Ruler of the Night, by David Morell, Reviewed by Gregory G.H. Rihn
There may come a time in the future when every historical personage of any note will have been “revealed” to have been a detective or crime fighter of some sort. At first glance, Thomas De Quincey, notorious as the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, would seem an unlikely choice to join that company. However, as David Morell, author of many thrillers, including the Mortalis series, reminds us, De Quincy was also the author of Murder Considered as a Fine Art, and a respected and formidable intellect in his day, whose collected works run to twenty-one volumes.
Ruler of the Night is Morell’s third novel featuring De Quincey and his daughter Emily. The year is 1855. Having attracted the favorable attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the De Quinceys have been established as long-term houseguests of the reluctant Lord Palmerston, at time Prime Minister.
Railroads are the new and coming thing in Britain, with social upheaval in their wake, and frequent uneasiness about the safety of the new mode of transportation. The British stock market takes a hit when the first-ever murder occurs on a train, and the De Quinceys are in the next compartment and first on the scene when it happens.
This is not a locked-room mystery similar to some other period pieces: the method of the murder and the murder’s escape is quite obvious. Instead, the story is an engaging whodunit that pits De Quincey against a daring, desperate, and resourceful killer. As other acts of apparent terrorism strike the railways, and the trail of evidence becomes entangled with international intrigue and the secrets of high society, the De Quinceys and Scotland Yard detectives Ryan and Becker find their investigations hindered by none other than Palmerston himself.
The story is well-written and fast-paced, set in an interesting time when not only the railroads, but Scotland Yard itself were new things and not entirely accepted. Morell has done an exceptional amount of research that makes the narrative flow smoothly and credibly without being overly pedantic.
Of interest to Steampunks for the Victorian detective factor, railroads, infernal machines, medical quackery, and international intrigue. I had not read the two earlier De Quincey books, Murder as a Fine Art, and Inspector of the Dead, but I was able to follow and enjoy Ruler of the Night without having read those first. I will be looking them up.