Happy publication day to David Morrell’s Victorian thriller MURDER AS A FINE ART! A critical darling raved by Douglas Preston, Dan Simmons, and featured in Entertainment Weekly, Morrell’s newest features notorious essayist Thomas De Quincey and his irrepressible daughter, Emily, matching wits with a killer the likes of which London has never seen before. Enjoy an excerpt right here–more on MURDER AS A FINE ART later this week!
From the Journal of Emily De Quincey
Sunday, 10 December 1854
This morning, I discovered Father again pacing the back courtyard. Once more, he had wakened much earlier than I, probably before dawn. Last night, I am certain that I heard his footsteps creaking past the door to my room, descending the stairs so that he could roam the dark streets. He claims that this is the only way he can avoid indulging in laudanum—by distracting himself with the effort of walking as much as fifteen miles each day.
Father’s short stature emphasizes how thin he has become. I worry that his obsessive exercise will harm him more than help. The way he talks also worries me. Before we left our home in Edinburgh to journey here to London and promote his newly collected writings, his practice was to waken groggily no earlier than noon. For a long time, he refused to make the trip at all. Then abruptly he called it essential and surprised me by filling his hours with walking to prepare himself. Soon he wakened at nine. In a matter of weeks, he backed to eight o’clock, to seven, to six. On the train bound for London, he walked in place, his cheeks red from exertion.
“To avoid the laudanum,” he kept insisting, although I know that he hasn’t abandoned it entirely. Two decanters of the wretched liquid are among the clothes and books that he packed.
I was especially troubled when he said, “As my waking hour retreats from five to four to three, I fear that I am backing into yesterday.”
Yesterday, though, is what I am convinced he wants to back into. His journey to London seems about his past more than his collected writings—or perhaps the two are disturbingly intertwined.
Our income from Father’s work is too little for us to afford the splendid town house in which we are staying. A middle-aged woman who serves as maid and cook has been supplied to us as well. Father claims that he doesn’t know who pays the bills, and I believe him. Perhaps one of his old acquaintances secretly provided the means for us to make this journey, although I can’t imagine whom, since so many of those acquaintances, Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example, have passed over, or as Father says, “have joined the majority,” since far more people died over the centuries than are currently alive.
Our lodging is near Russell Square, and after we arrived four days ago, Father puzzled me by asking me to walk with him before we unpacked. Within a few blocks, we reached the Square, where I was delighted to find a wonderful park in the middle of the tumultuous city. A breeze had chased the fog away. In what Father told me was rare December sunlight, he surveyed the grass and the bare trees, the intensity of his blue eyes indicating his memories.
“When I was seventeen,” he said, “I lived on the streets of London.”
I knew that, of course, because Father had included some of those terrible events in his Opium-Eater book.
“I lived on the streets for the entire winter,” he continued.
I knew this, too, but I have learned to let Father say what is on his mind.
“In those days, cows wandered this square. Many nights, a companion and I slept here, a rag that could barely be called a blanket wrapped around us. I’d been lucky enough to find an old bucket. When the udders on the cows were full, I did my best to milk one of them. The warmth of the milk helped us not to shiver.”
Father spoke without looking at me, his attention focused totally on his memories. “So much has changed. Coming from the train station, which didn’t exist then, I hardly recognized much of the city. There are so many places I need to see.”
His tone suggested that he didn’t want to see some of those places, even though he needed to.
“Ann,” he murmured.
My mother’s name was Margaret. Mine is Emily.
“Ann,” he repeated.
Remembering that conversation, I watched the intensity with which Father paced the back courtyard.
Our housekeeper, Mrs. Warden, stepped into the kitchen. She wore a solemn bonnet. A hymnbook was under her arm. Bread, butter, strawberry jam, and a pot of tea were on the table.
“I’ll be leaving for church now, Miss De Quincey. I suppose that you and your father will soon be going there also.”
Since our arrival, Mrs. Warden’s manner toward my father has been guarded while her tone toward me has been sympathetic, as if she believes I have a great many burdens.
“Yes. Church,” I responded, hoping that I didn’t sound as if I were lying.
“He seems very religious,” Mrs. Warden continued with reluctant approval, “which, if you don’t mind me being honest, is not what I expected, given the ‘book’ he wrote.”
Father wrote many books over the years, but Mrs. Warden’s emphasis left no doubt which of them she meant.
“Yes, the book,” I said.
“I haven’t read it myself, of course.”
Again, Father walked past the window, pacing the courtyard from corner to corner to corner to corner. His lean face was tense with exertion. His gaze was on something in his mind far beyond the courtyard wall. He fingered beads in his hands.
“I see how devoted he is to the rosary,” Mrs. Warden said. “Praying while walking improves both the soul and the body.”
The beads that Father clutched had sections of ten. One in each section was blue. The remaining nine were white.
“I haven’t met many Romans.” Mrs. Warden referred to Roman Catholics uncomfortably. “But I’m sure papists can be as religious as Church of Englanders.”
