6th - 22nd October 2017

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: David Morrell at John Rylands Library

A drawing of writer Thomas de QuinceyProject Gutenberg

  • A drawing of writer Thomas de Quincey

Tonight’s subjects: murder and drug addiction. We’re in the historic reading room of The John Rylands Library, where David Morrell, one of the most successful action/thriller writers of the last forty years and the man who gave us Rambo, is here to tell us about his latest book ‘Murder as a Fine Art.’ And he starts off by teaching us a fundamental of writing: always be looking for the connections between things.

Morrell says the idea for the book, a blend of fact and fiction featuring 19th century writer Thomas De Quincey, was sparked by a John Amiel film about Charles Darwin, ‘Creation’. During this time he was writing On the Origin of the Species, Darwin lost a daughter; the tragedy led to his breakdown (little was known of the link between ill health and difficult emotions at the time). As Morrell explains, a character in the film remarks: “You know Charles, there are people like De Quincey who believe that we can be influenced by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.”

Morrell wanted to explore this idea further. He read Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which chronicles De Quincey’s laudanum addiction. He also read the De Quincey essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, which has as its subject the first publicised mass murders in the East End, the 1811 Ratcliff Highway killings. Prime suspect John Williams was never convicted, but was presumed guilty after he committed suicide while awaiting trial in his cell. Morrell had an idea: what if the murders started up again after Williams’ death – and what if the finger of suspicion was pointing at De Quincey, a drug addict who saw the killings as fine art?

We’re all listening, but the attention shifts up a gear when the author produces a laudanum bottle. In the 1850s laudanum would have been as commonplace as aspirin; it was prescribed for everything from gout to cancer to colic in babies. Morrell reads out the dosage on the side of the bottle: 3 months old – 3 drops, 1 year old – 6 drops, adult – 20 drops.

De Quincey first took laudanum to cure routine pains and was rapt by its psychological effects. Later, during emotional difficulties, he became addicted. Morrell explains that De Quincey, at the peak of his addiction, suffered from epic nightmares and formulated theories of hidden chambers within the mind, an idea possibly discovered while translating Immanuel Kant, who asked “does reality exist objectively, or is it a projection of our thoughts?”

The De Quincey traits, the preconceptions of those investigating the murders, and many of the preceding philosophical ideas are weaved into the author’s narrative, creating a potent and compelling story that Morrell is set to continue. The author is currently writing a sequel to Murder as a Fine Art.

About the writer: L.J.Spillane waffles on here and at @LJSpillane. Curb your despair, she’s learning the value of good editing.