Monday, December 19, 2016

At The Poisoned Pen with David Morrell!

When Denis and I headed to our favorite bookstore to see David Morrell, I couldn't remember if my husband had been with me for one of the author's previous appearances. Sometimes Denis isn't as enthusiastic about historical mysteries as I am, but something told me that he would warm up to Morrell. (I was right.)

Betty Webb waiting patiently.
You never know who's going to come to The Poisoned Pen's author events. This time, it was another of my favorite authors, Betty Webb, who writes two mystery series, the Gunn Zoo and the Lena Jones books. After she took a front row seat and exchanged pleasantries, we each disappeared into our own thoughts, but from the way Betty was holding her copy of the last book in Morrell's Thomas De Quincey trilogy, I could tell she was probably an even bigger fan than I.

As usual, host Barbara Peters came out a few minutes early to chat with us. One of the things she shared was that her husband Rob Rosenwald was at home making pumpkin bonbons with Dana Stabenow

L to R: David Morrell, Barbara Peters

Barbara Peters vacations in Santa Fe regularly, which is where David Morrell lives. On one trip, he handed the manuscript for the first De Quincey novel to her and said, "I've written something different."

Morrell had decided to write a trilogy featuring real-life literary figure Thomas De Quincey, who was known in Victorian England as the "Opium Eater" for his prodigious addiction to the drug. De Quincey was a follower of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who thought about such things as whether reality was outside us or did it come from ideas inside our heads. De Quincey was also "speaking Freud" seventy years before Freud was thinking those revolutionary thoughts. Why? Because De Quincey was trying to explain the nightmares and dreams he was experiencing.

De Quincey wrote "On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts" in 1854, and Morrell wondered what might happen if someone used this as a blueprint for a murder spree. He could just picture this drug addict (who was under five feet tall) going to Scotland Yard to tell them that they could solve these murders by using Kant's teachings. Those men were going to think De Quincey was insane!

David Morrell
In the Victorian Era, opium was a respectable painkiller. (Remember, aspirin wasn't available until the 1920s.) As Morrell said, "Opium was respectable, yet it was marked 'POISON.' It was poison, yet the bottles gave the dosage for a ten-month-old baby.

"It's my belief that opium was the making of Thomas De Quincey as a writer, and that is not a popular view," said the former college professor. "My research into that time was so intensive I often felt myself to be in 1850s London. When I was in graduate school, De Quincey was not taught because he was a drug addict, but now with researchers and books like A Guilty Thing, I'm hoping to get him back in the curriculum because he is a brilliant writer."  

Morrell was clearly fascinated with Thomas De Quincey, as I had been when I was in college and read Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. "De Quincey lived for six months as a beggar when he was seventeen," Morrell said. "He walked fifteen miles a day and lived to the age of seventy-four when that was not common." Definitely not a garden variety drug addict.

The author wanted each book in this trilogy to center on a crime that changed how the public viewed the world. Murder As a Fine Art centered on the unsolved Radcliffe Highway murders-- the first publicized case of two families being brutally murdered. Inspector of the Dead had at its heart the numerous assassination attempts on the life of Queen Victoria, and Ruler of the Night used the first murder on an English train.

Available Now!
Morrell spoke of a professor who told him that, although he doesn't like to read fiction, he's made an exception for this trilogy. He loves these three books because there is so much fact with the fiction. (And it certainly doesn't overload the narrative.) In doing his research, Morrell combined reading the novels of people like Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope with factual historical and societal background. Just reading the novels wouldn't do because Dickens and Trollope already knew (for example) that a woman's clothing weighed thirty-eight pounds and wouldn't think to include facts like that in their narratives-- facts that today's reader would need.

David then proceeded to tell us about those first trains in England and the first murder that occurred on one, ending with "Now how could I resist?" Since no one moved, no one sniffed, no one coughed while he was telling us this, I think everyone in the audience was trying to figure out how long it would be down to the second before they could get their hands on Ruler of the Night and start reading.

