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

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Bill Kohlhaase

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?

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