If you look below the surface of an ancient city, you can travel through time and find its deeper layers. In this episode, David Morrell talks about how he researched Victorian London for his historical mysteries about Thomas De Quincey, and how he brought to light the “chasms and sunless abysses” of the first British serial killer.
David Morrell is the multi-award-winning and many times bestselling author of over 30 books, as well as short stories, essays, comics, and collaborations that have sold millions of copies and are available in many different languages. He has a Ph.D. in American literature and was a professor of literature at the University of Iowa. His novel First Blood became the Rambo franchise, but today we’re talking about the Thomas De Quincey historical mysteries set in Victorian London. The first in the series is Murder as a Fine Art.
- Time travel through book research as a way of dealing with grief
- Thomas De Quincy, addiction and the unconscious
- How De Quincy invented the true crime genre
- Finding inspiration in mid-Victorian London
- Famous locations that inspire David’s work
You can find David Morrell at DavidMorrell.net
Header photo: St Pancras Station, finished in 1868 and abandoned by the 1960s. After much lobbying, it was restored to its glorious Victorian self and re-opened in 2007. It is one of my favorite stations in London!
Transcript of the interview
Jo: David Morrell is the multi-award-winning and many times bestselling author of over 30 books, as well as short stories, essays, comics, and collaborations that have sold millions of copies and are available in many different languages. He has a Ph.D. in American literature and was a professor of literature at the University of Iowa. His novel First Blood became the Rambo franchise, but today we’re talking about the Thomas De Quincey historical mysteries set in Victorian London. The first in the series is Murder as a Fine Art.
David: It’s nice to chat with you. We’ve known each other quite a few years now, and it’s always fun despite the distance. It’s fun to have the opportunity to get together and chat.
What first drew you to historical London?
Because you don’t live anywhere near here. What was the idea behind the De Quincey books?
David: If people are curious, I live in the United States in a state called New Mexico. And since we’re talking about travel you’d be surprised how many people in the United States do not know that New Mexico is a state in the United States. I remember sending away to The Museum of Modern Art in New York for something, I think it was a Christmas card. And they said, ‘Well, we don’t ship to a foreign country.’ And we said, ‘Well, what you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, New Mexico is a foreign country.’ ‘Well, no, it is not a foreign country and this is our zip code for mailing.’ And they had to go to a supervisor who finally said, ‘You know what? I think New Mexico is in the Union.’
Jo: That’s brilliant!
David: So, there you are. And New Mexico gets featured a lot in movies and westerns particularly. A classic movie like Silverado was filmed near here, for example.
I’ve always been interested in the Victorians and I’m from Canada, so I share an interest in the UK and because we’re all in the Commonwealth. And the short version is that my granddaughter Natalie died in 2009 from a rare bone cancer. And our son had died years earlier from the same rare bone cancer and my wife and I, and of course, our daughter, whose child it was, we were devastated.
I happened to see a film called Creation about Charles Darwin’s breakdown when he was writing On the Origin of Species. And the breakdown was because his favorite daughter had died. In the midst of the movie, somebody shows up to explain his breakdown by saying, ‘You know, Charles, there are people like Thomas De Quincey who maintain that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.’
This sounded so much like Freud that I wondered if the movie was making it up because it was set in the 1850s, and Freud’s at the turn of the century. It turned out that De Quincey did anticipate Freud. In fact, he invented the word subconscious. And so, as an escape really from grief, I time-traveled through my research. Do you know a book called Time and Again by Jack Finney?
Jo: Hmm, yes.
David: There’s that eerie feeling when you read it that you are in, in that case, New York City, I believe it’s in the 1890s. And I felt reading that book I was time traveling, and I thought maybe I could convince myself I was time traveling.
So, I decided to go into the world of Thomas De Quincey. And that meant particularly the 1850s. And now De Quincey by then was living in Edinburgh, in Scotland. But so I did a little violation of history. The only one, apart from the plot, that’s a violation of history and set him in England, in London in 1854, and then began years of research into De Quincey and his works and the mid-Victorian era.
Jo: Tell us about Thomas De Quincy and what was so fascinating to you about him as a character.
David: Oh, absolutely. And just for identification, the books we’re talking about are Murder as a Fine Art, Inspector of the Dead, and Ruler of the Night, and De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, are the main characters of the three of them.
