The Invention of Murder

Judith Flanders’s opening gambit in her finely drawn survey of Victorian era homicide, The Invention of Murder, catches your attention like moving a pawn forward three spaces: “Crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure, to know that murder is possible, just not here.” But, inevitably, you have to go to bed, turn out the light, and realize that maybe, surely, there is a murderer hidden in the closet or behind the curtains.

Though it would help to have a British background to appreciate all the nuances of Flanders’s point that murder became art during the 1800s in Britain — in the sense that true crime worked its wonders on Dickens, Stevenson, Wilde, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle — her format makes it easy to move from point A, murder itself, to the next point and the point thereafter: how it provided the fuel for an industry that would cash in on the crime, from cheap but sensational broadsides, penny bloods, pamphlets, and newspapers galore to novels, waxworks, melodramatic theater, even figurines. Something for every class, for every pocketbook, some of it art, most of it ephemera wrapped in piety, bigotry, or hysteria — but almost unstoppably salable.

There is no denying that murders were on the uptick during the nineteenth century. In 1810, in England and Wales, you could count the total number of murders on the digits of your hands and one foot; by midcentury, the number of unexplained deaths had risen to 20,000, which goes a long way toward explaining public interest. Flanders coaxes up all the vulnerability and alienation that the cusp of modernity, this hard new world, stoked in the citizenry, and how they reveled in it as well.

 Flanders typically handles the murders themselves with dexterity, running from a dark humor — she refers to the notorious  “resurrection men” Burke and Hare, who supplied the needs of the medical establishment for cadavers by harvesting them not from graves but from the living, as “pioneers of capitalism” — to the cool depiction of little Fanny Adams’s dismemberment: her head was “perched on two hop poles, while on the ground was one of her legs, still with its stocking and boot on. Her right arm, then a hand, then her torso, were found nearby. Her other foot, and left arm, were in the next field.”

Good thing, then, for the forces of authority, who gained ground and professionalism during the century, from parish watchmen through the bungling and corrupt early years of the Metropolitan Police, to the evolution of a poorly functioning spy network aimed at prevention, to a thoroughly modern system of detection. Flanders is particularly sharp here in untangling the influence of class on the police system — policemen were roundly understood to be in the pockets of the well-to-do — with the same dash she brings to the class nature of newspapers.

Newspapers — from the Morning Chronicle, The Times, Morning Herald, Observer to the Derby Mercury, Bristol Mercury, and Caledonian Mercury — were relatively expensive, a middle-class luxury that was rarely bothered by a scarcity of facts when it came to crime stories. Or, for that matter, with facts at all, for often enough “truth became an irrelevancy” if it got in the way of selling papers. And sell they did in the wake of a grisly deed. Though it is not shocking to witness class obstinacy and intolerance at work in the various papers, our remove gives it real punch. Among the dozens of examples of stories flying off the rails comes one from The Times, which just couldn’t imagine how the police would arrest a respectable middle-class girl in the death of another youngster when there was a perfectly good nursemaid to slap into irons (suggesting that it was likely the nursemaid had been canoodling with her boyfriend in the child’s room when the child woke up and they smothered her to insure her silence). Such rot was everywhere, but poor and working-class women bore the brunt.

The nineteenth century was also still a time of public executions, which gave nothing away to the sixteenth century for their spectacle, their sheer entertainment factor, sometimes drawing tens of thousands for really infamous criminals, with souvenirs hawked and a bustling trade in food and drink. These events were also dutifully misreported by the press, which in one instance informed readers of a woman who went to the noose with great composure. Of course, as she had committed suicide in her cell the night before, perhaps she did appear mellow. But Dickens attended a few executions, and they certainly touched his work; Melville saw at least one (“All in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene”); and another haunted Thackeray, who caught the man on the scaffold most believably: “He opened his hands in a helpless kind of way…. His mouth was contracted into a sort of pitiful smile.”

Flanders skillfully traces the movement of the crime to its surrounding literature: how the birth of true-crime fiction took the chance to elevate the novelty of murder above lurid sensationalism to curiosity about the bigger picture of motive and setting; how murderers became tragic figures and highwaymen became heroes. She sifts through the work of Dickens, Wilde, and Collins, sussing out how their imaginations reacted to true crimes, from moments of ambiguity and uncertainty in the face of roguery to its cunningness, audacity, and romance. She introduces a handful of lesser-known but terrific lights: Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hood, and “Andrew Forrester.”

There is more, much more, for Flanders is nothing if not thorough, from the poison panic that gripped the country in the midcentury to the early forensic work of John Watkins, from her contribution to the debate on the origins of Sherlock Holmes’s name to the vast array of theatrical interpretations given over to the most infamous violent crimes. Finally, she shows how police work and detection evolved to the point where we felt safe looking criminals in the face, even if their faces were fogged by the press or witnessed through the creativity of the novelist, and we could admit our fascination, proving Thomas de Quincey right: “The world in general…are very bloody-minded; and all they want in murder is copious effusion of blood.”