In Chapter one, we meet the artist of death, the killer, who goes through various disguises to move from place to place unseen, to observe people, and to take stock of his surroundings. He takes pleasure in planning his next murderous composition. We are told that he executes his plan according to every meticulously studied detail to create fine art. As De Quincey explains it at the crime scene, we think that the victims are asleep and slumped over the tables. Their backs do not alert us that anything might be wrong but when we turn them over we see from the front of their bodies that they were slaughtered.
In chapter two, we meet Detective Inspector Sean Ryan who is of Irish decent and in his forties. We also meet the younger Constable Becker. We learn that Ryan studied under Vidocq in 1843. Of course, I am interested especially when I read how Becker, desperate to become a detective, battles a pig from messing up footprints that must be preserved to make plaster casts.
But I must confess that I struggled to finish reading. Some issues I have with the book: redundant mentions of Ryan’s red hair and Emily De Quincey’s daring wardrobe (bloomers instead of hoop skirts) mixed with a confusing format that switches from the present to her journal pages without making clear who reads from the journal. If it is Emily herself looking back on this period in time then it should have been made clear at the end.
The passages about the British East India Company start by giving us a good insight into the people who fought the opium wars. And we meet the killer. But then the pace slows down again as the killer, who is supposed to be a sharp man, takes pages to realize how a massacre could have taken place. He realizes on page 219 that “everyone in the camp is dead.” He takes until page 224 to figure out how while the reader just read a scene with a similar method on page 183. So we know and the time it takes for the killer to know too is unnatural because he is supposed to be a clever killing machine.
I was stunned by De Quincey’s actions in the last few chapters where he becomes more physically active to find the murderer despite declining health and his ability to rally so many groups into collaborating.
When Emily appears visibly shaken after speaking with Margaret Jewell about the murders I struggled not to laugh. Here is this brave young woman who saves cops from being lynched during the revolts by pretending to have escaped a rape attack. If she had the presence of mind to think about rape as a way to get a crowd to start chasing someone else why is she shocked at the thought of a baby out-of-wedlock? And please don’t say that during Victorian times women and their bodies were a delicate issue. That is too simple.
Margaret’s revelation about the killer’s identity took bravery on her part but the reader already knew the answer except for the name change. Therefore we are not shocked but can understand why for Margaret telling others about this was a big deal.
I think that my biggest disappointment is that the fine art was exaggerated. The use of the words fine art somehow let me to believe that we would see more sophistication instead of sheer violence and butchery.
Last but not least, not learning more about Anne was very disappointing. Of course, there was always the possibility that she had passed away but she is kept alive in De Quincey. She is the reason to come to London, she lives in his thoughts and hopes so naturally I expected to hear a little more.
I loved to read how the killer set up all these traps in his house (especially the lamp) and of course, everything about Victorian London. I could see Joey doing acrobatics for money and I could smell the foul prison air and damp walls.
Maybe I am too strict, too severe, for an author who clearly spent a lot of time researching this period, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and De Quincey. And I know from writing my novel how difficult it is to make things match in timelines while keeping the pace. Maybe despite elements that usually attract me (e.g. Victorian London, the early stages of crime scene investigations, forensics, and elements of criminology) I just didn’t bond with this book. But maybe you will.