De Quincey is most famous for having written a book called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. And that was all way back in 1821. Laudanum was the only effective painkiller in the UK at that time. It’s a mixture of alcohol and opium and it was as common in medicine cabinets of the day as aspirin is common in our medicine cabinets now. And despite having opium in it, it was absolutely legal.
It was universally available. You could buy it from the paperboy, from the kid on the corner selling papers, you could buy it in a grocery store. They had a different term for it then. You could buy it sometimes from your landlord, your tailor. It was everywhere. And it was cheap.
Now, everybody knew that there was a tendency to want more of it. We had a nation that was addicted to a narcotic, but they had no notion of addiction, that was a later concept. And they call it a habit. And, well, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you have the strength of character to defeat this habit you got yourself into?
When, in fact, it was affecting people’s bodies, their minds. De Quincey started taking it as a student at Oxford for a toothache, and he took it recreationally, as we say, that’s not a term he would have used, on the weekend for several years and claimed, he sounds like somebody in the ’60s, smoking dope and listening to music, he claimed that he could hear notes between notes at conferences or at concerts.
And he claimed that he could distinguish all the conversations at a marketplace and things like that. And then he was a friend of Wordsworth — In fact, he kind of stalked Wordsworth as a youngster — Wordsworth had a daughter named Catherine. And Catherine died very young at the age of three from, there’s still some question about what may have killed her, it may have been a congenital disease. De Quincey had adopted her because one of his sisters had died young. Again, talking about travel, one of my favorite places in England is Grasmere in the Lake District. Have you been there?
Jo: Yes. Absolutely.
David: You’re in Bath. I would assume it’s so close that you’ve gone there.
Jo: It’s about six hours drive. In America’s terms, that’s close!
David: That’s close here. It is a distance for you, but I love the Lake District and Grasmere. There’s a place there as you know, called Dove Cottage and Wordsworth had lived there for several years. And as a young man, as I said – we’re a field, but it does fit our topic of travel. He had gone there as a companion of Coleridge, he got the people he knew and met Wordsworth and became a family friend.
When Wordsworth moved out of Dove Cottage because his family was too big, De Quincey moved in. And so De Quincy in fact lived longer in Dove Cottage than Wordsworth had. I just love all this connection! And anyhow, so Catherine died and De Quincey took to clawing at her grave at night.
Jo: Oh goodness.
David: It’s a small community and the church is really beautiful. And anyhow, he would claw at her grave and he started taking more and more opium in the form of laudanum until finally he was, in our parlance, hooked. So, he began writing about opium in a way that nobody else ever had and opened up the whole topic of maybe this isn’t so good for us, let’s be careful.
But he couldn’t stop taking it. And he lived to be 74. And he was drinking, this is hard to believe, but a teaspoon full, normally you put it in water, 20 drops in water, a teaspoon full, if we sat down you and I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s try some of this,’ we’d be dead. It was not potent if you weren’t used to it. And De Quincey was drinking a pint of it a day.
Jo: Oh my goodness.
David: Astonishing. And as he thought about this and what it was doing to him, because we think of narcotics as being a soporific, but at the time, particularly in the University of Edinburgh, which was a very big medical establishment, there was a lot of talk about opium being an exciter for some people. And for De Quincey, it was an exciter. It didn’t put him to sleep. He stayed up for days.
It was in these frenzies during the day if you might have been, in our terms, manic depressive, well, he was manic a lot. And in his frenzies, he wrote and wrote and wrote, and then he’d have these nightmares when he did fall asleep and he tried to account for the nightmares. And that was when he came up with the idea of the subconscious.
You can tell, I just find this guy so fascinating. And here’s one of his quotes. This is a kind of crammed together of two statements. ‘The human mind is composed of chasms and sunless abysses, layer upon layer in which there are secret chambers where alien natures can hide undetected.’ And that’s Freud, but it’s way before Freud.
And he’s talking about schizophrenia in a way, he’s talking about multiple personalities, he’s talking about latent memories. One of his other quotes is,
‘There is no such thing as forgetting. Memories are like the stars, they disappear in the daytime, but they come out at night.’
Jo: Do you think that interest in the darker side was what drew him to the murders?
David: Yes. The murders occurred in 1811. So to bring people up to date, Murder as Fine Art is a novel about the first publicized mass murders in English history. And people when I say that, people always think I’m being Jack the Ripper, but that’s the late 1880s.
We’re talking about the Ratcliff Highway murders in London in 1811. And the Ratcliff Highway was near the docks in London. And the demarcation is the Tower of London. Anything East of the Tower of London was East London.
