With its subtitle – ‘How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime’, this book traces the British public’s interest in murder as a sort of national entertainment. Though the book’s title clearly suggests we’re talking about the Victorian period (1837-1901), Ms Flanders begins her romp through the gory annals of homicide in 1811, with the Ratcliffe Highway killings, where two families were slaughtered (supposedly) by one John Williams.
Illustrating her research with innumerable murders, the author charts the development of the crime through the media of the time – newspapers, broadsheets, on stage and even in ceramic likenesses of the killers, showing how murderers, and the police officers who caught them, caught the imagination of the whole country.
Being a bit of a connoisseur of Victorian crime, I bought both the audio and paperback versions of this book. I was familiar with many of the cases, and as well as the usual suspects (Burke and Hare, The Mannings, William Corder et al) there were several I hadn’t come across before. Flanders also explores how police investigations changed over the period and the ways in which newspapers and journalists contributed to the guilt (or innocence) of the accused.
The author’s meticulous research shows on every page. Many murders prompted what might be termed fanfiction, and Victorian novelists began to copy the plots of certain killers or created their own detective heroes whose exploits often mirrored that of their real-life counterparts. My only criticism of the book would be that some examples of these dragged on a little too long, with too many accounts of poems, songs and theatre scripts that didn’t add much to the book as a whole. Also, I thought the inclusion of Jack the Ripper (although clearly carried out by a Victorian murderer) didn’t bring anything new to the table and a mere mention in passing would have sufficed.
As a social history of murder and its effects on the British public, this is an exciting and enthralling addition to the true-crime library.
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