July 2013

Arnettra Baker

nonfiction

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

Judith Flanders, a social historian whose focus is the Victorian era, has just published her third book, The Invention of Murder. As the title suggests, Flanders explores how crime (and criminals) matured over the nineteenth century and how the detective, first fictional then nonfictional, was created as a response to the need for sophisticated methods of detection to match the criminal's ever-growing maturation. Flanders entices the readers with details of both crimes well known -- even I have heard of the Burke and Hare murders; Jack the Ripper and his ever-enduring mystery closes out the book -- and the not-so-well-known, but it is the cultural cult that sprang up around the murders that truly fascinates. Finding out about the patterers and the broadsides and the inquests truly made the book zip along, despite its length.

Flanders writes with an intimacy that keeps her exploration of Victorian attitudes toward crime, class, and morality from reading like a dry textbook restating facts gleaned from exhaustive research. And The Invention of Murder is very obviously exhaustively researched; I feel I learned more from this book than I did the semester I took Victorian Literature in undergrad. In her exploration of the Victorians' fascination with both murder and its consequences, the reader learns of Victorian mores, the era's stifling class consciousness, and its often baffling attitudes toward gender (attitudes that, unfortunately, still resonate in our culture today).

Flanders begins her tale with the murder of the Marr family and their apprentice, and I was astounded at the differences in Victorian detection and modern detection; there was none in 1811, the year the Marrs were murdered. Neighbors walked through the crime scene, the bodies sat unpreserved for days, and broadsides, single sheets detailing all the particulars of the murder, the crime scene, and any suspects, were sold cheaply to the working classes by patterers who often were not beholden to the truth.

With each murder Flanders details, we learn how police forces formed (the Brits first suspected them of being spies of the government and were actively hostile toward them), and how a police commander named Richard Mayne stealthily created a proto-detective unit when the only focus for the police at this time was the prevention of crime. Flanders also traces the evolution of the detective novel -- and here Charles Dickens's name is mentioned a lot -- a form that started as a forthright telling of a crime and evolved into the recognizable whodunit of modern times.

Flanders does an excellent job of examining both the middle- and working-class attitudes about crime. Unsurprisingly, members of the middle class looked down on the working class's "lurid" interest in cheap broadsides and public executions, while they avidly read the details of the crimes in heavily taxed newspapers. But I would have liked a deeper examination of the difference in crimes of which men and women were accused. Flanders had an opportunity to really explore the gender attitudes of the Victorians in the chapter "Middle Class Poisoners," as poisoning is seen mostly as a feminine crime in modern times, but instead Flanders's focus is on the differing treatment of middle-class murderers and working-class murderers in the justice system.

While The Invention of Murder is great fun -- and I say this as someone who doesn't typically care for true crime stories, whether fiction or nonfiction -- Flanders's writing does occasionally get bogged down in details. There were plenty of times when I found myself having to go back and reread passages to get dates and names straight, and there were even times I jotted down names and dates in a little notebook to consult when Flanders jumped around her timeline, but her intimate style invites the reader to undertake a history lesson in Victorian culture, murder, and the birth of detective policing. Who knew history could be so salacious?

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 978-1250024879
576 pages