That was where the docks were, the East India Company. And Ratcliff Highway, which was just a lane, it had been a highway at one time, above the docks, it was shops and places where sailors and merchants for the docks went.
There had been on a Saturday night, midnight, in December, a hideous murder in a clothing store for lack of a better word in which the proprietor, his wife, his shop assistant, and an infant, and the infant is the key here, had been brutally murdered. And it was discovered because he had sent another assistant, a shop girl, out to pay a bill at midnight.
When she came back, the door was locked and she started hammering on the door and a neighbor next door said, ‘You’re waking me up. What’s the problem?’ And she said, ‘I can’t get in.’ And he said, ‘I’ll crawl over the back. I’ll go in my back here and I’ll crawl over the wall and I’ll go in through the back and find out what the heck’s going on.’
Well, he went in and there was blood everywhere. It was dripping from the rafters. The killer had used a ship carpenter’s mallet, which has a spike on one end and a hammer on the other. And the moment is that he had not only killed the infant, but the infant was in a wicker pram. And he had then smashed the pram with the hammer until the wicker was in small bits. And then he had, as it were, buried the youngster, the child, almost an infant, beneath it. I mean, this is horrific.
And De Quincey in 1811 was so struck by this because what had happened is even though it happened in London, and nobody had known about anything like this happening before, it could have happened, maybe, but nobody knew about it.
London had many, many newspapers and magazines at the time. And because of the macadamized road system, which had just been, well, the last 10 years, say, been implemented. And because of that, they had the English mail coach, which could travel at the relentless speed of 10 miles an hour. I love that. And it was a very reliable mail system.
You can see, I really immersed myself and this is all in the novel. And you could, if a mail coach left from Edinburgh and a mail coach left from London, bound for the opposite cities, they would always meet at the same ridge. It was that reliable.
They had what we call stagecoach stations. You see American movies where they have these stagecoach stations and they show up and they change the horses and maybe they use a privy and they eat something and off they go again. Well, England had these stations every 10 or 20 miles.
With that relentless speed, which for them, and all these newspapers and magazines setting off the next day after the murder, within three days everyone in England and Scotland and Wales, I’m assuming, knew about it. And it took just a little longer to get the word to Ireland and everything shut down. Nothing like this had ever happened.
In the United States in my lifetime, the closest this ever happened was Truman Capote, he wrote a novel called In Cold Blood about a farmer and his family who had been murdered senselessly in Kansas. And the idea that someone would just show up and kill you was so, especially in a rural community like that was shocking.
But in London, here we are in a populated area. And so, people were hiring bodyguards, they were putting on extra doors and shutters on their houses, all over England, the place shut down.
And then, 10 days later it happened again. And oh, boy, the hysteria is almost under indescribable. We read items from the period where they’re just baffled. It’s like sort of like the effect of the pandemic now. It hadn’t happened in anybody’s lifetime. They didn’t know what to do.
De Quincey saved every magazine and newspaper he could find. And he was a packrat and he’d leave them, he was always on the run from debtors, so, he kept leaving what we call suitcases and things filled with all these papers, wherever he was hiding, and then he’d run off and they didn’t know what to do. And often, the proprietors saved the materials.
In 1854, which is when Murder as a Fine Art is set, he was having a collection of his works coming out and they needed more material. And he said, ‘I’ll write about the 1811 murders.’ And he wrote an essay. He wrote so many famous essays, but this one was called ‘On Murder as Considered as One of the Fine Arts.’
In it, a men’s club that meets once a month to praise mass murderers addresses, I just love this, addresses the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811, in which the author of the essay, it’s like Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ or ‘A Modest Proposal,’ I guess, where the narrator just goes on and on about how the man who killed all those people was a genius on the bloody stage of life and things of that nature. And in that essay, there are three of them, he’d written two installments earlier, and this was the third one.
So, if you all get interested and you want to read this, which is historically important. The first two, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ and then there’s a part 2, 10 years later, these are more general about mass murderers, but the third installment, which was published in 1854, invented what we think of is the true crime genre in which he, for 50 blood-soaked pages, recreates the murders using crosscutting techniques between the murderer and the shop girl outside pounding on the door. And she hears heavy breathing on the other side. Oh, it’s just wonderful.
