Author: Judith Flanders
Rating: 3.5 stars
Jealous of her father’s second family, a young girl brutally stabs her toddler half sibling. A rake seduces an overly trusting woman and then kills her to profit in an insurance scam. A woman poisons her way through three husbands and a half dozen children before suspicion finally starts to fall her way.
These may sound like modern crimes, but they all took place in the nineteenth century. Many of our modern (Western) attitudes and culture, perhaps more than we would like to admit, have their roots in the Victorian age. And our obsession with crime, according to the expansive new book by social historian Judith Flanders, is no exception.
Today’s audiences have Law & Order, Dateline, 48 Hours, Bones, Castle, Criminal Minds, Investigation Discovery, Sandra Brown, In Cold Blood, Patricia Cornwell, Sherlock, and dozens and dozens of other outlets to experience true crime and true-crime inspired fiction. The Victorians? Broadsides, songs, poetry, public hangings, souvenirs, penny dreadfuls, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes (the more things change…). Things may initially seem more violent in the Victorian era’s obsession with crime and, later, detection. But really, are crowds lining up to buy pieces of hangman’s rope that far removed from the thousands watching minute-by-minute trial coverage of Jodi Arrias, or Casey Anthony?
What The Invention of Murder does well is present an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, survey of individual crimes and how they were reported, dramatized, and investigated. What it does less well is provide context or analysis. Flanders profiles the rise of crime throughout the nineteenth century, and the influence of journalism on the emerging fields of detective work and scientific analysis. But it feels as if their are links missing; how is told, but not why. It’s clear that attitudes had shifted drastically from the early nineteenth century, when crimes would be ripped wholesale into melodrama for the stage, to the late nineteenth century, when Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde finally brought home the darkness inherent in the human mind. But quite why those attitudes shifted I don’t think I could tell you, despite over 460 pages of reading about it.
The crimes detailed in The Invention of Murder are fascinating, make no mistake. And, rather unexpectedly, it turned into a good source for literary criticism when Flanders turned to talking about serialized novels, Dickens, Collins, Thomas Hardy, and others. But unless you are particularly interested in crime, or a serious student of the Victorian era, this book will probably be more frustrating than it is worth.