(photo courtesy of David Morrell)
When I first saw the book Murder as a Fine Art, I was intrigued by the author’s name: David Morrell. Known the world over as the father of Rambo, Morrell had authored First Blood, a book that many people mistakenly call “Rambo” since its principle character became one of the most recognizable pop-culture icons in the world. A Victorian murder mystery written by the father of Rambo? Was this a bad mash-up of testosterone and fog-shrouded streets? Murder as a Fine Art turned out to be a well-crafted, complex novel about the 1854 gruesome murder of a family that mirrors the unsolved Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Morrell’s foray into Victorian London was richly decorated with what was obviously a great deal of research. The story and the characters were lots of fun. Morrell had delivered a crackling-good Victorian thriller.
But I kept returning to my original question: A Victorian murder mystery written by the father of Rambo?
I was curious enough to request an interview. At the time, in the fall of 2013, Morrell had to turn me down. His schedule was full. He was right in the middle of working on a sequel to Murder as a Fine Art. We eventually agreed to reconnect in the spring of 2014.
During the interval I began to research Morrell’s diverse career. Look him up online and you’ll find short stories, thrillers, comic books, and essays in addition to his twenty-five-plus novels. Morrell has completely embraced the eBook revolution. In fact, he holds the rights to most of his books in the eBook market, since so many of the original contracts he signed were written before the days of digital reading platforms. One short story that caught my eye was They. Available as a single, this thriller is something like Little House on the Prairie meets Wolfen. (Morrell explains in the foreword how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories influenced this particular piece.) Another single, My Name is Legion, is a World War II adventure involving the French Foreign Legion. These are only a few of the titles available. It is impossible to read everything out there; the man’s been writing for more than four decades.
I had never read any of Morrell’s books until I picked up Murder as a Fine Art. One of the benefits of Morrell writing a Victorian murder mystery is that it is drawing in readers who are unfamiliar with his early books. He had certainly drawn my attention.
Murder as a Fine Art and the Art of Time-Travel
We finally talked over the phone once Morrell had finished a major revision of the text to Inspector of the Dead, the sequel to Murder as a Fine Art. Understandably, it was foremost on his mind.
Most of the time, editors of mainstream fiction are looking to cut down the word count of any and all manuscripts that come across their desks. His Victorian novels, however, bucked this trend. According to Morrell, every time he sent Inspector of the Dead to his Mulholland Books editors, Josh Kendall and Wes Miller, they would send it back, asking for more detail. This was encouraging to hear. The prevailing line among writers, editors, and anyone else associated with the publishing industry is that readers today just won’t read anything with detailed descriptions. They don’t care about them, won’t spend the time it takes to read them, and they haven’t the intelligence to absorb them. Did this mean there was a new wind blowing through the halls of publishing houses? Well, there’s more to it than that.
We’ll start at the beginning; how a renowned writer of modern thrillers came to publish a Victorian novel, how the author who gave us John Rambo turned his attention to the London, England of the 1850s, and how this beginning, as with so many beginnings, started with the tragedy of death.
In 2009, Morrell explained, his fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, died from a rare form of bone cancer known as Ewing’s Sarcoma. This in itself was a terrible blow. It is often said no man should outlive his children. To experience the death of a child’s child is to experience an exponential grief. But there was a greater despair to be found here. Morrell had already lost a son to this rare bone cancer in 1987. The number of people who fall to this sickness in the United States is only a few hundred every year, yet the Morrell family had lost their second loved one to this disease. Morrell’s response was to retreat. “I wanted to get away from the modern world,” he admits. “I wanted to disappear into another era.”
Morrell is known as a tenacious researcher, having been trained in hostage negotiation, assuming identities, defensive/offensive driving, and many other skills he incorporates into his novels. At times it might even appear he goes a little overboard in this area. He is a graduate of the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security and the National Outdoor Leadership School for Wilderness Survival. Not only did he become a private pilot subsequent to his research for The Shimmer but he has also earned honorary lifetime memberships in the Special Operations Association and the Association of Intelligence Officers.
Retreating into the past, he brought this nearly manic obsession for research with him.
Still dealing with grief over his granddaughter’s death, he followed his daughter’s advice to watch a film about Charles Darwin. The film, Creation, explores Darwin’s breakdown after his own daughter’s death, and includes a mention of Thomas De Quincey and his theories in the same vein as if he were a precursor to Freud. Morrell was intrigued; soon enough, he was hooked.
Thomas De Quincey was a journalist and essayist best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821. It is an autobiographical account of De Quincey’s laudanum addiction and the effect it had on his life. Not only did this work influence the literary efforts of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Nikolai Gogol, but it also influenced the study of psychology and abnormal psychology. And now we can add David Morrell to that list of influences, especially after he read De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.
Once the idea of a book began to take shape in his mind, Morrell admitted to his agents what he intended to do. According to Morrell—“They said ‘Well, it’s a big risk’ and I said ‘I know, but you know what? If I don’t write this I don’t think I’m ever gonna write anything.’”
Surprisingly, and to their credit, they agreed.
He was soon in the midst of writing an imitation Victorian novel. Morrell felt early on that the style would have to match the story. “I’m very big on form and content. That what a book is about should match how it is written.” He enjoyed the challenge of using techniques that no one uses anymore, including the Victorian habit of inserting journal entries into the story.
