Summary and book reviews of The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

The Invention of Murder

How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

By Judith Flanders

The Invention of Murder
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2013,
    576 pages.
    Paperback: 15 Jul 2014,
    576 pages.

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Book Summary

In this fascinating exploration of murder in the nineteenth century, Judith Flanders examines some of the most gripping cases that captivated the Victorians and gave rise to the first detective fiction.

Murder in the nineteenth century was rare. But murder as sensation and entertainment became ubiquitous, with cold-blooded killings transformed into novels, broadsides, ballads, opera, and melodrama - even into puppet shows and performing dog-acts. Detective fiction and the new police force developed in parallel, each imitating the other - the founders of Scotland Yard gave rise to Dickens's Inspector Bucket, the first fictional police detective, who in turn influenced Sherlock Holmes and, ultimately, even P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell.

In this meticulously researched and engrossing book, Judith Flanders retells the gruesome stories of many different types of murder, both famous and obscure: from Greenacre, who transported his dismembered fiancée around town by omnibus, to Burke and Hare's bodysnatching business in Edinburgh; from the crimes (and myths) of Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, to the tragedy of the murdered Marr family in London's East End. Through these stories of murder - from the brutal to the pathetic - Flanders builds a rich and multi-faceted portrait of Victorian society.  With an irresistible cast of swindlers, forgers, and poisoners, the mad, the bad and the utterly dangerous, The Invention of Murder is both a mesmerizing tale of crime and punishment, and history at its most readable.

ONE
Imagining Murder

'Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.' So wrote Thomas de Quincey in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him. But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else's sweetheart bubbling in the tea urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure, to know that murder is possible, just not here. At the start of the nineteenth century, it was easy to think of murder that way. Capital convictions in the London area, including all the outlying villages, were running at a rate of one a year. In all of England and Wales in 1810, just fifteen people were convicted of murder out of a population of nearly ten million: 0.15 per 100,000 people. (For comparison purposes...

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Reviews

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It is not often that history can be described by the words "a page-turner," or "I couldn't put it down," but Judith Flanders succeeds on both levels. She provides an intriguing slant on an era about which there are many myths and misconceptions and shows us only too well that we are not so far removed from our ancestors after all.   (Reviewed by Judi Sauerbrey).

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Media Reviews
The Irish Times

Plenty of gruesome detail, but also a dry humor…a valuable and well-researched account of Victorian society in Britain and its growing fascination with the ultimate crime…All human death is here.

Globe and Mail

Judith Flanders has produced a compelling study of how crime, and crime prevention, emerged as a popular obsession in 19th century Britain, and came to dominate its literature…mesmerizing.

The Telegraph (UK)

An entertaining excursion into the Victorians' taste for murder…The cast is full of swindlers and forgers and other doubtful characters.

The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

Flanders's book is more than a catalog of crimes…it builds into an alternative history of the Victorian age, its narrow, purposeful focus providing a means of seeing, from an oblique perspective, terrain which might previously have seemed familiar.

Sunday Times (UK)

Engrossing…Flanders excels at following the trends in detection and how this was reflected in writing.

Scotland on Sunday

Riveting and meticulous…Flanders balances judicious facts with lively story-telling…the research behind this book is phenomenal…The Invention of Murder is what great non-fiction should be; as erudite as it is entertaining, as gripping as fiction despite being "stranger than fiction."

The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

Compelling…remarkable…in this intelligent and comprehensive compendium of murder, she has left no gravestone unturned.

Daily Mail (UK)

Excellent, well-written and hugely well-informed.

The Independent (UK)

This is so much more than a compendium of famous crimes…Flanders's knowledge of the period is both wide and extraordinarily deep. She writes incisively, and often with dark wit.

BBC History Magazine (UK)

Flanders has written a book rather like one of the great, rambling Victorian novels that she discusses, though most readers will find her work a lot easier, and a lot more fun… the sheer sumptuousness of Flanders's book leaves the reader wanting still more.

Mail on Sunday (UK)

A book jam-packed with fascinating details, not only about the Victorian attitude to murder, but much else besides.

The Independent on Sunday (UK)

A penetrating study of the way in which murder can take hold of the creative imagination.

The Spectator (UK)

Part social history, part literary history, and part penny-blood itself. In the fine tradition of its subject it both has its cake and eats it. Yum. Strychnine.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Superb… Flanders's convincing and smart synthesis of the evolution of an official police force, fictional detectives, and real-life cause célèbres will appeal to devotees of true crime and detective fiction alike.

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Screaming Bloody Murder

To paraphrase an old poem, "Twas a balmy summer afternoon," July 5, 2011 to be exact. I was enjoying a peaceful lunch with a dear friend at an outdoor cafe in Portland, Oregon, when my cell phone rang and my usually placid, always refined eighty-nine year old mother screeched: "It's not guilty on all counts, and Nancy Grace is having a cow!"

She was speaking of the Casey Anthony verdict, which had just come down after a trial that had captivated Mom and a goodly portion of the rest of the country (including yours truly!) for the better part of three years. To this day that memory has an eerie aura for me very reminiscent of an old television show hosted by Walter Cronkite called You Are There! I even remember how every broadcast began: "...

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