy was used by two other lodging houses as well as the building in which De Quincey was being kept prisoner. After a week, all the neighbors banded together and insisted that the landlord release De Quincey so that they could have their privy back.
I don’t recommend that anyone become a drug addict, but I have to say that De Quincey was a fascinating man. A little fellow, only five feet tall, he made people want to listen to him for hours. One person threatened to kidnap him and keep him in a closet, bringing him out like a windup doll when entertainment was required.
David Morrell is the award-winning author of FIRST BLOOD, the novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, and THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is a recipient of ITW’s Thriller Master Award. His writing book, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author.
To learn more about David, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Jennifer Esperanza