In Other Words Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell; Prep School Cowboys: Ranch Schools in the American West by Melissa Bingmann; and Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
Books, 352 pages
Thomas De Quincey, author of the frank and dream-filled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a work first published in 1821, was considered a drug-addled eccentric in his own time. David Morrell’s De Quincey, also an object of derision among a certain class of Londoner, is something else again: right out of the brainy, Sherlock Holmes-esque school of sleuthing. Unlike Holmes, he’s a true historical figure, and Morrell’s Inspector of the Dead is reminiscent of the handful of novels in which Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, or Nikola Tesla take on roles that demand a highly specific kind of smarts. De Quincey’s talent, untouched by his penchant for sipping dangerously large quantities of laudanum, is to see reality. Inspector
of the Dead is less a who-done-it than a how-was-it-done, more philosophical riddle than murder mystery. When De Quincey demonstrates how a particularly baffling killing in the middle of a packed church service was achieved, he frames it in Immanuel Kant’s “great question ... whether reality exists outside us or in our minds.” Despite his habit, De Quincey appears to be the only person, police and detectives included, not fooled by appearances.
This is De Quincey’s second go-round as the lead in a Morrell thriller. The first, Murder as a
Fine Art, was about the visual aesthetic of homicide, and De Quincey was cast as a suspect. Inspector of the Dead is about murder as theater. A killer is on the loose, taking the lives of individuals within public view, killing also in homes, on skating ponds, and in public houses. Like the previous novel, in which the “artist of death” terrorized London, this new novel features “the revenger,” a killer troubled by the childhood loss of his mother and sisters. Death, in the form of slit throats, caved-in skulls, and mass poisonings, comes almost magically. The ultimate target seems to be Queen Victoria herself. And Prince Albert won’t be of any help: It’s up to the Opium-Eater to figure out the perpetrator’s gimmicks and sleights of hand.
Morrell’s narrative is clever and layered, filled with complications and false but meaningful leads. Period details — right down to the “clackers” constables used to summon their comrades from the surrounding streets — lend believability. It’s 1855, and England’s failures in the Crimean War with Russia have left the island with a dissolved government. A chronology of assassination attempts against the queen figures in. Morrell inserts a history of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, better known as Bedlam, before proceeding with an event, critical to the narrative, that occurred there. There’s a secret society and political intrigue. Class distinctions are sharply drawn. A church pew is so finely described, you’d think you could touch it.
The story unfolds from three perspectives — De Quincey’s most prominently, but also his daughter Emily’s, by way of her journal, and, less frequently, the killer’s. Emily, a thoroughly modern women who eschews hoop skirts in favor of bloomers and straight skirts, is a moral force, exhibiting patience with her father while others offer him none, and providing just enough guidance, as well as concern for his health, to keep the little man from succumbing to the multiple visions that dance in his head. When those who enlist his help fear that the Opium-Eater’s ramblings are inappropriate when in audience with the queen, Emily steps in with a simple scientific test that reveals the presence of arsenic in Her Majesty’s green outfit. The daughter recognizes the various haunted, drug-induced dream states her father must negotiate — states in which reality seems fantastic, even as it’s easily explained. He struggles with his addiction, but not as hard as he might. Even as the recently appointed prime minister accuses De Quincey of delusion born out of opium use, our hero seeks to open his eyes. “There are many realities,” he replies. When Prince Albert tells De Quincey, “I have never heard anyone speak so rapidly and unusually,” De Quincey replies, “Thank you, Your Highness.” The humor here is easily overridden by the gore. Copious amounts of blood ooze their way into the story, and some of the individual murders are as gruesomely staged as those in HBO’s True Detective. The killer’s motivation, of course central to the plot, is contained in the quote from De Quincey’s “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” that opens the book: “In the murderer worthy to be called an artist, there rages some great storm of passion — jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred — which creates a hell within him.” Psychology and back story have always figured in Morrell’s considerable output of thrillers, including his landmark First Blood. In the De Quincey stories, these narrative tools seem fully mastered. Could Morrell’s Thomas De Quincey eventually supersede John Rambo, despite the latter’s associated blockbuster movies and decades-long head start, as the author’s most recognized character? Or is such a notion just some peculiar reality inside this reader’s head?