The Astonishing Thomas De Quincey
By David Morrell
The main character of my Victorian mystery/thrillers, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD and MURDER AS A FINE ART, is one of the most fascinating personalities of the Victorian era: Thomas De Quincey. His achievements are outstanding, and yet many literary historians relegated him to a footnote because of the book that made him famous (some would say infamous)—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Throughout most of the 20th century, many literary opinion-makers excluded De Quincey from the pantheon of the previous century because of his opium addiction (although in the Victorian era the concept of addiction was unknown and De Quincey’s contemporaries referred to it as a mere habit that surely anyone of character could overcome).
Actually, De Quincey was more an opium drinker than an opium eater. He favored laudanum, a mixture of brandy and powdered opium. The only effective pain reliever at the time, it was legally and cheaply available almost everywhere. Most people respected the POISON warning on its label and used it with moderation. A tablespoon might kill someone who wasn’t used to the drug. In contrast, De Quincey sometimes drank sixteen ounces of laudanum a day.
So it’s easy to understand why arbiters of literary taste were disinclined to consider him as a serious writer. But in fact, against all expectation and logic, the opium helped De Quincey to be a better writer. His epical opium nightmares made him conclude that the human mind had “chasms and abysses, layer upon layer” in which there are secret chambers where alien natures can hide, undetected. Seventy years before Freud, De Quincey invented the word “subconscious” and descended into its depths of the mind, creating some of the most brilliant prose of the 1800s.
De Quincey also introduced a new kind of literary criticism, which he fittingly called “psychological criticism,” in his influential essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” In addition, Edgar Allan Poe so admired him that he imitated De Quincey’s synesthetic laudanum tone in short stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The influence went beyond Poe when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “borrowed” Poe’s detective-story formula and created Sherlock Holmes, giving Holmes a drug habit that can be traced straight back to De Quincey.
De Quincey made several other literary impacts, but for my purposes, the most significant was the third installment of his influential essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which provided a step-by-bloody-step, amazingly suspenseful recreation of England’s first media-sensation mass killings, the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London in 1811. That essay, which created the modern true-crime genre, made me realize that De Quincey—an expert in analyzing murders—could be considered a pioneer detective, anticipating Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Holmes.
As I immersed myself in Victorian London and De Quincey’s thousands of brilliant pages, I set myself the task of channeling this sensational personality. In both MURDER AS A FINE ART and INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, his dialogue contains numerous quotations from his work. As he and his irrepressible daughter Emily rush to prevent an assassin from reaching Queen Victoria (seven men tried to kill her during her reign), I hoped that De Quincey’s personality would be vivid on the page and that readers would understand why his friends considered holding him prisoner in a box, bringing him out like a child’s toy whenever a dinner party became dreary so that he could entertain them with his always fascinating conversation.
Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater,confronts London’s harrowing streets to thwart the assassination of Queen Victoria.
The year is 1855. The Crimean War is raging. The incompetence of British commanders causes the fall of the English government. The Empire teeters.
Amid this crisis comes opium-eater Thomas De Quincey, one of the most notorious and brilliant personalities of Victorian England. Along with his irrepressible daughter, Emily, and their Scotland Yard companions, Ryan and Becker, De Quincey finds himself confronted by an adversary who threatens the heart of the nation.
This killer targets members of the upper echelons of British society, leaving with each corpse the name of someone who previously attempted to kill Queen Victoria. The evidence indicates that the ultimate victim will be Victoria herself. As De Quincey and Emily race to protect the queen, they uncover long-buried secrets and the heartbreaking past of a man whose lust for revenge has destroyed his soul.
Brilliantly merging historical fact with fiction, Inspector of the Dead is based on actual attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria.
David Morrell is an Edgar, Nero, Anthony, and Macavity nominee as well as a recipient of the prestigious career-achievement Thriller Master away from the International Thriller Writers. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include the classic espionage novel. The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only television mini-series to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. A former literature professor at the University of Iowa, Morrell has a PhD from Pennsylvania State University. His latest novel is INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, a sequel to his highly acclaimed Victorian mystery/thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, which Publishers Weekly called ”one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013.”