"WHAT is one murder here or there compared with the historical process? And yet, when we pick up a newspaper, what do we find but murder alone?" So complains Karl Marx to a new acquaintance who could very well be the infamous Limehouse Golem, the perpetrator of a series of brutal murders that will soon have all London in thrall. The year is 1880; the date, which we ascertain from a diary that may be the murderer's, is Sept. 10; the time, scarcely an hour before the first prostitute will literally lose her head to the Golem.
Our murderer has certain pretensions: he professes himself to be an artist, a force of nature, the incarnate will of the merciless city -- anything but what he is, a murderer plain and simple, with a murderer's banal insistence upon his own importance, his superiority to the herd, his peculiar genius. Marx's passing observation secures him a place on the murderer's list of intended victims, though too late to liberate the historical process from his radical ruminations. In Peter Ackroyd's new novel, "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree," where this conversation takes place, the old philosopher is not up to anything more revolutionary than an epic poem, which he works on in the mornings under the great dome of the reading room at the British Museum.
When he is not writing, Herr Marx is reading George Gissing's latest book, while Gissing himself sits a few seats away, reading his own analysis of Thomas De Quincey's essay on murder. As a young man, De Quincey spent a long, cold, miserable winter sleeping on the inhospitable streets of London, befriended only by a child and saved from death by a prostitute. "That is why," Gissing concludes, "the city and his suffering within it became -- if we may borrow a phrase from that great modern poet Charles Baudelaire -- the landscape of his imagination."
And so it is for Peter Ackroyd as well. Victorian London, in all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with its dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars and children, its unbreathable air, its pea-soup smog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes, its weary laborers filing out for a pint at the end of a mind-numbing day, its warm, smoke-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals -- all of this erupts from Mr. Ackroyd's overheated imagination with the hectic, insistent reality of a nightmare. He cannot look away until he wakes up, and neither can we.
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