There is even a progression in the writing styles of each novel. Murder As a Fine Art imitates the Victorian novel. Inspector of the Dead is only half Victorian, and Ruler of the Night is written as a modern novel. As each book gets progressively faster to read, they mimic the Victorian Era picking up speed as the years pass.

David Morrell
"I've been called a 'Method-acting author,' Morrell said, "because of my immersion reading to get in the proper mindset. You've all heard 'Write what you know.' Well, sooner or later you're going to run out of things to write about. Twist that around. Know what you write. When I finish writing a book, I should feel fuller... I should feel bigger... because of what I learned while writing it.

"We wouldn't know anything about the private lives of writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge if not for Thomas De Quincey, who stalked them. De Quincey moved into Dove Cottage after Wordsworth left.

Morrell had us in the palm of his hand. What a speaker!

"De Quincey invented the self-reflective memoir," he continued. "For seven years I read nothing but Thomas De Quincey's writings, books on 1850s London and the Victorian Era, and Victorian literature. I think I have a self-earned doctorate, and I could get around 1850s London with very little problem!"

As part of his habit of immersion to get into the proper mindset to write a previous novel, Morrell took a knife fighting class in which he broke his collar bone. Using some sort of improvised sling, the author managed to survive the final two hours of the class so he could earn his certificate-- but then he had to make his way on an airplane with his suitcase.... "And you thought Rambo was fiction!" Barbara Peters quipped.

What is he working on now? "Victorian withdrawal," Morrell laughed. "I have not written since June except for something for the fiftieth-anniversary reissue of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. The election results of this month have made me really think about what sort of book do I want to write for this new world."

David Morrell
Morrell always has a non-fiction subject for each of his novels, and he's really thinking about what he wants to do next.

In conversing with one of his fans, Morrell told us that he received more hate mail for his novel Covenant of the Flame than any other book. Not because of the female main character, but because it was an environmental thriller. "I think the term 'tree-hugging commie' was the polite language used to describe me." He was also asked, "What'd you put a woman on the cover of your book for?" The novel was definitely a setback for his career. Perverse creature that I am, this made me want to read the book....

"This trilogy works primarily because of a woman,' Morrell said. "Thomas De Quincey's daughter, Emily. Can I get readers to love De Quincey because Emily loves him? That's the trick. That's the key.

"My reason for writing these three books was to escape my grief. In 2009 my fourteen-year-old granddaughter died. In 1987 my fifteen-year-old son had died of the same rare bone cancer which is not inherited, and only two hundred people die of it each year. I just wanted to get out of Dodge so bad. At one point, Barbara here asked me, 'Have you ever thought that Emily is your granddaughter?

"Our experiences sometimes dictate what we write-- the autobiography of our souls."

"And at this point, we should give a shout-out to David's wife, Donna. She's incredible," Barbara said.

"She is, and she's helped me name characters in my books," Morrell said. "She came home from shopping one day and told me that she'd found a really good apple. I was busy and not really paying attention, but she insisted that I try this apple she'd found. I took a bite. 'This really is good. What's it called?' 'It's a Rambo apple,' Donna said."

I literally could've sat and listened to this man well into the wee hours of the morning, and there's no way I could take down everything that was said. If you'd like to know more about this man's life, I encourage you to read the interview I found in Mystery Scene magazine. This event can also be found on The Poisoned Pen's Livestream account, and I urge you to watch every second of it!

David Morrell at The Poisoned Pen.


  1. Ooh, another great PP trip, Cathy! Thanks for sharing. One day I'll get there...

  2. What a fascinating author and series.

    And, I, too, am drawn to Covenant of the Flame," because of the nasty comments Morrell received about the book. An environmental thriller and some readers attacked him? And for having a woman on the cover? Oy.

    I'm looking that book up right now.

    Thanks for this summary of what sounds like a very interesting event.

    1. It was a fascinating event, Kathy, and I'm tickled to see that you're contrary like me: hate mail over the environment and a woman on the cover? Sign me up!


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!