Murder as a Fine Art - By David Morrell

AT FIRST GLANCE, it seems odd that mid-Victorian England, known for its tightly controlled emotions, became obsessed with a new type of fiction called the novel of sensation. When Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White in 1860, he set off what Victorian critics called a Sensation Mania that satisfied the “cravings of a diseased appetite,” “a virus… spreading in all directions.” This shocking new fiction had its roots in Gothic novels of the previous century, with the difference that sensation novelists set their stories not in ancient, brooding castles but instead in the very real homes and neighborhoods of Victorian England. Darkness didn’t come from the supernatural. Rather, it festered in the hearts of supposedly respectable public figures whose private lives hid dismaying secrets. Insanity, incest, rape, blackmail, infanticide, arson, drug abuse, poison, sadomasochism, and necrophilia—these were some of what sensation novelists insisted were concealed behind the Victorian veneer of decorum and reserve.

Upon closer inspection, the mid-Victorian mania for sensation makes sense as a reaction to the rigidly controlled emotions of that era. It’s difficult to exaggerate the degree to which middle- and upper-class Victorians separated their personal and public lives, concealing their true feelings from outsiders. The common practice of always keeping draperies closed perfectly represents the Victorian attitude that one’s home and private life were sacred domains to be looked out from but not seen into. Secrets not only abounded in each household but also were taken for granted and respected as being no one else’s business.

Thomas De Quincey, a controversial Victorian author whose theories about the subconscious anticipated those of Freud by seventy years, had this to say about repression and secrets: “There is no such thing as forgetting. The inscriptions on the mind remain forever, to be revealed when the night returns.” De Quincey became famous when he did the unthinkable, exposing his private life in a notorious best seller, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which William S. Burroughs later described as “the first, and still the best, book about drug addiction.”

De Quincey’s lurid writing, especially “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” qualifies him as an originator of the novel of sensation. That disturbing essay dramatizes the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings that terrorized both London and all of England in 1811. It’s tempting to compare the effect of those killings to the fear that engulfed London’s East End during Jack the Ripper’s blood spree at the opposite end of the century, in 1888. But in fact the panic that resulted from the Ratcliffe Highway killings was far worse and more widespread because those multiple murders were the first of their kind to become common knowledge throughout England, thanks to the growing importance of newspapers (fifty-two in London alone in 1811) and a recently perfected system of mail coaches that crossed the country at a relentless ten-mile-an-hour pace.

Moreover, Jack the Ripper’s victims were all prostitutes whereas the Ratcliffe Highway victims were business owners and their families. Streetwalkers feared Jack the Ripper while literally everyone had reason to fear the Ratcliffe Highway killer. What happened to his victims is mirrored in this novel’s first chapter, which some might find shocking but which is based on the historical record.

It is long since we read Thomas De Quincey, but his bloody horrors are still fresh and, to this day, terrible in their power. For long after we read him, every night brought a renewal of the most real shuddering, the palsying dread, and the nightmares with which our first reading of him cursed us.

British Quarterly Review, 1863


The Artist of Death

Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, grouping, light and shade, poetry, and sentiment are indispensable to the ideal murder. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michelangelo in painting, a great murderer carries his art to a colossal sublimity.

Thomas De Quincey

“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”

London, 1854

TITIAN, RUBENS, AND VAN DYKE, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress. Prior to immortalizing their visions on canvas, they bathed, symbolically cleansing their minds of any distractions. They put on their finest clothes, their best wigs, and in one case even a diamond-hilted sword.

The artist of death had similarly prepared himself. Dressed in evening clothes, he sat for two hours staring at a wall, focusing his sensations. When darkness cast shadows through a curtained window, he lit an oil lamp and put the equivalent