Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART - Part 1 - What is it?

Attacking Murder as a Fine Art 1 - What is it?

The Marble Arch was not there when De Quincey, a homeless teenager, begged on Oxford Street.

Ask seven readers and you get seven different answers. How would you describe David Morrell's latest, Murder as a Fine Art (MaaFA)? A nineteenth century Gothic novel. Detective story. Action adventure suspense thriller. Horror story. Historical fiction. A literary novel. A novel of ideas. So really, what is it? Would I like it? Or is it some confused offering, misbegotten? Where or how would a reader begin to attack such a multi-headed monster? Which heads pop up first?

(1) Whack at the head of "my nineteenth century novel," the out-of-fashion stylistic choices, the third person omniscient narrator, multiple points of view within long chapters. Keep the chapter titles. They often seem like clues. And the experiment with the first person diary excerpts from the female perspective of the daughter, Emily. It is good to have a female character who is not a victim, and she does perform a necessary function, feeding us the information we need about her father,Thomas De Quincey, helping us follow the twisted threads of plot. Keep too nineteenth century London, beginning in 1854, flashing back to the original 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders which function as a prompt for both De Quincey and the murderer. There. I've already spoiled it for you. Thomas De Quincey had previously lived in London before 1810, and had subsequently in 1827 published an essay about the 1811 murders, an essay which he revisited in 1839, and re-published a third version of it as part of his collected works in 1854. His seemingly obsessive interest in the crimes, haunted as he was by the spectre of murder, created a certain amount of celebrity for himself. People knew his name and his writings, which were published serially in magazines, and the public lined up to get his autograph. His knowledge of the 1811 murders makes him an early easy target as a suspect when similar crimes begin to happen upon his return to London to promote his collected works. Who could be "the artist of death" more easily than the man who invented the term? De Quincey becomes a bone to throw to the dogs of the mob in an attempt to quiet a threatened riot. So this reincarnation of a nineteenth century character in a nineteenth century setting is one of Morrell's gifts to his readers who, he says elsewhere, he likes to take to places we've never been before.

(2) Let's take a whack at Murder as a Fine Art's second head, the detective novel. Prompted by the original murders, and by De Quincey's writings, another murderer demonstrates his skill and more people die. With a crime scene eerily reminiscent of that of1811, the novel opens with "the artist of death" murdering a shopkeeper, Jonathan, his wife, servant, and two children. Chapter Two "The Man Who Concealed His Red Hair" introduces the police when Detective Ryan and Constable Becker arrive at the first new crime scene. Here we get the state-of-the-art police procedures for 1854--close observation, preservation of the scene, plaster cast of footprints, careful search of surrounding areas for possible weapons and other clues, analysis of scene, of the blood spatter, the footprints, crowd control, arrest protocol, interviewing suspects, the good-cop/bad-cop shtick, newspaper sketch artists, the pressure of public opinion, protective custody. Although the title suggests a disguise, the detective's red hair represents his Irish roots and the disguise both helps him do his job in plain clothes and reminds us of the wide-spread prejudice against Irish immigrants in London.

Of course, it is not the detective or his aspiring sidekick who are the heroes here. The real "detective," the man with the knowledge of both the crimes and of his own writings about them, is Thomas De Quincey himself. He recognizes both the "copycat" nature of the new murders and the deliberate allusion to his own writings, in the blood-spattered "artist's smock" left at the scene by the murderer as a sort of artist's calling card. A taunt, a tease, a message not recognized by the police but received by De Quincey who applies both his logical deductive reasoning and his intuitive understanding of criminal psychology to provide what is in effect a "profile" of the man they are searching for. At each recurring crime scene, more of the profile is revealed. True to form, as detective stories are usually novels of character, the laudanum-addicted De Quincey is the wounded hero. Here, although he is less supercilious than Sherlock, less lovable than Rebus, De Quincey's combination of knowledge and personality is intriguing. To watch the university-educated intellectual reader and writer school the "plods" and their superiors is another of the pleasures of this Morrell story.

