The Invention of Murder picks up the baton where it was left by Peter Linebaugh’s London Hanged; at the time of the establishment of the West India dock police and the frightening, unsolved murders on the Ratcliffe Highway in 1811. Where Linebaugh was primarily concerned with issues of Government repression and social class in the application of the Bloody Code in the 17th and 18th centuries, Judith Flanders highlights the development of the portrayal of murder as an art form (after de Quincey) to entertain the emergent literate middle classes in newspapers, magazines, novels and plays.
Class differences helped to provide the frisson of otherness which characterised murders which were committed safely out of the way of the middle classes in working class areas in the reports provided by newspapers and broadsheets. The particular treatment of suspected female murderers in the press is highlighted: working class women were generally presumed guilty by the press while middle class women with legal representation were given the benefit of the doubt. Novelists such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mrs Braddon and Arthur Conan Doyle paid close attention to the newspaper reports and court cases of sensational murders to provide material for their novels.
As well as some of the great stories about the murders the book tells us about the changes in the nature of policing, the growth of the media and the reading public and the rise of science and medicine. There is a wonderful story about the beginnings of post mortem examinations which were initially performed by the local GPs – aka leech fondlers. One GP in the 1850s submitted a report saying he was not sure how the man died; he may have died of fright. As an afterthought he noted that the man had fallen from a second storey window and that may have contributed to the death. Such is the development of science.
In the era before proper policing the crime scene often became a tourist attraction even while the authorities were gathering evidence. Enterprising landlords often charged admission to view the crime scene, or else made some money by selling the effects of the victim or murderer. Madame Tussaud got her start showing off galleries of horror and murder, guillotines and the like after her emigration from Revolutionary France. In the aftermath of a murder the gallery would often bid for the property of the victim or murderer to add that magic of authenticity to the display. Tussaud’s of London still has the guillotine which was used on Mary Antoinette.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable book about one of our favourite vicarious thrills which has successfully pillaged Victorian newspapers, magazines and novels to chart the arrival of the sensational murder as a popular entertainment spectacle.