Thomas De Quincey and Murder as a Fine Art: A Conversation with David Morrell and Robert Morrison

Murder as a Fine Art

Robert Morrison: I love the idea behind Murder as a Fine Art. John Williams commits a series of sensational killings in 1811. Thomas De Quincey writes his most powerful essay about the killings in 1854. Somebody reads De Quincey on Williams and decides to produce his own version of the killings, far exceeding them in terror. How did this idea come to you?

David Morrell: Robert, coming from a De Quincey scholar, your enthusiasm means a lot to me. I studied De Quincey years ago when I was an undergraduate English student. My professor treated him as a footnote in 1800s literature, giving him importance only because De Quincey was the first to write about drug addiction in his notorious Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I forgot about him until I happened to watch a movie about Charles Darwin, Creation, which dramatizes the nervous breakdown Darwin suffered while writing On the Origin of Species. In the movie, someone says to Darwin, “You know, Charles, people such as De Quincey believe that we’re controlled by elements in our mind that we’re not aware of.”

Robert: It sounds like Freud.

David: Yes. But Freud didn’t publish until half a century later. In fact, because De Quincey invented the word “subconscious,” Freud may have been influenced by him. Anyway, I took down my old college textbook, started reading De Quincey, and became spellbound. I read more and more of his work. Then I got to his blood-soaked essay about the terrifying Ratcliffe Highway murders, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The idea came to me that someone would read the essay and, for complicated reasons, replicate the murders on a more horrifying scale. De Quincey, the Opium-Eater who was obsessed about murder, would then be the logical suspect. You wrote a terrific biography about De Quincey, The English Opium-Eater. What caused your own interest in this brilliant author?

The English Opium-Eater

Robert: I first heard of De Quincey many years ago when I was a graduate student at Oxford. My tutor was Jonathan Wordsworth, the great, great, great nephew of the poet.

David: What an experience that must have been.

Robert: For one of my tutorial assignments, Jonathan asked me to read De Quincey’s Confessions. I had no idea what to expect, and certainly no idea that I was going to spend the next thirty years “hooked” on him. Of course I found the drugs and addiction part of the narrative very interesting. But what really grabbed me was how well De Quincey wrote. He could be, by turns, humorous, conversational, elaborate, or impassioned. And this great ability as a stylist made it possible for him to chart his experience with remarkable depth and energy. After that, and like you, I just kept reading. One of the wonderful things about Murder as a Fine Art is how vividly it brings De Quincey to life, and how compellingly it exploits his fascination with dreams, violence, memory, and addiction. It’s not only a superb thriller, but it also packs an intellectual punch. How did you bring these two elements together so successfully?

David: A reviewer once called me “the mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions.”

Robert: Ha!

David: Yes, it makes me laugh too. I was a literature professor for many years, one of several things that you and I share in common. When I was in college, I worked in factories to pay my tuition. Some of my fellow workers read thrillers during their breaks, and I started wondering if it was possible to write a thriller that would appeal to two kinds of readers—those in my factory life and those in my college life. The former wanted an exciting story to distract them from their jobs and the latter wanted a story to have what literature professors call “subtext.” From the start, with First Blood, I followed that approach, but with De Quincey, I felt like I’d struck the mother lode. On the one hand, he writes in blood-soaked detail about the Ratcliffe Highway murders. On the other hand, he layers the killings with amazingly complex perceptions. The two elements—visceral and intellectual—came together. Your biography of De Quincey was a big help to me. Did you have any scholar adventures as you researched it, any discoveries and revelations?

Thomas De Quincey

Robert: Writing the biography was definitely an adventure. As you’re aware, the most well-known modern derivative of opium is heroin, and while working on the book I had long discussions with two heroin addicts, one of whom was still using, and another of whom was in his third “recovery.” I asked them to read the sections in the biography where I talk specifically about De Quincey and drugs, and their comments really gave me a much better understanding of what it is like to live with opiates. They also helped me to realize that De Quincey must have been an alcoholic as well as an opium addict, for he ingested opium as “laudanum” (opium dissolved in alcohol), which means that he was consuming vast quantities of both substances.