As excited as he was about the book, there were those who questioned his judgment.
“When I told some fellow authors what I was doing they were horrified.” They assured him he would lose his readers, and destroy his career. Morrell simply didn’t care. He was already known for not allowing himself to be pigeonholed as a one-trick genre writer. He had dabbled in Westerns, Psychological Horror, and even Super Hero comics during his forty plus years as a writer. And with his current issues of grief and a need to step back from the pain of this world it was easier to follow his heart in this endeavor.
Once the book was completed, it caught the interest of then head-editor at Mulholland Books, Little, Brown by the name of John Shoenfelder. In Morrell’s words, Shoenfelder “told me that he went in to his boss at Little, Brown and told him that this was an important book and it needed to be published, no matter that it seemed a departure for me.” Shoenfelder was given the green light.
And that was it. With the publishers on board, the book, or to be more precise, Morrell’s passion for the book became contagious, drawing in more supporters. Morrell told me people said, “You know he’s done this weird thing but, my heavens, you know, it’s really interesting.” Gaining more attention than many of his more recent books, Murder as a Fine Art was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top ten Mystery/Thrillers of 2013. Even better, it made the top five for Library Journal.
Morrell knew his gamble had paid off. “God knows it could have gone the other way,” he gamely confessed.
Morrell says the email response to Murder as a Fine Art from readers was tremendous. The good news was that his fan base had joined him as he led them down this new path. But the better news was that he was hearing from readers who had never read his books before. They were loving it and asking for more.
So were his publishers.
Morrell is not a series writer. It is part of what has kept him from being stuck in a rut, like so many of his contemporaries. (Realize that his contemporaries consist of writers from the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and the 2010s. Many of them can no longer be listed as his contemporaries, since their time came and went long ago.) That he has more often than not found a way to reinvent himself is a big factor in his longevity. But his tendency to shy away from recurring characters did not prevent him from dipping his quill back into the inkwell for another adventure in Victorian London. (Morrell was willing to acknowledge that a close friend read the first book and immediately told him he had a trilogy in the making. Though he didn’t jump at the idea, he says her suggestion has always remained nestled in the back of his mind. But he’s not making any promises.)
And that brings us back to Inspector of the Dead and his editors’ requests for more detail. You see, in his modern thrillers, Morrell never felt the need to provide much detail to the world around us, since readers were already familiar with the day-to-day elements that make up our modern lives. In his opinion, writers don’t need to add details that would be understood by a reader. But since he had chosen the alien world of Victorian London, and he had learned so much about it, he just felt that readers needed a little help to get them to take the trip with him.
As he wrote that first book he had kept a note by his computer which read: Try to make readers believe they are truly in 1854 London. Using shelves and shelves of research material on the time period, and at the same time befriending and relying on several historical experts in that era, Morrell began to fill his story with these rich details that would facilitate the reader’s ability to co-exist with him in that bygone London, something unnecessary for writer’s from that era. Their readers were well acquainted with such things as the hygienic customs of the day and the cultural habits of all the classes.
It was this desire to recreate the past accurately that aided him in avoiding the recent steampunk fad. I have teenagers who introduced me to steampunk around the time Morrell would have been writing Murder as a Fine Art. It’s true I enjoyed that little sub-genre for a time, but its overuse in books and movies shortened its lifespan. I told Morrell I was glad he had avoided giving Thomas De Quincey a steam-powered airplane in which to run around. Morrell was amused at such an idea but said wasn’t the least bit tempted to go that route. While he was aware of the steampunk revolution, as it has been called, he was determined to remain true to his goal and that note by his computer.
Morrell wasn’t ready to begin sharing too much of the story of Inspector of the Dead but he did make sure I understood that it wasn’t a simple matter to insert the details as requested by the editors. Most importantly, it had to be done in such a way as to insure that the pace of the novel remained consistent. In fact, this last round of edits brought more than a few new details to the book. According to Morrell, he realized that he needed to change and expand a portion of the book, and it meant an increase of nearly 15,000 words. While it meant a great deal of time had to be spent getting it right, he was able to complete it in time. Deadlines, after all, and his ability to meet them, are a personal pride of his. He emphasized this by repeating something he’d once told a fellow author. “We all know authors who are more talented than we are, there’s always someone more talented, but can they meet the deadline? Can they perform professionally and be part of the team in order to take this very complicated process and bring it to fruition?” His experience has taught him that if you can’t do that, your career will never get off the ground. “Deadlines are the absolute,” he said, adding off-hand, “I’ve never missed one.”
|Murder as a Fine Art artwork by|
Tomislav Tikulin, courtesy
of David Morrell.
On June 14, Murder as a Fine Art will come out in trade paperback as a book-club edition. Added material will include study questions, an interview between David Morrell and Thomas De Quincey biographer, Robert Morrison, and an essay by Morrell in which he discusses his approach to writing thrillers.
Inspector of the Dead is scheduled to be released on March 24, 2015.
(Part Two of this interview, in which our discussion turns to Frank Sinatra, Stirling Silliphant, and Rambo, is available at this link.)
For more information on David Morrell, visit his website at DavidMorrell.net.
eBooks by David Morrell: I highly recommend his short story They.