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

Written by Judith Flanders
Review by Bethany Latham

Cain might object to the theft of credit for his invention, but otherwise the title of this work sums things up rather nicely. The Victorians may not have invented murder, but they were certainly the first to sensationalize it in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s unfortunate enough to read a modern newspaper or turn on the television.

Flanders covers the entire 19th century and even a bit before, so readers are treated to everything from the Ratcliff Highway murders in 1811 to those that influenced Dickens. Flanders has obviously done her research for this compendium, it covers murders both famous and obscure, and one would expect it to be riveting given its subject matter; there are areas of the book where this is true. The writing style is readable and well-paced, with occasional tongue-in-cheek humor. For all this, the book sometimes drags, almost as if one becomes desensitized to it – the multitude of chronologically presented murders begin to run together and originality subsides. Another factor may be that there is no psychological criminology here. It’s a “just the facts, ma’am” approach: the details of the crime, then its coverage in the media outlets of the time, from broadsides to puppet theatre, and its historical echoes. Given the sheer breadth of coverage, this is possibly the only workable approach, but it makes for a less compelling read. Well-researched, interesting, and expansive, this is, perhaps, a book best read in snippets, rather than cover to cover.