The terror is about to happen once again. London is about to experience the re-enactment of some bloody murders from nearly half a century back. At that time, the Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811 stunned the entire country. Savage and gruesome, they were unlike anything the world had ever seen before. It was highly uncommon for strangers to slaughter entire families or groups, snuffing out lives with no discernible motive. It was unthinkable that someone would kill just for the sake of killing. Honor, greed, love --- those were the reasons that made sense.
Essayist Thomas De Quincey studied the cases and then wrote a series of articles, one titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In it, he noted where each person died and in what manner. He described how the killer had set the stage, creating maximum horror. He believed that the fiend planned every detail of that night and choreographed the violence, almost like a form of art.
"MURDER AS A FINE ART is fine art itself. With attention to period detail and breakneck pacing, it compels one to read ever onward."
Now, 43 years later, is a grisly scene with five bodies. Naturally, the London police are baffled, most of them too young to remember the Ratcliffe Highway murders. But De Quincey does, and it turns out that he was in London at the time of the latest crimes, having traveled with his daughter Emily from Edinburgh, his most recent home. With growing urgency, he tries to assist Scotland Yard in uncovering the killer’s identity. But in his efforts to help the English police force, he finds himself looked upon as a suspect. And little wonder. What he wrote about the murder scene from 1811 is eerily accurate, and now more people have died in frighteningly similar circumstances.
It had long been believed that John Williams was the killer, but he hanged himself in his prison cell before he could be convicted. Might they have been wrong back then? Or might there be a copycat, someone using De Quincey’s essay as instructional?
Historical fiction can be tricky, authentically recreating the feel of the era being problematic in some cases. But David Morrell makes his readers believe they are right there, walking the uneven cobblestones of 1854 London in the midst of its famous fog, with the sewers belching malodorous steams and the taverns spewing raucous drunks. The dangers of the streets, especially late nights, cause more than just chills. Interwoven inside the narrative are entries from De Quincey’s journal, which add a woman’s insights and a female’s slant. The mores of the times would prevent many dialogues considered coarse and subjects deemed unsavory from being discussed in the presence of ladies, as Emily points out, but she also proves to be a new sort of woman.
Smitten with the daughter yet skeptical of her father, Scotland Yard Detective Ryan and Constable Becker prove to be indispensable to the investigation. Working hand in hand with the De Quinceys, they put their careers on the line, not to mention their lives. The panic that has gripped Londoners makes the city a far worse hazard than usual, claiming more victims of a mob crazed with fear. Something must be done, and soon, or else things will spiral out of control. They’re already close to the edge.
MURDER AS A FINE ART is fine art itself. With attention to period detail and breakneck pacing, it compels one to read ever onward. So sit back, enjoy the chills, and harken back to the great city at a nasty time in its history. Just keep the lights on.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on May 10, 2013