Excerpt from The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Jul 2013, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2014, 576 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judi Sauerbrey

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Frequently the system functioned well: there were six House of Commons select committee reports in the decade leading up to 1822, and many parish watch schemes were commended as 'exemplary and meritorious'. But others were unimaginably venal and corrupt. When Sir John Fielding was on the bench, Bow Street magistrates' court had been a model of what might be achieved under the old methods. For example, a Runner named John Clarke, previously a silversmith, used his knowledge of metalworking to track down counterfeiters, testifying at nearly half of the Old Bailey coining trials between 1771 and 1798. When he gave evidence, the conviction rate was 82 per cent; when he was absent, it dropped to 40 per cent. But by the time William Mainwaring took over in 1781 as Chairman of both the Middlesex and the Westminster Sessions, corruption was endemic. Mainwaring persuaded the government to pay him a secret extra salary, while institutionalizing cronyism and nepotism.

The lack of success following the Marr murders ensured that changes were swiftly made at local level. The watchmen in Shadwell were relieved of their duty and replaced by two companies of eighteen men patrolling nightly, each equipped with a rattle, a lantern, a cutlass and a pistol. At Wapping, sixteen extra men were drafted in, and the Thames Police Office arranged for further street policing over Christmas. Several neighbouring parishes also drew up volunteer patrols to augment the watch. Even so, a letter to the Home Office on 28 December 1811 warned that 'the frequency of the late horrible Outrages must induce a Belief that the wicked Part of the Community is becoming too strong for the law'. The Morning Post concurred: 'Either respectable householders must determine to be their own guardians, or we must have a regularly enlisted armed police under the orders of proper officers.' Many frightened citizens wrote to the Home Secretary with their own ideas, nearly all of which involved increasing the size and frequency of rewards: in effect buying improved detection from criminals and their cohorts. Many believed that these cohorts included the watch themselves, who seemed to spend far too much time with criminals. William Smith harrumphed that 'it was extremely scandalous that the Police Officers should be upon such terms of intimacy with the most notorious offenders'.

To deal with the crisis of confidence, a parliamentary select committee was set up to study the question, and it reported in March 1812. The effects of this report still matter today, because it advocated taking crime prevention away from the local authorities, and putting a single centralized authority in overall control of policing throughout London. Robert Southey, who would be named Poet Laureate the following year, and was now as ardent an opponent of political reform as he had once been a promoter of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, agreed: 'I have very long felt the necessity of an improved police, and these dreadful events, I hope and trust, will lead to the establishment of one as vigilant as that of Paris used to be. The police laws cannot be too rigorous; and the usual objection that a rigorous police is inconsistent with English liberty might easily be shown to be absurd.' True, there was a dissident voice in the Earl of Dudley, who said that he 'would rather half a dozen people's throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than to be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché's contrivances'. But then, Dudley's socio-economic position made him safer than most.

Thomas de Quincey might at first appear to have taken the affair more lightly, as he mockingly reported on his neighbour, who after the murders 'never rested until she had placed eighteen doors … each secured by ponderous bolts, and bars, and chains, between her own bedroom and any intruder of human build. To reach her, even in her drawing room, was like going … into a beleaguered fortress.' This seemed at first simply a comic coda, but de Quincey's contribution was greater than anyone at the time could have imagined, as the Ratcliffe Highway murders spurred him to one of literature's greatest flights of fancy, in the satirical essays referred to collectively under the title On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. In the first essay, de Quincey's narrator introduces himself and his subject at a meeting of connoisseurs of murder: 'GENTLEMEN, – I have had the honour to be appointed by your committee to the trying task of reading the Williams' Lecture on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts' – a task, he goes on to explain, which is increasingly difficult, as excellence in the field raises the bar for more aesthetic murders: 'People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads … a knife – a purse – and a dark lane … Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us … he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.' De Quincey is making a serious point: in Macbeth, we are interested not in the victim, Duncan, but in the thoughts of the murderer, Macbeth, just as we are more interested in murderers than we are in their victims. De Quincey's narrator suggests that murder is an art, that murder is theatre, and that Williams was an artist who had written a sensational play that hundreds of thousands wanted to see.

From Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC

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