Murder Most Foul

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime BY Judith Flanders. Thomas Dunne Books. Hardcover, 576 pages. $26.

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

Dozens of murders liven up Judith Flanders’s omnibus of Victorian crime. But the real villains of the piece aren’t the poisoners and bludgeoners and throat slitters and dismemberers; they are, rather, the police, investigators, lawyers, coroners, judges, and journalists who pursued these malefactors. As Flanders describes it, crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Britain was a parade of inept investigations, suppressed or contaminated evidence, travestied courtroom proceedings, and botched executions.

Let’s begin with the police, whose disorganization and incompetence are on damning display throughout the book. Beset as we are by CSI spin-offs and other fictional displays of forensic prowess, it’s useful to be reminded that the concept of systematic investigation and prosecution of crime has not always been with us.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, conditions were admittedly less than ideal for police work. Crime scenes didn’t stay intact for long; the curious felt free to traipse through them even before the bodies were removed and evidence was collected. “What might be termed murder-sightseeing was a popular pastime,” Flanders writes.

Until the 1830s, coroners were chosen for their social status or legal training; nobody thought they needed to be medical professionals. For most of the century, the credentialed doctors who handled autopsies often had no clue about how to get the job done.

One of the worst offenders, a man who deserves a book in his own right if nobody has written one, was Alfred Swaine Taylor, the lecturer on medical jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital and a go-to “expert” in many of the midcentury trials Flanders exhumes from the archives. In one case, law enforcement sent him the viscera of a murder victim, to be tested for poison; he refused to do it because he hadn’t been paid for previous work, and the remains were thrown out. In another inquiry, Taylor testified that he’d found arsenic and antimony in the medicine a victim had been taking—and later “was obliged to confess to the court that the arsenic in the medicine had been introduced by himself in error” during testing. This would be funny if the lives of the accused—to say nothing of justice for the victims—hadn’t been at stake.

Courtroom proceedings were often a farce, but given the ragtag nature of policing at the time, at least as described by Flanders, it’s remarkable that suspects ever got collared in the first place. By 1800, as London’s population neared a million, preventing crime was the responsibility of a motley crew of parish watchmen, constables, and groups such as the delightfully named Bow Street Runners, an informal detective force employed by the magistrates of Bow Street court. The Metropolitan Police Service didn’t arrive on the scene until 1829, when Sir Robert Peel, then the home secretary, won approval for the creation of a centralized London force sporting those now familiar blue uniforms.

Another critical breakthrough in the emerging profession of crime detection was the establishment of a small, secret detective unit within the Metropolitan Police, at the behest of the force’s commissioner, Richard Mayne. By 1842, that elite squad was formally instituted as the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Department—later the Criminal Investigation Department, better known as Scotland Yard.

One of Flanders’s great themes is how murder fed the popular taste for entertainment and worked its sinister way into more enduring works of art. During their trials and after their own deaths, murderers took on new lives in popular broadsides and novelettes and stage shows of varying degrees of quality, for audiences of every social stripe.

Flanders describes the rise of a vast new readership thirsting for gore. “Penny-bloods” in the 1830s delivered cheap tales of highwaymen and lowlifes and seducers; by the 1860s, suave poisoners and boy detectives became the rage, and writers like Wilkie Collins were turning crime into lurid but undeniable art in such novels as The Moonstone and The Woman in White. (Many writers, including Dickens and Thackeray, followed trials closely and attended executions.) By late in the century, as detecting and forensics made progress, Arthur Conan Doyle had given the world the model of a scientific detective, in Sherlock Holmes, even as Jack the Ripper was turning murder into the most macabre kind of theatrics on London’s streets.

The Invention of Murder tries to be several things at once, all of them intriguing, but together they are too unwieldy for a single book. Flanders simultaneously wants to write a history of policing and the rise of forensics, a critical study of crime fiction, and a social history of popular crazes and anxieties, such as the wave of poisoning panic that swept the country in the 1840s.

Flanders’s book is also stuffed—indeed, overstuffed—with sensational details culled from the era’s own annals of crime investigations. Flanders has researched dozens of trials and read reams of newspaper accounts. As a research achievement, the book is impressive, but as a reading experience it can be numbing. No murderer or victim stays onstage for more than a few pages, and it becomes difficult to remember who dismembered or poisoned whom, and why. I started to yearn for a cozier microhistory, a close study of a handful of murders, instead of the stuff-it-all-in-the-carpetbag approach Flanders takes. It does help that she’s a lively writer with a knack for tart asides and satisfying end- and footnotes. (“The piece began with an unintentionally counterproductive error, referring to ‘the Defective Police.’”) The killers and victims described here should, on their own, make for memorable characters. But for all the book’s reconstructions of the murderous side of Victorian life, it’s the bloody-mindedness of the nineteenth-century British public and media, and the lumbering and erratic course of justice, that leave the most vivid stain.

Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, contributed to the story collection D.C. Noir (Akashic Books, 2006).