This is one of those novels that, on the strength of the blurb seems right up my street- a murder mystery/thriller set in Victorian London (one of my favourite settings in any book ever.) Oh, and chuck in the fact that the ultimate target is Queen Victoria and it’s the infamous ‘opium eater’ Thomas De Quincey who’s investigating and you’ve got a very interesting concept indeed.
The story follows on from the first novel in the series, Murder as a Fine Art (and, irritatingly, the characters repeatedly refer to ‘seven weeks ago’, which is tiresome if you haven’t read the first time. I imagine it might be slightly irksome if you had read it.) The story revolves around a number of high profile Victorian men and their families being murdered in their homes in ever more violent ways. Eventually, De Quincey and his daughter, proto-feminist Emily, begin to piece together a link to the queen.
It’s an interesting proposition, to have De Quincey as a detective- he did after all write an essay musing on murder as a fine art- but I felt he was sort of superfluous as a detective. Emily is always telling him to put his bottle of laudanum away, or Lord Palmerston is embarrassed by him and we’re endlessly told how short he is. I felt that, with the De Quinceys and two policemen, it was over-egging the detective pudding somewhat. Characters I would have liked to be developed weren’t and characters I didn’t care for were over-developed.
The attention to detail when it comes to Victorian London is excellent; clearly a lot of research has been done. But it’s not worn lightly. Morrell is Canadian and clearly loves his subject dearly- he explains every detail, probably so that those who aren’t familiar with London and perhaps live abroad, get a good idea of the peculiarity of the setting. But sometimes it just felt a bit… clunky in places, especially when using dialogue (for example, Queen Victoria says something along the lines of “Our nine children are here, with the exception of our eldest son, Prince Edward..” That wouldn’t have needed explaining to a Victorian in such detail.)
However, there are some wonderful scenes- there’s a vivid description of a gin palace and a description of the ministrations of a dodgy type of character called a ‘drink doctor’; I also enjoyed the description of a shop that only sold the various accoutrements needed to participate in the Victorian hobby of mourning. (You can read about such warehouses in this book.)
Overall, a book that was slightly hit and miss for me, but a good one if you’re unfamiliar with Victorian London or De Quincey.
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*Sent for review