As a reader, I'm
Ruler of the Night
David Morrell, Mulholland Books, 2016, 27.00, hb, 342 pp, 978031630790
Release Date: November 15, 2016
Elderly writer Thomas De Quincy, alarmed at the banging and thumping coming from the train compartment next to his, suddenly feels rain strike him through the train’s open window. He wipes his face and looks down at his hand. It’s covered in blood.
As a reader, I'm already on edge, fearful for the claustrophobic solicitor who has just met the enemy in the locked compartment adjacent to De Quincy’s; but now I now tumble headlong into 1850s London.
I’ve been there before. Alongside police detectives Sean Ryan and Joseph Becker, opium addict Thomas De Quincy, and De Quincy’s stalwart daughter, Emily, I’ve scoured the streets of Victorian London ferreting out criminals in Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead.
Marveling at Morrell’s ability to submerge his readers in story, and thinking it was largely a matter of his meticulous depiction of setting, I read Ruler of the Night, the final book in the De Quincy murder trilogy, with an eye to discovering how Morrell creates such evocative atmosphere. Before long, I realized it was more than setting and atmosphere that had drawn me in. Beyond the novel’s elaborate historical detail and multi-sensory description, something else was at play.
That something is narration. Specifically, it is the narrator’s homing in on secondary characters that delivers the goods.
Omniscient but for the thoughts of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and Emily De Quincy (who speaks for herself through intimate journal entries), Morrell’s erudite, empathic narrator focuses on and then looks beyond the De Quinceys and the London detectives to the physical ailments, intimate thoughts, and irrational fears of secondary characters another narrator might overlook: a train guard, a solicitor, a beggar turned rich man’s wife. Each is carefully drawn—there are no bit characters here—because not only do these characters advance the plot, they also bring readers to physically experience the storyworld.
It is through the train guard’s suppressing the urge to cough, for example, that we choke on the train yard’s soot; through the doomed solicitor’s claustrophobia that we panic as the rasp of metal on metal whispers that someone’s just locked the compartment door; and through the rich woman’s inexorable childhood memory of rats scurrying across a tenement floor that we recoil at the scritch scratch the onetime beggar still hears in the night.
Morrell’s narrator ensnares us in the storyworld at the story’s opening and then again and again throughout the novel. Grounding us temporally and spatially in each scene through vivid depiction of historical landmarks and character movement, Morrell then keeps us there by layering setting with action, emotion, and sensation, never allowing a movement, a thought, or a dialogue exchange to accomplish fewer than three objectives, one of which is always to grip the reader.
More than just a good read, David Morrell’s Ruler of the Night is an experience not to be missed.