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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!
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Nine Days in Iraq

Iraqi Army MRAPWar, it has been said, is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror. During those long hours of boredom many soldiers read books—usually thrillers. I know this because a good percentage of the emails I get come from service men and women stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They write to thank me for the escape my books have provided, however temporary.

For this reason—for the first time in its history—the USO sent a group of authors on tour to visit and entertain the troops. I was one of the five chosen to go—along with David Morrell (the creator of Rambo); Steve Berry, who writes fabulous historical thrillers; James Rollins, author of terrific science and adventure-based thrillers; and Andy Harp, a first-time novelist and former Marine colonel who helped organize the trip. We were sponsored by International Thriller Writers, a worldwide association of fiction and nonfiction authors.

We were guinea pigs. The USO wanted to know if the troops would enjoy meeting a bunch of tweedy, garrulous authors instead of, say, cheerleaders, rock stars, and famous comedians. We could not bring our books—the logistics of transporting books in a war zone precluded that. We could only bring ourselves.

The tour started at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospitals, where we visited with wounded troops and their families, listened to their extraordinary stories, and encouraged them to write down their experiences. It was a powerful and moving experience. Many of these soldiers are grievously wounded, some missing half or more of their bodies, complicated in many cases by brain injuries. I have never seen such courage. In a country where grievance seems to have become the national pastime, we heard not one single complaint, not one expression of anger, regret, or self-pity.

One soldier had posted a handwritten a note that embodied this attitude:

ATTENTION

All who enter here

If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love, doing it for the people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth.

From DC we went on to Kuwait and from there, by military transport, to Bagdad, Mosul, Balad, and Basra. We were issued flak jackets and helmets and flew around Iraq in the belly of a C-130 Hercules, shoulder to shoulder with soldiers, supplies, heavy vehicles, and equipment. Most of the landings were “tactical”—something not unlike the Tower of Terror at Disney World—and the takeoffs were “hot” as well as being what are known as short-field, which is another thrill ride I could do without. We lived in base housing, mostly trailers or modified containers surrounded by blast walls, sandbagged, and surrounded by bunkers in case of attack. In Basra, a base particularly hard hit by rocket attacks, each of us had a “buddy bunker” next to our bed, a fortified Kevlar and cement box, to roll into should the warning system broadcast “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!”

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