American Library Association’s Readers Lists for both 2014 and 2013 more than meet my Dickensian expectations. Although one is set in 1854 London and the other in 1845 New York, both novelists use richly-detailed settings to immerse readers in the time period. If gruesome crimes, fog-bound streets and grabbing historical context appeal to you, these two reads are definitely worth your while.
In David Morell’s Murder as a Fine Art, Victorian England is set on edge when an unknown killer bludgeons and mutilates a shopkeeper and his family. The murders appear identical to a series of violent crimes, known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders, that brought London to the edge of riot and insurrection 40 years earlier. The government worries that the Metropolitan Police will lose control of the panicked public if they don’t make a speedy arrest. Investigators from the fledgling detective branch first suspect Thomas De Quincey, who wrote a series of essays on the original murders. In order to prove his innocence, De Quincey, the infamous author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, must use his insights into the character of the murderer to help the detectives.
While the work is fictional, Thomas de Quincey is a real historical character who did write essays on his use of laudanum and the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders. De Quincey’s lurid works shocked and scandalized Victorian society and Morell uses his character convincingly. While other characters, including de Quincey’s independent, outspoken daughter, are not as richly drawn, his use of historical detail is compelling. Morell takes you on a grand tour of Victorian London, from streetwalkers and chimney sweeps to the heights of British government. The thread holding these disparate elements together is the glistening, ruby-colored opiate known as laudanum.
Lyndsaye Faye’s The Gods of Gotham takes place in 1845, when New York City was struggling to put together a police force while dealing with a huge influx of Irish Catholic immigrants. Timothy Wilde is forced to put on a copper star after losing his job and his savings in a massive fire. While he owes his job policing the poverty-stricken 6th ward to the political influence of his brother Valentine, Timothy is a rare voice of honesty and fairness. One dark night he discovers a fearful, blood-covered child on the streets who has escaped from a notorious brothel. The child tells Wilde of a black-hooded man who comes in the dark of night to kill children. Unrest rises when rumors spread that a recent Irish immigrant is responsible for the death and mutilation of neglected children in the area. In the course of his quest for truth, Wilde will uncover rot and deception deeply rooted in every aspect of life in the 6th ward.
Faye's mesmerizing characters bring to mind both Tammany Hall and Gangs of New York. Wilde's morphine-addicted brother Valentine is a corrupt, larger-than-life star in police politics and views Timothy's scruples with disdain. Timothy balances the depravity he sees around him with a Madonna-like devotion to the charity worker Mercy Underhill. Faye complements her vivid characters with equally vivid descriptions of the city, the product of long hours spent researching New York’s historical archives. As a result, the story oozes authenticity and atmosphere.
In Murder as a Fine Art, Morell suggests that the closed curtains in a Victorian home hide the dark secrets of the souls within. Draw back the curtains of history with these two novels. Their sinister insights into the human experience, however distant in history, are worth examining in the light of day.
- Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library