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

An exhaustive, engaging examination of how murder and the murder mystery novel infiltrated our modern world by way of 19th-century Britain.

murder

Judith Flanders (A Circle of Sisters) tackles an unwieldy subject in The Invention of Murder, telling the tale admirably well, even entertainingly.

The Victorian British, Flanders tells us, were the first to identify murder as an object of fascination–inspiring in turn a passionate interest in trials, executions, motives and, eventually, the developing profession of solving crimes. The action opens in 1811 with the murdered Marr family, and quickly moves to 1820s Edinburgh, where Burke and Hare infamously killed so they could to sell the corpses to doctors as medical specimens. Flanders introduces a lengthy list of famous (and obscure) murderers and serial killers, culminating, of course, with Jack the Ripper. Alongside the killers and their victims, she presents Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and many contributions by Charles Dickens to illustrate her thesis that murder in life inspired murder in art. Fictional murderers and detectives play a role equal to their real-life counterparts, as Sweeney Todd and Sherlock Holmes take the stage.

Flanders also tracks the evolution of the police force from a force of deterrence to an investigative organization, along with the parallel development of murder and detection in literature and on the stage. The penny-blood (or penny-dreadful), a cheap booklet telling a sordid and often illustrated tale of horror, morphs into the detective novel (and play), as the public shifts its interest from bloody murder to the newly invented and increasingly sympathetic crimesolvers we know and love today.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 dismembered parts.

One Response

  1. […] and the advances in forensic medicine and pursued it, is very much in the tradition of The Invention of Murder and The Remedy, obviously. To a lesser extent it also relates to The Peculiar Case of the Electric […]

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