(3) So, let's turn to another head. Whack the Gothic action thriller. Although detective stories are not always action-packed, Murder as a Fine Art is a page-turner with its urgency of suspense, its sense of impending doom, not only of "who done it?" but also of "who will be next?" It is Gothic in the sense that so much of the action occurring in the dark and in backstreets, allies, tunnels, or inside prison cells makes Old London seem threatening, claustrophobic, dungeon-like. And there are ghosts, spectres of lost love haunting the streets. Murder as a Fine Art also has all the requisite action tropes--the eruptions and explosions so beloved of adolescent males, the gunpowder and fireworks, executions, chases, booby traps, dirty tricks, disguises, and an armoury of weapons--truncheons, revolvers, crossbows, knives, mallets, chisels, razors, garottes, poison, fire--all the toys and tools for the game of death. Yet isn't that another of David Morrell's secrets? It's always about death, and the fear of death, and the thrill is about what strategies, which attacks, will succeed. It's always about who will live and who will die. This is the pull of the dark plot which makes us speed read through to find out what will happen.

(4) All right, so the fear of death makes us care about what will happen. But could we not do without the horror? Whack again at that head, the blood galore, splatters, splashes, pools of gore, bones, skeletons, bodies, the slaughter of innocents, fear and terror. And the psychological tormenting of a suspect who becomes a victim both of the killer and of "the system." For Morrell does include two kinds of horror. The horror of the physical intrusion into the physical body, the letting of the insides out. And also, the horror of the psychological intrusion. The terror created in the public fearing the physical, and the terror created in the individual target, the writer, who has his pain and grief manipulated and used to taunt and torture him as part of a planned slow twisting death. So we cannot really eliminate the horror as horror, fear, terror are the motives, for the criminal, and, we suspect, for the novelist.

Part 1 of 3

© J.M. Bridgeman

Links are welcome but please do not re-print without permission.

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART - Part 2 -

Attacking Murder as a Fine Art 2 - As Historical Fiction With Literary Pretensions?

The Wordsworth Family Graves in Grasmere. An alibi.

(5) Murder as a Fine Art is a novel in the style of the nineteenth century. And it is also an "historical novel," set in a specific historical time and place which is recreated for the reader. Could we not whack some of this history on the head? The tasty historical tidbits about architecture and construction, art, music and opera, medicine (chloroform, cholera, Florence Nightingale), politics (Lord Palmerston,1848, the Year of Revolutions, the Charge of the Light Brigade), economics (the British East India Company and the trade in tea and opium). Surely Morrell is not hinting at some connection between imperialism and wily politicians orchestrating empire in the service of evil capitalism? The scenes in Coldbath Fields Prison introduce historical details of prison design and Jeremy Bentham's ideas about prison reform. Emily's bloomers comment upon fashion and fashion victims. Do we really need to know about all the parks, squares, streets, neighbourhoods, from the Marble Arch to Piccadilly, the air balloon rides in Vauxhall Gardens? It's easy to get lost in this green maze. [p.191] It may be interesting to know that Madame Tussaud had set up her museum on Baker Street. With a Chamber of Horrors. Really? The public paid to see effigies of murderers and their victims? Why? Why did they? Why do they? How are the five dozen daily newspapers significant? Or railway time and the telegraph? Or the ever-prevalent poverty, the homelessness, troubled youth, the thousands of beggars? Well, yes, true. De Quincey had lived among them as a homeless youth himself. His knowledge of their culture helps him set traps for the murderer and makes it easy for Morrell to include several marginalized and invisible genders and underclasses as characters, as elements of plot, making them visible and relevant. All right. But maybe not all readers find history as interesting,

(6) Well, what about Murder as a Fine Art's literary pretensions. "De Quincey is a literary luminary battling a brilliant murderer." Could we not give this literary head a whack? De Quincey as a literary luminary has celebrity, and the misreading of his works by people with their own agenda puts him at risk of retaliation. Surely nobody would consider assassinating a writer? Trotsky was a politician. John Lennon was a musician. Salman Rushdie is still among us. Rohinton Mistry. Lawrence Hill. Seems a bit far-fetched, does it not? De Quincey is not an actor, or a president. Surely people are not targetted for their ideas, or for how well or how poorly they communicate them? Just because De Quincey was literary, a professional writer, is no guarantee of a literary novel.

