David Morrell on the origins of MURDER AS A FINE ART
Adventures with the Opium-Eater
For two years, I lived in 1854 London. Charles Darwin prompted me to do it, or at least a movie about him did. Itâ€™s called Creation, and it dramatizes Darwinâ€™s struggle to complete On the Origin of Species. If youâ€™re a Christian fundamentalist, you probably wish that his struggle had persisted. Darwinâ€™s wife certainly did. She believed that his theory of evolution was blasphemous and urged him not to continue. Meanwhile he suffered from extreme guilt because he might have been indirectly responsible for the death of his favourite daughter, having sanctioned medical treatmentâ€”hydrotherapyâ€” that possibly aggravated her lingering illness.
These multiple pressures made Darwin chronically sick with headaches, heart palpitations, and stomach problems, rendering him barely able to function. But hereâ€™s the point. Darwin wasnâ€™t aware of his guilt, both about the death of his daughter and about how his research was harming his relationship with his wife. We post-Freudians understand the link between the mind and the body, but Darwinâ€™s persistent health problems were a medical mystery in Victorian England of the 1850s.
The turning point of the film occurs when a friend visits Darwin and tells him, â€œCharles, people like De Quincey believe weâ€™re influenced by thoughts and emotions we donâ€™t know we have.â€
Thoughts and emotions we donâ€™t know we have? Sure sounds like Freud, but Freudâ€™s theories about the subconscious werenâ€™t published until the 1890s, forty years after Darwinâ€™s crisis. In fact, De Quinceyâ€™s theories about what he called the separate chambers of our minds (he invented the term â€œsub-consciousâ€) were initially developed in the 1820s, seventy years before Freud.
Something in me came to attention. De Quincey? I remembered a long-ago course in nineteenth- century English literature in which a professor mentioned Thomas De Quincey not as a precursor of Freud but as a notorious drug abuser, the first to have written about that forbidden subject, in his scandalous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The professor referred to De Quincey dismissively as a footnote in literature and went on to praise the usual greatest hits of the Romantic and Victorian eras.
Curiosity compelled me to go to the bookshelf on which, like a pack rat, I still kept my undergraduate textbooks. Given what the professor of my youth had said, I wasnâ€™t surprised that De Quincey was scantily represented: ten pages in a thousand-page anthology. What did surprise me was that while only a portion of one of his essays, â€œThe Mail-Coach,â€ was included, those few pages were the opposite of what my professor had led me to expect. They were spellbinding.
With rare vividness, De Quincey described riding next to a mail-coach driver as their vehicle hurtled along a dark road. They both fell asleep. Waking, De Quincey saw a shadow approaching him. The shadow became a carriage speeding around a curve, a man driving, a woman listening to something he was telling her. De Quincey tried to waken the mail coachâ€™s driver, without success. The carriage sped closer. De Quincey struggled to take the reins from the driver, again without success. The carriage raced nearer. The massive size of the coach left no doubt that a collision would destroy the carriage and its occupants. At the last moment, De Quincey roused the driver, who gasped at the danger and turned the coach enough that it only grazed the carriage and yet caused sufficient damage that the woman, aware of how close she came to dying, opened her mouth in a silent scream.
That resembles a scene from a thriller, but in actuality itâ€™s part of an essay about the English mail-coach system, which (I found out later when I acquired a full text) expands into a discussion about the subconscious and the nature of dreams.
I was hooked. I bought a copy of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Reading that 1821 memoir, I felt that the little gentleman was speaking directly to me as he recalled the death of his father and the abuse he suffered because of his indifferent mother and his four guardians. His escape from school, his winter on the cruel streets of London, his relationship with his beloved Ann, their tragic parting, his first experience with laudanum. . . De Quinceyâ€™s description of these events gripped me.
I learned that he created a further sensation with his essay â€œOn Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,â€ the third instalment of which was the most blood-soaked true-crime narrative written until that time, describing at length the notorious Ratcliffe Highway multiple murders that terrorized London and all of England years earlier, in 1811. Itâ€™s as if he was actually there, I thought. And thatâ€™s when the idea for Murder as a Fine Art came to me. The third instalment of that essay was published in 1854. De Quincey was living in Edinburgh at the time. But what if someone lured him to London, promising news about Ann? What if that person used the third instalment of the â€œMurderâ€ essay as an instruction manual, replicating the original Ratcliffe Highway killings? What if De Quincey became the suspect? What if . . . ?