The history is fascinating in this crime novel by popular "thriller" author David Morrell ("Inspector of the Dead," 2015). The book not so much.
As those of us who watched the recent Masterpiece TV dramatization of the early years of Queen Victoria's reign know, the queen was the target of an apparent assassination attempt while attempting the then-daring gesture of riding her carriage on a public way. A young man approaches and fires a pistol at Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. No one is hurt. No 'ball' (bullet) is ever found, and so the apparent assassin cannot be convicted of attempted murder, but is instead locked away in an insane asylum.
According to Morrell's book, some witnesses claim that a boy ran up to the carriage attempting to attract the queen's attention just before the assailant fired. A theory emerges: the boy might have been part of the plot, serving to distract attention from the would-be assassin.
This story -- shades of the "second assassin" motif in the JFK assassination conspiracy theories -- is the linchpin of Morrell's plot. And this is a book that is all about plot.
Here's what I like about "Inspector of the Dead." The author, by his own account, has disappeared "down a rabbit hole" in his fascination with Victorian England -- both the big historical figures, Victoria, politicians, the writer Thomas De Quincey; and the gritty details of slum life and forgotten commercial mores such as the 'doctoring' of beer and gin by pub landlords to cheat customers.
Morrell's resurrection of De Quincey is a potentially brilliant move. The author made him a central character in the author's previous Victorian crime novel, "Murder As a Fine Art," based on the "Ratcliffe Murders," an early attempt at the crime pattern now universalized as "the serial killer." To quote from description of this book on Morrell's website: "The Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 were the most notorious mass killings in their day. Never fully explained, they brought London and all of England to the verge of panic."
Morrell's appropriation of this story places De Quincey and his daughter Emily (who also appears in "Inspector"), in the role of pursuing a Ratcliffe copycat killer who is somehow threatening all of London. Like the superhero novels of comics and cinema, super-detective stories require huge public crises.
De Quincey owes his starring role in "Murder" to his "scandalous" Victorian essay based on the Ratcliffe killings titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” The literary elite loved this wholly amoral ground-breaking take on human behavior. Among those cited its influence are Victorian novelist G.K. Chesterton and 20th century heavyweights Wyndam Lewis and George Orwell. We are also told that De Quincey's intellectual sleuthing influenced Poe (inventor of the detective story), who in turn influenced Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes).
De Quincy's most famous work was the autobiographical 'novel' (to use the closest term), "Confessions of an Opium-Eater." Generations ahead of his time then, his influence is still under-appreciated today. His book was the first account of the now all too familiar state of drug dependency. In Victorian times doctors prescribed and petty much everybody self-medicated by the use of laudanum, a liquid preparation of opium and a close cousin of morphine and heroin. If you've had surgery (as I have) you know that morphine, still medicine's most widely relied on pain reliever, can give you wicked dreams and what might be described as 'paranoid-delusional states.' De Quincey literally wrote the book on that state of mind as a way of life.
Just to round out the picture De Quincey also invented the term "subconscious," and the concept, in his essay "On the Knocking on the Gate in MacBeth."
Now given all this deep, fascinating background material to work with, what use does author Morrell make of Thomas De Quincey?
He's a slightly swifter Sherlock than other investigators on this case. Sorry, that's it.
The book is skin-deep. It's a costume-mystery. Those of us who read it, with at least some enjoyment, are doing so because we like the props.
This is probably just another way of saying that "Inspector of the Dead" is commercial fiction. Since I'm drawn to the history, but left lukewarm at best by its 'action-thriller' plot, it's no surprise that the most satisfying part of the book for me was the author's "Afterword," in which he offers such intriguing nuggets as the development of the 'thriller' novel. A product of 19th England, its plots were typically set among the horrors and disasters of other times and other places. What became known as "the sensation novel" emerged in the mid-19th century to imagine terrors taking place in contemporary settings, creating the thrill like that of today's disaster movies or terrorist conspiracy tales. Another genre, called "Newgate novels" (after the infamous prison), told stories of criminal types. Dickens's "Oliver Twist" emerges from this milieu.
Since the fiction of "Inspector of the Dead" develops from a theory about the first assassination attempt on Victoria, we also learn from this book that altogether there were seven attempts on her life. The common theme is that they were attempts to gain attention by people whose lives were a misery. That misery has social and economic foundations. Foundations that reach to Lord Who-ha and whoever is residing in Buckingham Palace. But no one was allowed to question the social order in 19th century England. And this novel's character don't either.
Morrell's invented story to explain why a poor Irish immigrant boy sought to attract the queen's attention points very strongly to the social, economic and political abuses suffered by the poor. He's trying to save his family from the callous injustice of the legal system. But none of this novel's characters take time from their breathless pursuit of the plot's 'serial' killer to reflect on, or even register, the deeper issue.
Neither do the promoters of popular franchises of commercial fiction. The shamelessly pandering blurb on the back cover of "The Inspector of the Dead" claims the book "delves into the heart of evil." It most certainly doesn't. A false accusation of criminality, unexamined by anyone in authority (so Morrell's story tells us), leads directly to the destruction of the four members of our killer's birth family. Now multiply this case by thousands.
In the light of this revelation, readers might wish to consider where the true 'heart of evil' resides. But "Inspector" doesn't tempt its readers to these reflections. It wants to get back to the chase.
Still, this book makes me want to find the author's 'rabbit hole' and burrow down there for a while myself. For that I can thank David Morrell.