What does it mean anyway? Literary? Including allusions to other stories, works of art, mythologies. Well, I guess he does this. There is a reference to the many-armed Kali, Hindu goddess of death. [p.166] There are references to his friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge. To wailing banshees. Literary implies using language in more than simply utilitarian ways. I enjoyed hearing of all the lost words from Victorian times: dollywop, linen lifter, dustman, mudlark, rookery, clacker, clostermonger. Of the origin of "screws," and of Piccadilly and other place names. Of the fatal link between hashish and assassin. Literary implies also a use of imagery and symbolism, not just for decorative purposes but to further plot, character, theme. Well, from the sixteen chapter titles we get: artist, death, monster, sublimity, garden of pleasure, shadows, interpreter, education, inquisition, woman of sorrows, effigy, sigh from the depths. Several are lifted directly, in other words, allude to De Quincey publications. Set together like this we see a confluence of spirituality/religion, psychology, and crime. Subjects which are supported by recurring motifs. Blood. Knocking on the doors of crime scenes. And the theatrical motif, the recurring use of deception and disguise, with its connection to identity. Who are you really? Who is as they seem? The murderer uses makeup. The streetwalkers rehearse to accost De Quincey in the park, like choruses from Greek drama. Thugs infiltrate the opium caravans. Murderers infiltrate . . . a wounded man bellows, roars [p. 255], like a dying bull. Diction and allusion. Aspiring to something beyond the page.

Part 2 of 3

© J.M. Bridgeman

Links are welcome but please do not re-print without permission.

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART - Part 3 - A Novel of Ideas

Attacking MURDER as a FINE ART - Part 3 - A Novel of  Ideas

Imagine it is dark, nighttime, in a close such as this one in Edinburgh where De Quincey lived and is buried. Imagine access to a nether world, to an underground culture of beggars and street people.

(7) And whack again. There's one last head. Murder as a Fine Art is a novel of ideas. For beneath all the blood and gore, beneath the horror, Morrell's London of 1854 is a labyrinth and the quest for "the artist of death" is a hunt for a minotaur, that misbegotten creature born of human failures, demanding a tribute of blood sacrifice. Evil with a beating heart. And the green maze within London's two thousand miles of dark streets constitute one big labyrinth. This is a story about the reality of evil in the world, and our attempts to contain it. About the relationship between evil and crime. Maybe even about the role of the artist in confronting the evils of the world, the evil within us born as we are in sin, the evil which we delude ourselves into believing that it does not exist.

A seven-headed monster. But is it truly misbegotten, or are its multi-facets deliberate? The way some people see a minotaur as a hybrid born of the marriage of the divine and the human? The idea of "hybrid" is true to the way Morrell, no matter what his subject, always inserts both action and ideas, or, in literary terms, text and subtext. After all, wasn't that what was most appealing about First Blood? There were reasons why Rambo did what he did. His monstrous deeds were in a sense a product of his nation's sins. Of his nation's political choices underlying its international "police" action. Action and reaction. Good cop, bad cop. You could take it even further. If the minotaur has been killed, is it the death of the divine, the death of mystery? In which case, the space has been created for the mystery writer, the novelists and screenwriters, to fulfill that need we have for fear and terror. For awe.

I "follow" David Morrell and have read others though not nearly all of his 40+ published works. It all started when I moved here to Hope, BC, where Morrell's First Blood was filmed. When the release of MaaFA coincided with my planned trip to England, I decided to make the novel my first ever purchased new release on my new tablet. Done. I read it beginning and ending in London, failing to notice, that first time through, the references to Grasmere and Edinburgh where I also visited.

Then the novel sent me to Gutenberg. I needed to know more about Thomas De Quincey, one of the main characters in the story. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts. The English Mail-Coach. On the Knocking at the Gate In Macbeth. Suspiriade Profundis (Sigh from the Depths). Addicted to laudanum, was De Quincey really advocating the use of the drug? Not the way I read It. But definitely an interesting account of addiction, of self-medicating, of mood-elevating, of increasing tolerance, of attempting to reduce usage, to maintain, and to function, to work, to support a family of nine, while still using. On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts seems first to be an exercise in humour, satire, irony, but moves into an analysis which points out that there are different kinds of murder, and that a mass murder of innocents executed after careful planning and preparation seemingly has something other than death as its goal. Why am I thinking of the Oklahoma City bombing? Its message is directed at the living, and the "creator" of the scene is most likely attempting to manipulate something. Opinion, or feelings of terror in those readers and viewers whose interest has been piqued by his actions. Is there a suggestion that such murders did not happen before mass media existed to "spread the fear"? Is not this the point of the details about the five dozen newspapers in London in 1811, and later, the mail-coach delivering London news to Manchester that same day, and, in 1854, the telegraph, spreading fear and terror instantaneously? Media prepare the canvases for the murderer artists, their greatest performances pieces.