I had the idea that this essay, the third installment came out in 1854 in the fall, in the autumn. And I had the idea that come December on the anniversary of the murders back in 1811, that they would start again. And that the newly created Scotland Yard would say, well, he’s got to be the guy, he’s an opium addict. He’s just obsessed with these murders. He must be committing them himself.
But then when they get there, they find he’s 69-years-old, he’s 4-foot-11. And his daughter is witty wonderful, Emily says it was real, says, ‘Will you please look at this man, do you really think he was capable of killing four people at once with a ship carpenter’s hammer?’
And so, he and Scotland Yard set up to find out who’s doing this. And the appeal for me was that Scotland Yard at the time, it had only been created a few years earlier in 1842, 12 years. And they thought they were hot stuff because they made plaster casts of footprints at crime scenes.
De Quincey’s telling them about the chasms and sunless abysses of the human mind. And they, of course, think he’s nuts. But between the two of them, they do find the killer. In the novel, I think I solved who did the 1811 murders.
Jo: You clearly immerse yourself so much, and I know that you always do your research, but I wondered about the actual trips. You’ve talked about Grasmere and the Lake District, but what were some of the places you visited in London? And how do you go doing your on-location research? I’ve seen some of the pictures and I’ll link to those in the show notes.
Any particular places in London that were really resonant for you?
David: I’ve been to London every, say, maybe three years. But now I was seeing from a different point of view.
The mid-Victorian period, 1854 and 1855 London, which is when these books are set, World War II destroyed many of the locations, and those that weren’t destroyed by German bombing during the blitz, for example, they were destroyed in other ways by fire, for example.
One of the great regrets is that it’s impossible to visit the great crystal building that was in Hyde Park during the so-called Crystal Palace Exhibition. The first world’s fair in Hyde Park in 1851. And this was so huge, essentially a large greenhouse and Prince Albert had the idea that that’s what it would look like.
It was so huge that full-grown Elm trees were dwarfed in it. And there were birds that had been in the trees when this building was erected around it and the birds were creating a problem. So, they brought in hawks. I just love this stuff. They brought in hawks to kill the birds that were living in the Crystal Palace.
Jo: Did you know we still use hawks in the underground?
David: No, I didn’t.
Jo: Yes. There are still birds of prey hunting pigeons in the railway stations of London.
David: Oh really? I didn’t know that. Now, do they live there or do falconers come?
Jo: Well, they have them as part of the train service. They’re employed by the transport system.
David: Are you kidding? That’s wonderful.
Jo: I thought you’d like that. Back on the world’s fair, sorry.
David: Oh, well, the Crystal Palace, it was so big that a 200 person orchestra could barely be heard at the far end of the Crystal Palace. And because of the new train system, which was not quite 25-years-old, 21, the train system started primitively in 1830, between Liverpool and Manchester. And the train system, a lot of people from all over the country to come for day trips and visit the Crystal Palace.
When the world’s fair was done, it was just disassembled and taken South of London to a place called Sydenham Hill. And there it was rebuilt. Oh, just think about that. Just rebuilt in 1854. And it remained there until the 1930s when it was destroyed by a fire.
Every once in a while I hear from my remote place here in New Mexico, I hear that there are plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace, and that would be a sight to behold. Other places were also destroyed in the bombings.
But there is one place in particular that still exists on Piccadilly across from Green Park. The famous British prime minister, Lord Palmerston had been Secretary of War. He’d been secretary of…the foreign secretary. We call them secretary of state here.
Then he had eventually become prime minister. And he purchased a home, a large, large residence that had been owned by one of the Queen’s relatives, the Duke of Cambridge. And this house was known as Cambridge House. And it is on Piccadilly across from Green Park, a very, very desirable location, and it still exists.
It is easily identifiable because on Piccadilly, it is the only recessed property. Everything else is even with the sidewalk, but Cambridge House is set back and it’s not an adjoining building. It has open space on the right and the left. It is a separate building. And he lived there for a number of years.
Then after his passing, it was purchased by a nautical club which had…there were two gates and the problem was which gate to use to go in and out given traffic. So, the club put in on one gate and out on the other gate, and this became known as, it sounds almost like a pornographic club, forgive me, but it was known as the In and Out Club.
It was known like that for many years until it was again purchased. And these days, is owned by Russian oligarchs who have been remodeling it. And I don’t know if it’s now inhabited, but at the time 2013, when I…’14, ’15, somewhere in there, when I last saw it, it was still under reconstruction on the interior at a cost of 250 million pounds.