David: Vast quantities indeed. At his peak of addiction, De Quincey drank sixteen ounces of laudanum each day. The alcohol alone would have affected him, not to mention the opium. Yet somehow he was able to write some of the most brilliant prose of the 1800s.

Robert: My biggest adventure in writing the biography came six days after I finished it, when I was casually leafing through a London bookseller’s catalogue and saw the following item for sale: “119 Autograph Letters by De Quincey’s Three Daughters: A Significant New Source for the Author’s Life.” David, I fell out of my chair. A “New Source”? I had finished my biography less than a week earlier, and it was already out of date!! Needless to say, I phoned my publisher, hollered “Stop the Presses,” flew to London two days later, and then had the exhilarating experience of reading through the 119 letters.

David: It sounds like a scene from a literary thriller. Your heart must have been pounding.

Robert: The letters gave me all sorts of new information about De Quincey, and led me to revise the biography in 21 places, most noticeably when it came to De Quincey’s relationship with his three daughters, Margaret, Florence, and Emily. In Murder as a Fine Art, Emily De Quincey is of pivotal importance. What intrigued you about her? How and why did you make her such a vital part of the action?

Emily and Thomas De Quincey

David: When I decided to bring De Quincey to 1854 London, I needed to give him a companion.

Robert: Your own version of Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.

David: The comparison is apt. De Quincey inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turned inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes, so when I chose De Quincey as the hero of this thriller, I was definitely thinking about the origins of the detective genre. Anyway, one of De Quincey’s daughters was the likely candidate. Margaret and Florence had established their own families by then, so that left Emily, who was twenty-one and offered all sorts of possibilities.

Robert: Because not much is known about her?

David: Exactly. With De Quincey, I needed to be scrupulously loyal to the facts, but with Emily, I had more latitude. De Quincey used his children to help him evade his numerous debt collectors. They would sneak over fences, through holes in walls, and into windows, bringing food and writing supplies to wherever he was hiding. Then they would take his manuscripts to his publishers in the same clandestine way and sneak money back to him. After he took a small amount of money for his basic needs, he told the children to deliver the rest to their mother.

Robert: So you had evidence that Emily was street-smart and athletic—all those fences and windows.

David: I was reading between the lines of your biography of him. His daughters grew up in an intellectual household and had independent attitudes because of the radical-thinking people he knew. Thus in my novel Emily became not only De Quincey’s spy but also a delightfully outspoken woman whose advanced ideas make people in the novel gape. As one example, Emily refuses to wear the awkward, thirty-seven-pound, hooped dresses of the period and instead prefers a loose dress with trousers underneath, a garment known as a bloomer dress that was named after an early feminist named Amelia Bloomer. She constantly outsmarts constables, undertakers, and even England’s home secretary. I always smiled when I wrote a scene that Emily dominated. It occurs to me that we’re in a long-overdue De Quincey renaissance. Tell me about the various De Quincey publications that you’re editing.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Robert: A renaissance indeed. It’s gratifying to think that we’re part of it. Murder as a Fine Art will reach a wide audience and play a major role in furthering interest in De Quincey’s life and writings. On my side, my new edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was recently published by Oxford University Press. I’m really excited about it. I thought I knew the Confessions pretty well, and yet when I sat down to edit his memoir, I discovered all sorts of things that I hadn’t noticed before, especially in the magnificent dream sequence at the end. Right now, I’m working on a much longer selection of De Quincey that will be published in the 21-Century Oxford Authors series. The edition will contain all of De Quincey’s finest work, including his great essays on murder and his articles about his friends Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other literary stars of the time. I think of it as equivalent to a “De Quincey’s Greatest Hits” album.

David: De Quincey was so cool that if he were alive today, I think he’d approve of the metaphor. His prose can be so vivid that sometimes I think he is still alive. I read his thousands of pages so often that after a while I felt that I was channeling him. One of my own adventures in writing Murder as a Fine Art was the chance to become friends with you and to share our enthusiasm for all things De Quincey. Thanks, Robert.