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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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Doorstep Horror

Policeman at the Barbican Building SiteOctober 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.

A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.

Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.

That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen.

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