The Invention of Murder, By Judith Flanders

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The Independent Culture

In 1886 workmen laying a gas pipe came came across a skeleton with a stake through his ribs. The remains were almost certainly those of an alleged murderer who had died in 1812. At the end of 1811, seven people including a baby had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death in two separate attacks in and near Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London.

The attacks were astonishingly ferocious and without apparent motive. The authorities eventually arrested a man named John Williams, who committed suicide in his cell before he could come to trial. Though the evidence against him was, by modern standards, inconclusive, neither the authorities nor the public had any doubt of his guilt. His corpse was placed in a cart and, watched by immense crowds, taken in procession to the scenes of his supposed crimes. The body was then carried to Cannon Street, where a stake was hammered through the heart before it was thrown into a grave.

This is the first of the many murders that Judith Flanders explores. Williams achieved extraordinary celebrity after death. He affected the way in which people thought about murder. He became a stock character of melodrama. The Ratcliffe Highway murders made their mark on all levels of society. When Thomas De Quincey wrote the delicately ironic essays known collectively as On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, the first was announced as "a Williams' Lecture on Murder".

Flanders begins with one set of East End murders and ends with another - the swathe of killing cut by Jack the Ripper in 1888 and perhaps beyond. Between these lurid bookends, she moves through the century, describing some of the celebrated Victorian murders that so fascinated the public.

But this is much more than a compendium of famous crimes. As such books as The Victorian House and Consuming Passions have demonstrated, Flanders's knowledge of the period is both wide and extraordinarily deep. She writes incisively and often with dark wit. Best of all, she has a wonderful ability to make connections and to show us familiar sights from unexpected angles. All of these qualities are displayed to the full in The Invention of Murder.

British society in the 19th century had its own, complex relationship with murder, and this lies at the heart of the book. Perhaps most importantly, Flanders sinks a shaft into the dark underworld of Victorian culture and makes some remarkable discoveries there. It is not so much a case of fact being stranger than fiction as of fact and fiction becoming inextricably entangled.

At the start of period, in 1810, just 15 people were condemned for murder out of a population approaching ten million. This was at the end of an era in which most people lived in small communities. There was rarely much doubt about the identity of a murderer or the motive for the crime, any more than when Cain slew Abel.

All this altered in the course of the 19th century as the population expanded and moved into the sprawling cities of Victorian Britain, where it was possible to live anonymously. Murder modified its nature to suit the changing conditions. So too did the public's response to it.

There was something almost capricious in the way that some murders would lodge themselves in the collective imagination, whereas others were soon forgotten. The Ratcliffe Highway murders concerned people in humble circumstances. But the case had a far greater, and longer-lasting, effect than the murder of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, a few months later in the lobby of the House ofCommons.

Flanders discusses how newspapers influenced the outcome of cases, and how famous murders became staple ingredients in melodrama, the theatre and fiction. Later chapters look at how the mechanics of investigation evolved over the century as the police, against some public opposition, took over the investigation of crime as well as its prevention. The first "Detective Department" was set up in 1842 in the wake of murder cases that stressed the importance of active and co-ordinated police work.

As the techniques of investigation developed, so did the tools of forensic science. Technology was another driving force: thanks to trains, for example, society became ever more mobile; thanks to the telegraph, it was possible to communicate instantaneously with people at the other end of the country.

Around the mid-century, poison became something of a public obsession. It was perceived as a particularly sinister murder method because it implied that the killer and the victim were intimate, perhaps even members of the same family. Its stealthy, often domestic nature struck terror in middle-class bosoms. It was also a boon to writers of sensational fiction.

Class was and is another British preoccupation. Flanders gives an account of the Road Hill House Murder of 1860 (the subject of Kate Summerscale's fascinating book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher in 2008), whose outwardly tranquil middle-class setting increased the horror generated by the violent murder of a toddler.

The case not only enhanced the status of the real-life detective but coloured fictional representations of detection. One of the many revelatory aspects of this book is that Flanders teases out the connections between the celebrated murders of the period and their fictional consequences in the work of Dickens, Wilkie Collins and a host of lesser writers.

Murder as statistic was not the same as murder as entertainment. In fiction if not in fact, the female was deadlier than the male. In 1841 the ratio of husbands to wives as spouse killers was 5:1, and 14:1 by the end of the century. Madame Tussaud's waxworks reflected a different view of the subject: in 1889 there were only four male killers for every female.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories that deal with "domestic suspects" (as opposed to professional criminals) 16 feature women "as criminal or in some way deviant", but only two of them have deviant men.

The Whitechapel murders associated with Jack the Ripper, on the other hand, turned this on its head. The victims were all women, their bodies terribly mutilated in ways which had obvious sexual connotations. The police investigation failed to catch the culprit, leading to much criticism of the force; in fact and fiction, police detectives were increasingly viewed as plodding and ineffectual. Private detectives rose in public esteem. In fictional terms, Collins's Sergeant Cuff had yielded the palm to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

The quasi-mythical figure of Jack the Ripper, Flanders argues, was "the culmination of a century of murderous entertainment". He ushered in "a new century of killing, a vastly less entertaining, and more frightening, proposition."

Murder had indeed become, as de Quincey foretold it would, a fine art. At the start of this unrelievedly excellent book, Judith Flanders quotes him in another context, this time from a Blackwood's review of 1826: "Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea urn." But when someone else's sweetheart is bubbling in the tea urn, it is quite another matter.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The Anatomy of Ghosts' (Michael Joseph/Penguin)