Book Review: The Invention of Murder

This is a new type of post for me. We were asked to do a book review for my history degree. It was a pretty casual piece of work, so don’t judge me too much, but hopefully this will be useful for some people looking for a bit of insight on either Flanders’ book or the period as a whole. Enjoy!


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

(HarperPress, January 2011) Pp. 556. £6.99. Amazon Kindle eBook edition.

ASIN: B004FPYX72                              Printed Edition ISBN: 9780007248889


Murder was, finally, a fine art.’

Judith Flanders’ piece on ‘The Invention of Murder’ is naturally one that attracts those with a fairly morbid interest. However, do not expect this to be a recital of gore and guts with little historical discussion. Flanders’ has managed to, although including relevant description of murder, create a book that illustrates clearly the position of murder within Victorian society, including many insightful passages on its use in culture and the media. Without doubt, this book manages to be both thought provoking and interesting, whilst also attaining an incredible level of knowledge and displaying this to the reader clearly.

%7B982000AA-7A60-41CD-8A69-C75D6E26EE6E%7DImg100No book is perfect however. Thus, although a very good attempt, it would be foolish to claim there are no faults with Judith Flanders’ book. Although an uncommon tack, the main issue of this book must be considered before its positives: the title could be construed as rather misleading. ‘The Invention of Murder’, rather brings forward the idea that murder was a new concept to the Victorian period. Few would argue that Flanders is genuinely trying to claim that murder was a concept developed by the Victorians; but her lack of discussion of any pre-Victorian period does hinder her development of any real argument, particularly of why she claimed the title of ‘invention’.

The real emphasis of concentration for the book is shown before even the first chapter, a quote from Punch Magazine in 1842 stating ‘We are a trading community – a commercial people. Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.’ [LN 68] As her own website states, ‘In the nineteenth century, murder – a rarity in reality – was ubiquitous in novels’, therefore it is unsurprising that Flanders follows the coverage of murder and the resulting fascination just as much as murder itself.[i] It is relatively common knowledge that Victorian people were fascinated by both murder and money (similarly to most periods of times), thus a money-making opportunity arose via selling the stories of murder and gore. That link to the media and culture is much more the center of The Invention of Murder. There are many descriptions of how the media and literature alike almost glorified murder in order to create a truly poetic vision of rather hideous events. A particularly striking example lies with the case of the rather unfortunate William Weare who found himself on the wrong end of a bloody murder from John Thurtell. The case found its way into national newspapers via forged interviews and tales of brutal murder. Unsurprisingly, the popularity with such a brutal story led it to interest directors in the theatre industry, with the murder becoming incredibly exaggerated in many forms of theatrical production. [LN 522] Flanders’ innovation is to take murders like this, and through extensive research, see how the Victorian public became so intensely obsessed with all things bloody.

Maybe it is this huge increase in public knowledge of murder that creates Flanders’ idea of ‘invention’; that before killings were simply killings. Be it an accidental death in a local brawl or something slightly more sinister, it was rare for a death to be labeled as ‘murder’ before 1815. Flanders states that the Met grew by four times between 1829 and 1886. Many would state that this was simply to react to an influx in crime, however Flanders goes further, repeatedly suggesting that it was a reverse form of correlation. According to her, the rise in documented murders was simply because there were more officers on the street to engage with criminal activity. The intense study of murder then followed in 1842 after the first detectives were appointed to Scotland Yard. It is therefore unsurprising that at this point crime novels began to rise, with their peak at the first publication of Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Flanders’ argument is a strong one that there is little space to disagree with, yet it is delivered in a refreshing tone.

Here is probably a good space to comment on Flanders’ writing style. A breath of fresh air away from many historical books, she is able to go into implicit detail whilst keeping an aurora of rather dark wit about the text. An example of her rather grotesque subject is the fascination she places upon public executions, such as that of Eliza Fenning, in which ten thousand people flocked to see the execution of a relatively young woman. [LN 3151] The case of Miss Fenning also sparks another interesting point over Flanders’ book. The case dates back to 1815, despite the fact that Queen Victoria was not crowned until 1819. Thus, it seems clear that Flanders believes that what counts as the Victorian period is not simply the guidelines of Victoria’s rule – though maybe that’s more of a subject matter for one of her previous titles that are more centered to issues around.

The final chapter of the book ties the facts and suggestions together rather well. It tells of the growth of murder in theatre under the title of ‘Modernity’. Throughout The Invention of Murder, Flanders refers back to Thomas de Quincey’s Victorian works and journalism. Repeatedly, de Quincey had suggested that an apparatus would form around murder, and Flanders’ conclusion seems to be that his views were virtually spot on. From songs, oral word and theatrical performances, murder has become something to be admired; ‘murder was, finally, a fine art.’ [LN 7502]

After this controversial and well supported conclusion, it is worth noting there is still 200 pages left of the book. These are devoted to Flanders’ endnotes. [LN7600] Although highly informative, these notes naturally cannot be read in one block. Thus the reader is left having to flick from front to back when trying to find information on sources and more precise detail. This problem is only exacerbated when using the eBook publication. Of course, it is better to have the notes at the back than not at all. But when over a third of the book is placed in the note section, it can become tiresome to read when looking to gain as much information on the topic as possible.

It is difficult to truly sum up The Invention of Murder in one, concluding, paragraph. It is without doubt well informed and absorbing to read; yet there is not a huge level of structure to Flanders’ argument. Yes, it is a development of how murder became a fascination and form of art for the people in the Victorian period, but a couple of examples could have been dealt with in less than fifty pages. Therefore, it is fair to say that the 500+ pages within The Invention of Murder are slightly unnecessary. However, although Flanders’ point is clear from an early point, the book remains interesting to read and full of facts from the past, exactly what a good piece of historical text should be.

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