Father, in fact, belongs to the Church of England and often writes about the knotted mysteries of religion. As for the beads, I didn’t know how to explain them without rekindling her suspicions about him, so I merely nodded.
“Well, I’ll be off,” Mrs. Warden said.
“Thank you. Father says not to expect us until late.”
As Mrs. Warden turned to leave, she gave me a look that suggested, if I was indeed going to church, she did not approve of my costume. She herself wore a hooped dress with flounces that made it so wide she had difficulty squeezing through the doorway. I do not exaggerate that she seemed to have a birdcage under her dress. My own preference is for the clothing that Amelia Bloomer recently advocated—long comfortable pants that cuff at my ankles and are hidden beneath my naturally hanging dress. I do not understand the ridicule with which the newspapers greet this way of dressing, referring to the undertrousers as “bloomers,” but I would sooner be mocked for my clothing than be forced to restrict my movements for the sake of convention.
After Mrs. Warden closed the front door, Father came in from the courtyard, as if he had heard her depart. He set his beads on the table. He hadn’t worn a hat. His short brown hair—amazingly not grayed by age—glistened with perspiration, only some of which was from exercise. Much of it was no doubt caused by his need for laudanum.
“How far did you walk?” I asked.
“Only five miles.”
The beads weren’t at all a rosary but instead a system that Father uses to determine how far he proceeds in a small area. When we arrived at the house, he measured the distance along the courtyard’s four walls, which became the equivalent of one white bead. After he walked through nine white beads and a blue bead, he began a new set of ten. In this way, all he needed to do was keep a count of the blue beads and multiply them by ten as well as the distance. He claims this is simple, but when I try to explain this, most people grimace as if they have a sudden headache.
“Father, it’s time for tea,” I said.
“My stomach couldn’t possibly tolerate it, Emily. We must be going.”
“Tea,” I repeated.
“There are many places I need to visit.”
“Bread, butter, and jam,” I said.
Since we came to London, Father’s schedule has been occupied by interviews, to which I accompany him to make certain that he remembers to eat and drink. An American version of his collected works is now available along with four volumes of an ongoing British edition, which is one reason Father journeyed here—so that he could speak with booksellers as well as the Fleet Street magazines and newspapers.
It is undignified, but in truth, we need the money. As much as Father is addicted to laudanum, he is addicted to acquiring books. Over the years, no sooner did he cram one cottage with books than he rented another and another. Debts have accumulated to the point that I fear we will end in paupers’ court. This journey to London was indeed essential, although perhaps not in the sense that I believe Father secretly means.
His valiant attempt to earn income for us comes with its own cost. From his youth when one of his brothers bullied him, Father has endured painful difficulty relating to people. His stomach and other digestive organs are seldom at ease except when calmed by laudanum or when I am able to shield him. Now he is forced to greet the world and pretend to welcome it so that people will buy his writings and give him the means to retreat. His brave, humiliating efforts have been successful. Book buyers are eager to meet the infamous Opium-Eater, whose candid details about his drug habit are still a scandal thirty-three years after he first wrote about them.
Recently, Father also added a third installment to his horrid essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Although I am grateful that the added material promoted sales, I confess that the gruesome descriptions of killings are too shocking for me to finish. People ask if I am afraid to live with Father, given how violent he must be. I tell them that Father is the gentlest man in God’s creation, to which well-wishers give me skeptical looks, as if to say, “We know that you must lie because he is your father, but truly anyone who writes about murder so vividly and with so much blood must secretly be a violent man.”
Today being his first day of leisure, Father and I walked to the nearby British Museum. The area was deserted, everyone attending church, which is why Father chose this time to go onto the streets. The museum was closed, but Father would probably have been too preoccupied to go inside, regardless.
The cold breeze continued to chase the fog. Father stared at the museum’s dramatic forecourt, his jaw muscles flexing with his need for laudanum.
“This didn’t exist the last time I was in London,” he told me. “For twenty-five years, it was the largest construction area in all of Europe, but I never saw it.”
The enormous building made me feel small and vulnerable.
“The cuneiform tablets of Assyria are in there,” Father continued, his tone mournful. “So is the Rosetta stone. Keys to translating the past. But who can translate the ruins in our memories?”
People say that Father has an odd way of speaking, but to me, it is the other way around. Most people are so boring that they lull me nearly to sleep. I do not always understand Father, but I have never found him other than stimulating, even when he exasperates me. Perhaps that is why, at the age of twenty-one, I have not yet found a gentleman with whom I can imagine spending as many years as I have spent with Father.
We hired a cab and went to all the landmarks that had been constructed in the decades since he was away: Buckingham Palace, Belgrade Square, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the new Houses of Parliament.
But we never stepped out of the cab, and we never lingered. Even though Father was seated, his feet moved as if he were nervously walking. I had the impression that he selected our destinations at random. Eventually I realized that all the places we had seen had been a postponement, that we were finally proceeding toward what Father needed to see and yet did not want to.