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

  • Judith Flanders
  • Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press
  • 576 pp.

The “ripped from the headlines” tales of Law & Order have a strong tradition in grisly crimes from the 19th century.


A bored young woman takes a lover. When a man with better financial prospects appears on the scene, the lover turns up dead, and the young woman is found to have purchased arsenic.

The latest episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”? No, the 1857 case of Glasgow’s Madeleine Smith, whose trial so fascinated the public that a racehorse was named after her, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne recorded their reactions to the newspaper coverage titillated by Smith’s sexual life, Wilkie Collins used the case as the basis for “Armadale” (1866) and David Lean filmed the story nearly a century later as “Madeleine”(1950).

In dealing with this and many other cases in The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders provides a masterful and meticulous discussion of Victorian murder and its representation in fiction and theater — the “ripped from the headlines” of today’s Law & Order applied to the 19th century.

The connection Flanders makes between fact and fiction is apt. In the Victorian era, multiple genres developed that involved crime, frequently melding several literary forms. These encompassed the Newgate novel that invoked the name of the famous prison (Charles Dickens); the sensation novel (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, even Thomas Hardy); and the spy novel (E. Phillips Oppenheim and William Le Queux). The gothic also expanded from the 18th-century works of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole and Charles Brockden Brown to lay the foundations of the horror of Richard Marsh, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker. Most notably, the new detective/mystery fiction offered its audience the reassurance of a morality play in its depiction of justice achieved (Edgar Allan Poe, Collins, Anna Katharine Green, Arthur Conan Doyle).

The Invention of Murder complements Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (on the 1860 killing of toddler Francis Savile Kent) and Kate Colquhoun’s Murder in the First Class Carriage (on the 1864 murder of Thomas Briggs that culminated in a dramatic trans-Atlantic chase). Flanders’ book covers both cases and much more.

The author deals with newspaper and broadside renderings of murder cases that usually bore the most casual relationship to the truth, the establishment (and suspicion) of the professional police force, hysteria about perceived crime waves, the beginnings of forensic science and other investigative techniques, the viciousness (and viscousness) of domestic crime and the legacy of Victorian murder in mystery and detective fiction.

Flanders describes the poignant cases of individuals convicted for a variety of reasons — faulty evidence; incompetence by so-called experts, counsel or judge; prejudice; or simple lack of resources to obtain skilled representation.

The author captures William Makepeace Thackeray’s  horror at witnessing an execution. We see Bulwer Lytton’s predicament in portraying murderer Eugene Aram in his eponymous proto-mystery (1832) and facing accusations of promoting copycat killings (a lingering concern, as evidenced by the reaction to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity). Yet Bulwer Lytton was not alone in his dramatization of the case, as the author mentions the influential Caleb Williams (1794) by William Godwin and “The Dream of Eugene Aram” (1828) by poet Thomas Hood.

Dickens’ keen interest in crime is noted, including his advocacy for the police force in Household Words and the important role of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852–3) as the first fictional police detective. Lady Audley’s Secret (1861) by Braddon is accurately portrayed as more than a popular success as sensation fiction and drama, for the previously indolent lawyer Robert Audley serves as a proficient amateur investigator of his friend’s disappearance and righter of wrongs within his uncle’s household.

Flanders deftly showcases the Victorians’ striking fear of women’s agency and sexuality by analyzing criminal prosecutions of female defendants. Also covered is a different sort of female transgressor, the fictional female detective, whose capability and remunerated work challenge the typical 19th-century view of women and their place in society. Flanders displays some impressive literary sleuthing concerning the first professional female detectives in fiction: the discovery of Edward Ellis’ Ruth the Betrayer (1862­–63) and the unmasking of the pseudonymous Andrew Forrester, author of The Female Detective (1864).

Women authors, too, created female investigators, including Catherine Louisa Pirkis, whose short stories featured protagonist Loveday Brooke. Gifted amateurs such as Marian Halcombe from Collins’ The Woman in White (1860)are present as well. As can be expected, the female victims of Jack the Ripper receive attention, although the considerable Ripper industry may leave the reader feeling that this is well-trodden ground.

If we’re tempted to feel superior to the Victorians who camped out for prime viewing of executions locations and snatched up newspapers with their grisly details, it bears remembering that prospective spectators of the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann purchased toy ladders (a key element of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping) outside the courthouse, and that the pursuit of O. J. Simpson attracted one of the largest audiences in history.

As Flanders’ fine book makes clear, there is nothing new under the sun.

Elizabeth Foxwell is managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection;  staff editor of The Catholic Historical Review; and editor of the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series. Her new collection of historical mystery short stories, No Man’s Land and Other Stories, includes the Agatha Award-winning “No Man’s Land” and the Cape Fear Festival prize-winning “Keeper of the Flame.” [Disclosure: Judith Flanders included the reviewer in a list of acknowledgements, presumably for steering the author to research materials such as Clues articles, but the reviewer had no involvement in the writing of the book.]


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