Cain invented murder, of course, but Judith Flanders’ splendidly lurid title is entirely appropriate. What makes THE INVENTION OF MURDER: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime a compelling read is not the grisly murders Flanders documents in such meticulous detail, but the grotesque appetite the Victorians developed for fresh blood.
This is Flanders’ fourth book on Victorian society, and the pages teem not only with black-hearted murderers, devious poisoners and outrageous miscarriages of justice, but also with the minutiae of day-to-day Victorian life. Thus the book is not simply a list of the most famous murders of the period (John Thurtell, Burke and Hare, Jack the Ripper) but also provides a comprehensive dissection of Victorian society, and particularly its evolving understanding of crime, class, justice and policing.
Flanders’ theme, however, is the representation of murder. She quotes, approvingly, Thomas de Quincey’s ironic commentary on the public appetite for gore in her opening chapter, ‘Imagining Murder’: “‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’ … But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling in the tea urn … for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract …”
There are no cases documented here of sweethearts bubbling in tea urns, but it wasn’t for a lack of imagination on the part of the Victorian chroniclers of crime. The first major case Flanders deals with is that of John Thurtell, a decadent playboy who murdered his associate Joseph Weare over a gambling debt in 1823. Thurtell was no criminal mastermind, and the evidence against him amounted to a cut-and-dried case, but what is shocking to the modern mind is the extent to which the media was allowed to comment on the case. Flanders is excellent on the development of ‘broadsides’, cheap pamphlets hawked on street corners for the delectation of a blood-thirsty working-class. But even the most prestigious of the era’s newspapers were happy to print the kind of unfounded allegations and prejudicial rumours that today would have seen Thurtell walk away from court a free man, unable to obtain a fair trial.
Thurtell’s guilt might have been plain for all to see, but where Flanders excels is in her excavation of cases in which conviction (and the almost inevitable public execution) were preordained, regardless of the evidence. Eliza Fenning, a servant girl who was accused of attempted murder by poisoning in 1815, is probably the best example. “Her terrible story was inextricably bound up with class anxiety, with fear of the mob, with hierarchy and social structure,” writes Flanders. Fenning, who was undoubtedly innocent of the charge of attempted murder, was convicted on a mish-mash of hearsay and confused testimony, a victim of paranoia and prejudice. Flanders’ account of the tawdry episode is a superb example of the complex interplay of forces - rudimentary policing, social change, a system of justice in dire need of transparency and accountability - which doomed many of those who appeared before men who prided themselves on their reputation as ‘hanging judges’.
Fenning became notorious after the event, the subject of ‘broadsides’, acres of newspaper print and theatrical productions. In fact, if there’s a caveat to this book, it’s one of repetition: determined to explore each case to its fullest extent, Flanders is meticulous in exhaustively detailing the consequences of each case. Her devotion to her subject cannot be faulted, but once the pattern is established (murder, trial, representations in various media), the reader may well find him or herself skipping whole chunks of Flanders’ research.
Curiously, the real murder rate was relatively low. In 1810, for example, the murder rate in Britain was 0.15 per 100,000 people; for comparative purposes, the murder rate in Canada in 2007-2008 was 0.5 per 100,000. Nonetheless, crime-influenced theatre was massively popular for the Victorians: “in 1866 there were 51,363 nightly seats in twenty-five London theatres,” Flanders writes, a figure which only applies to legitimate theatre. Queen Victoria herself attended a production of Dion Boucicault’s ‘The Colleen Bawn’ three times in one fortnight.
The evolution of policing from a rudimentary arrangement of nightwatchmen prowling a particular parish into a more sophisticated organisation devoted to detection as well as prevention provides Flanders with another sub-plot. That development is reflected in the embryonic crime novel, with Flanders crediting Charles Dickens as one of the genre’s early leading lights, alongside Wilkie Collins.
By then the Victorian lust for blood, further sharpened by the likes of Conan Doyle’s fictional Sherlock Holmes, and the horrifyingly real crimes of Jack the Ripper, was firmly established, allowing Flanders to conclude thusly: “By the start of the new century, therefore, a love of blood could be indulged in safely and securely, without any fear of an ugly reality bursting in. Instead, oceans of blood could cheerfully be poured across the stage, across the page, in song and in sermon. Murder was, finally, an art.” - Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.