Ruler of the Night

by David Morrell
Mulholland Books, November 2016, $27

David Morrell concludes his brilliant Thomas De Quincey trilogy (after Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead) with another tale that fictionalizes a true-life case: the first murder committed on a British railway train. Someone has killed wealthy solicitor Daniel Harcourt in a first-class train compartment, then thrown his body out of the window and onto the tracks. Thomas De Quincey and his daughter Emily hear the death struggle from their adjoining locked car, but are powerless to help until the train reaches its destination in the small village of Sedwick Hill. (In 1855, when the book takes place, train compartments were configured like today’s cattle cars; locked from the outside, with no aisles connecting one car to the next.)

After alerting the local authorities, they join the search for Harcourt and eventually find his mutilated corpse beside the tracks. A hurried telegram to London summons Scotland Yard detectives Sean Ryan and Joseph Becker, old friends of the De Quinceys who welcome Thomas' help. Still, the investigation does not go smoothly, hindered in part by De Quincey's opium addiction. The writer is notorious throughout Victorian England after publishing his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and though—aided by his ever-vigilant daughter—he is attempting to taper off of the drug that has ruined his life, his shaky state does not inspire confidence among the dead man’s high-and-mighty business associates.

One of the meatier aspects of the De Quincey trilogy is that it is set amid real historical events, which lends the books considerable poignancy. The English public has lost its faith in its inept military and political leaders with the disastrous Crimean War (1853-1856). There are even rumblings of revolution. The hostilities between England and Russia are further complicated by the sudden death of Czar Nicolas I. Although the official cause of death is typhus, many Russians believe his German doctor, who is now on the run in England with Russian agents hard on his heels, poisoned him. The De Quinceys’ pursuit of Harcourt’s killer sweeps them into this roiling sociopolitical maelstrom, with Queen Victoria as their only ally. A powerful ally, to be sure, but in 19th century England, the Queen’s power is much less than absolute.

Author Morrell’s careful attention to historical detail is evident here, with copious mentions of real people and real events, both great and small. We learn of nurse Florence Nightingale’s courage in the Crimea; we visit a popular London attraction named the Monster Globe; we even get a short, humorous treatise on the literary works of Sir Walter Scott, because De Quincey once wrote a novel named Walladmor and attributed it to Scott. Moreover, the laughably bad thing became an international bestseller.

For all its carnage and grim happenings (the pages about the fate of orphaned children in Victorian England are truly horrifying) Ruler of the Night is a joy to read. The novel expertly immerses us in another country and another time, while delivering characters so real they could be living next door to us right now. In that same vein, many of us have encountered people struggling with addiction, as is the haunted De Quincey. Thus, for all its Victorian trappings, Ruler of the Night is a novel that feels as timely as ever.

Betty Webb
Teri Duerr
November 2016
Mulholland Books