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Exploring Murder as an Artform

By Dawn Ius

Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas De Quincey published the controversial essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”—a fictional, satirical account made to a gentleman’s club concerning the aesthetic appreciation of murder.

In 2013, New York Times bestselling author David Morrell further explored the context of Quincey’s essay in a three-book Victorian mystery/thriller series that kicks off with Murder as a Fine Art. He certainly wasn’t the first to do so, and over the years, writers, TV producers, and filmmakers have continued to manipulate this macabre theme.

The latest exploration of “murder as art” comes from Ashley Dyer’s THE CUTTING ROOM, in which detectives Ruth Lake and Greg Carver must stop the Ferryman, a diabolical serial killer whose victims become the centerpieces of gruesome public tableaux.

Dyer—the pseudonym for UK authors Margaret Murphy and Helen Pepper—says the book was inspired by the fallout from their debut, Splinter in the Blood, in which Detective Carver survives an attack and is recovering from a serious brain injury.

“Carver has had a number of scans since his brain injury, and MRI scans loomed large in my own life, for a time,” Murphy says. “There’s something simultaneously beautiful, troubling, and deeply compelling about the detailed cross-sectional images of the brain produced by an MRI. Like the Rorschach ink blots used in psychological assessments, they take on the appearance of distorted butterflies—symmetrical, ethereal, weird. Very like a piece of art, I thought.”

While that particular notion—that someone might take slices of brain and create art from them—provided the spark of inspiration for the story, the authors weave in a number of additional, internationally hot topics, such as society’s addiction to true crime and social media. In fact, Britain’s obsession with a fictional true crime reality show—Fact, or Fable?—underpins the main thread of the story.

Ashley Dyer at work

“Reality TV shows encourage the consumption of real, if staged, situations as entertainment. Add social media into the mix and you have a potentially deadly cocktail—and recent deaths of reality TV participants have demonstrated the serious dangers inherent in this toxic combination,” Murphy says.  “My focus in THE CUTTING ROOM was on the extent to which people will cross the line under the cloak of anonymity offered by social media.

“There’s a lot in academic literature about facelessness in large crowds resulting in disinhibition, increased aggression, escalating into rioting, while on social media, goading the suicidal is considered fair sport by some, and vitriolic insults and even physical threats are an everyday occurrence. That said, I think we have to guard against a knee-jerk reaction—after all, anonymity has allowed people to speak out against oppression, and the internet has provided a healthy sense of connectedness for many who previously felt isolated and excluded. There are undoubted benefits in being an unknown voice, a nameless face, but when freedom becomes license—that’s where the danger lies, and it’s the tension between the two which fascinates and appalls me. I wanted to incorporate the dual aspects of the killer’s sadistic artworks as entertainment and the dehumanization of victims as a result of the cyber-distancing effect of social media.”

To get to the root of things, the authors delved into heavy research, leaning both on Pepper’s background as a forensic scientist, CSI, and analyst, and the information Murphy uncovered—among other things—about a long-established genre named “Bioart.”

Margaret Murphy

“Much of it is beautiful and thought provoking, but I did find the work of Canadian artist Rick Gibson particularly shocking,” Murphy says. “In 1989, he bought a rat from a pet shop, put it in a plexiglass cylinder between two canvases on a street in downtown Vancouver, hung a 25-kilogram block above it, and placed a sign beneath which read, ‘This rat is going to die.’ The squashed rat would form a diptych on the two canvases. Vancouverans were scandalized.”

The exhibit was stolen, and “Sniffy” the rat liberated, but Murphy suggests that this kind of “shock art” provides an invitation to moral debate. As it turns out, the pet shop sold the rat as live food for snakes and lizards—so regardless of how, the rat was going to die.

“The ethical question is, which is the more humane death—trapping a live rat in a glass tank with a python with no escape, letting the python slowly crush the life out of it—or annihilation in one fast, explosive instant?” Murphy says.

There’s no doubt that THE CUTTING ROOM explores controversial themes that could facilitate this kind of debate, but for all its macabre darkness, most of the violence is implied or can be extrapolated from the forensic evidence.

Helen Pepper

Which is where Pepper’s expertise comes in.

While Murphy is the “write” arm of the collaboration—managing characters, story arcs, and the actual drafting of the story—Pepper sweeps in to make sure that the procedural mechanics of the novel are correct, and offers suggestions on forensic aspects that could move the plot along or make it more interesting.

“As our partnership has developed, I’ve become more involved in making suggestions during the course of her writing,” Pepper says, “and Margaret is very open to incorporating them in the story if they’re any good (and very gentle about not incorporating them when they’re not so good!).”

These relationship dynamics will continue to grow and evolve as the series progresses. Next up for Carver and Lake: a spike of deaths by misadventure and suicide on a small, problem social housing project, coupled with a series of vigilante killings.

We can’t wait.

Dawn Ius
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