David Morrell brings back opium-eater Thomas De Quincey for another look at the hypocritical caste system of Victorian England and the outrageous sufferings of people caused by hunger, cold, and abuse simply because they are poor—or even worse, Irish.
As in his previous outing in Murder as a Fine Art, De Quincey’s decades of drug abuse have left him an emotional and physical wreck, but he continues to solve the most unusual and artistic of crimes. In fact, his frequent inability to separate reality from drugged fantasy enables him to find clues not apparent to most people. When a series of seemingly erratic but horrifically staged murders of wealthy aristocrats stump London’s police force, De Quincey starts his investigation with a question once posed by philosopher Immanuel Kant: Does reality exist outside us or in our minds? A frequenter of both “realities,” De Quincey understands that fantasy, like the artifice of the staged murders, can be created to hide fact, and suspects that may be the case here.
Accordingly, he leads his daughter Emily and his police friends through London’s aristocratic mansions to the vilest hovels, trailing a murderer called the Avenger. Clues purposely left at each murder site suggest that the Avenger’s motive is both personal and political; Queen Victoria herself is the final target.
Author Morrell’s extraordinary research is again on display in Inspector of the Dead. We learn about the bureaucratic incompetence that caused so many deaths during the Crimean War (one of the book’s major characters fought in it), and the shocking unfairness of the Victorian legal system. Most devastatingly, we see the utter contempt with which the ruling classes treated their “inferiors.” Morrell shows us children dying of starvation in the street while aristocrats pass them by with a sneer. These scenes provide insight into the moral decay of those in power that has led to the fall of empires.
Rough stuff, certainly, but compelling and enlightening. Such is Morrell’s talent as a storyteller. Inspector of the Dead is an extraordinary suspense novel, to be sure, but perhaps more importantly, it can serve as a metaphor for our own troubled times.