The mail-coach essay begins as an exercise in style. De Quincey attempts to write about motion, speed, in an onomatopoetic way, taking the readers breath away, before he makes the leap from motion, speed, to sudden death, near death, and fear of death, to nightmares and how they link both to memory, remembered acts, and to remembered emotion. How the brain collates the fear and relief after a near-miss highway accident with the feelings aroused by the news of the victory at Waterloo. In the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, the murderers who have abandoned that which makes us human, "the divine nature of love and mercy," are reminded that the "reaction" has commenced, "the pulses of life are beginning to beat again." Stylistically, Shakespeare intuited, De Quincey says, that when we hear of murder, we automatically identify with the victim and think of self-preservation, but the dramatist requires that we think of the murderers. The knocking forces us to do that. We hear what they hear. At the same time, the knocking reminds the murderers that they are surrounded by convention and goodness. By representatives of authority holding back the threatening masses. In Suspiriade Profundis De Quincey explores how suffering develops the intellect and the spirit. "Now there is in the dark places of the human spirit--in grief, in fear, in vindictive wrath--a power of self-projection not unlike this [shadow play]." And, as in all good crime drama when order is restored, he believes "the energies of destruction must be equal to those of creation." That balance will return.

Many ideas explored in Murder as a Fine Art are ideas explored in De Quincey's published writing. Morrell has spoken [Afterword] of how a reference to De Quincey in a film about Charles Darwin's psychosomatic illnesses prompted the what-ifs which first gave him his plot. "[T]hat we're influenced by thoughts and emotions we don't know we have." On the surface, it is the murderer who seems not to comprehend the real motivations behind his action, who rationalizes, blames others, sets victims up. De Quincey confronts the delusions with a ghost from the past, and with hard physical evidence, puncturing the barrier between the carefully "separated chambers" of the criminal mind. He could see that the murderer embodied “a separate alien nature which contradicts his own.” [p.258] Emily also shares another De Quinceyism. "Father believes that nothing is ever forgotten." In other words, that we may bury things but they are never dead and gone. Some murderers (and dare we say, some opium-eaters, some policemen, some politicians) are responding to remembered or not remembered childhood experiences, family secrets, bullying or abuse. Some are reacting to repression and the need for outlets for too controlled emotions. De Quincey has intuited the idea of the subconscious, of the shadow, and also the idea that some dreams constitute an effort by the subconscious to communicate with the conscious self. Often with the use of symbols and images, of parallel feelings rather than exact duplication. Delusion, rationalization, obsession, compulsion, frenzy, outward and visible signs, lead him directly to explorations of the inward origins of criminal behaviour. Is it genetic, blood memory, misplaced identification, self-delusion that the "necessary casualties," [p.243] collateral damage, contributes to the greater good? Is it a copy-cat and if so, what is it that is being copied? Is it fratricide? Patricide? Or are lower forms of motivation involved, sexual deviance, personal revenge or retribution or some form of warped redemption? A simple enough point but one not always acknowledged by civilians. That there are different kinds of murder, and different kinds of murderers. Well, as De Quincey too often does, remembering that he was likely paid by the word, the list of ideas could go on and on. I guess the important point is, dear reader, are you interested in ideas or are you not?

Personally, I could dispense with nineteenth century novels, or action suspense thrillers, or blood and horror. With the Gothic, even if its "melodramatic devices are symbolic manifestations of the character's own unconscious fears or spiritual confusion." [Beckson & Ganz] But I do like detectives and detective stories, psychology, criminology, history, literary writing, and I really like novels that make me think. Whatever you like, with the possible exception of romance (of which there is not more than a hint and a wink), there's something to get your jaws into here, in David Morrell's Murder as a Fine Art.

Part 3 of 3

© J.M. Bridgeman

Links are welcome but please do not re-print without permission.


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