And the city of Westminster said, ‘This might be a bad precedent that we’re going to have foreign nationals spending fortunes to purchase historical properties and that they would be private residences.’ And so there was a halt on whether or not they could move in. And I don’t know if that halt is still there, but you can go and look at it.
And it’s so eerie as you noted, I wrote some photo essays about some of these places and Cambridge House is one of them, the essay says Eerie Lord Palmerston’s house. And the photos I took, oh my, you just think you’re going to see ghosts peering from the windows.
Apart from the fact that the Duke of Cambridge had owned it and that Lord Palmerston had owned it, one of the attempts on the life of Queen Victoria occurred right directly outside the building, when she came to visit her, I believe it was her cousin, the Duke Cambridge when he was dying. And when she pulled up in her carriage, she was attacked by a mad man who actually hit her on the head and drew blood.
So, there’s a lot of history to it, but for certain, especially if people don’t know London, if they go there, they want to see Westminster Abbey and they want to see Buckingham Palace, well, a short walk through Green Park from Buckingham Palace will take you to Piccadilly and it will lead you directly to what I still call Cambridge House.
Jo: I will say that in that area, Piccadilly is one of my favorite bookstores in London. For people listening, Waterstones, Piccadilly is a fantastic bookstore.
We’re almost out of time. So, we’re going to stay on books. Obviously people can get your books there and all over the place.
Apart from your books, are there any books you would recommend that you feel give a really good sense of historical England, either that period or another period?
David: Judith Flanders has written a number of books about the Victorian world. One is called Inside the Victorian Home and other is called Inside the Victorian City. She has a book called The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. Basically, anything that Judith has written about the Victorian era.
She’s also written a wonderful series of mysteries about a British book editor who keeps getting involved in murders and solving them. And it’s one of my favorite series. There are a lot of titles, so I’ll just say Judith Flanders.
And anybody who wants to know about Thomas De Quincey, Robert Morrison‘s biography and Grevel Lindop’s biography. His name is Anglo-Saxon. And as I said, he taught at the University of Manchester. These are books that I relied on heavily, and these would give a very, very rich portrait of the period, but certainly, Judith is the historian.
And quickly, I want to mention St. James’s Church, which also figures as one of the few that wasn’t destroyed in the blitz. St. James’s Church is a corner of Mayfair and Soho, South Eastern section. And it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who did St. Paul’s.
But this is his favorite church, it was designed to hold 500 people, very intimate with distinctive tall windows, which were meant at the time to have a light come in and to reflect off the white walls inside and create a feeling of splendor. And St. James’s still exists.
A significant portion of one of the novels, Inspector of the Dead, is set in St. James’s. But so many of the places alas are gone for one reason or another. So, I had to rely on old photographs and old drawings.
The train stations, for example, which these days are not attractive, I think it would be safe even for someone who is not English to say. But at the time, those train stations were magnificent, and little by little were dismantled. And the third novel, Ruler of the Night, it begins in one of those magnificent train stations and tries to recreate what it was like. It had the tallest arch in the West at the time. But, you know, things go away.
Jo: I will give a shout out to St Pancras, which is a beautiful station that they have actually restored. But I agree with you, generally.
David: Euston station is the one that I use and the interior…
Jo: Oh, that’s horrific.
David: It’s horrific. Yeah, forgive me if you have a favorite. Remember, I’m a foreigner! But Euston station, which is the one that I used in the novel, it’s not, I guess I would say, I think it’s safe to say appealing.
Jo: Oh, definitely not.
David: But in its day, there were gold gates that opened and this huge arch and the interior, if anybody is familiar with how in an ideal form, the interior of Grand Central Station can look when it’s cleaned up, that’s what Euston station looked like.
Jo: Where can people find you and your books online?
David: I have a website, davidmorrell.net, think of it as the network of readers, and it has a lot of information, it’s trying to be very reader-friendly and have a lot of things on it. And I have a Facebook author’s page, and I’m on there almost every day about books, movies, and music. I’m not selling, occasionally I’ve mentioned what I’m working on and what, if I have a book coming out. It’s like these are what the books and movies and music and all that that I’m interested in and maybe we can have a conversation. I’m on Twitter as well and, of course, by the limitation of Twitter, I can’t quite discuss things in the same way.
Jo: Oh, fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, David. That was great.
David: Well, I thank you. It’s always fun as I said to chat with you.