19th-century writer and daughter hunt for serial killer

Michaeline Chance-Reay

By A Contributor

Understanding that reading is vicarious experience, Morrell gives you the opportunity to travel back to 1854 London on the printed page, and from the nice, clean, sunny environment of 2013 Manhattan.

While educational pioneers like the Frances and Joseph Denison were traveling west to begin Bluemont College (which eventually became Kansas State University), Scotland Yard was being founded in England. Named for the street on which it was built, the Yard, along with the newly developing London police department, whose officers were called “Bobbies” or “Peelers” after founder, Sir Robert Peel, were attempting to curb crime in what was then the largest city in Europe.

As many cities of the era, its streets were filled with vicious crime, pollution, and excrement.  “Street musicians, ragmen, umbrella menders, match sellers, organ grinders,” were referred to as a separate race by journalists of the day.

Some pulled bones from rotting bodies for fertilizer, dog poop was sold to tanners who used it to make leather, and there was a battalion of men who swept horse droppings in to the sewers leading to the Thames so walkers would not ruin their shoes. Grinding poverty and homelessness were commonplace for adults and children alike.

Murder was not often detected nor investigated unless the victim was deemed important in society and murder as an art would be considered bizarre even by Victorian standards.

Therefore when an actual essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincy was published, it was scandalous.

Thomas De Quincy, writing in a satirical vein similar to Jonathan Swift who in “A Modest Proposal” (1729) suggested that if the poor Irish would sell their children as food to the rich it would alleviate their economic woes, and like Swift he was condemned as a monster. Earlier De Quincy wrote “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” as a warning regarding the deleterious effects of its addiction including its transformative properties.  Hence he was known thereafter as “the opium eater.”

Also like Swift, DeQuincy was a critic of government policies. In this case it was Britain’s / or the British East India

Company’s selling opium to China.  Even at home in England, laudanum could be purchased at the local pharmacy without a prescription and was used on a regular basis for a variety of ills—- even by mothers to quiet colicky babies.

When he wrote of the seemingly artistic qualities of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders which terrorized London more than those of Jack the Ripper, he was again condemned as a madman.

In essence he was considering the planning and execution of what today could be identified as having been committed by a serial killer or a psychopath. He even invented the term “sub-conscious” long before Freud was born, understanding that the mind has many areas or compartments.

De Quincy, seemingly a good fellow with a whimsical nature, was a hopeless opium addict. Possibly hoping for some type of redemption, he and his precocious daughter, Emily, who wears bloomers and is shockingly flexible and direct, help a Scotland Yard detective hunt for a copycat killer who has replicated two authentic 40-year-old massacres.

Told in Dickensian style, the narrative is complex, dripping with blood and detail and filled with colorful, period dialogue as gruesome as the setting and plot deserve.  Characters are three-dimensional. To achieve this level of authenticity, Thomas Morrell read all of De Quincy’s writings, two of his biographies, and traveled not only to England, but examined its past through maps, histories and other numerous first hand sources. He was fascinated by the effects De Quincy’s work had on the sensational novel and the mystery novel, and writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Willkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Contemporary female mystery novelists such as Anne Perry provide similar fare and since she has written two series, one can languish in Victorian London for lengthy intervals.

Morrell himself has eclectic interests. His debut novel, First Blood, was turned into the Rambo films starring Sylvester Stallone.  He went on to write twenty-five additional novels, short fiction, non-fiction, and even a piece of illustrated fiction, Captain America: The Chosen. His work has been translated into 26 languages and he has received the accolades of his peers. Nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Mc Cavity, he was the recipient of the prestigious Thriller Master Award. His work is also available in audio and e-book editions. 

Michaeline Chance-Reay is a Kansas State University emeritus faculty member in Women Studies and Curriculum & Instruction.

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