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I saw this in Waterstones and as somebody who is extremely interested in criminal law and criminology, well, I couldn't leave it. Throughout the book Judith Flanders looks into both famous, such as Jack the Ripper, and more obscure murderers such as Adelaide Bartlett, deemed a 'middle class poisoner'. As morbid as it sounds, it is a great read mainly for the fact that she describes these people's backgrounds, their motives, their murders and the consequences in great detail. I would say, however, that, since one of the reasons I bought this book was to learn more about Jack the Ripper from a reputable source, I was disappointed that such a small portion of the book was dedicated to them. Considering they were one of Britain's most notorious serial killers I was hoping for more information.
She also conveys the stories of these people with an interesting twist, in that she looks at them alongside Victorian culture, entertainment and the press. The book seems to pose the question: which came first, the murderer or the novel. I thought that this was one the best parts of the book; to see excerpts and plot outlines of penny-bloods, poems, novels etc all based on the 'popular' crimes of the time. I use the word popular because, as outlined in this book, Victorian culture was obsessed with murder as much as ours is obsessed with celebrity: Madame Tussands wasn't always waxworks of footballers.
The book is split into sections: Imagining Murder, Trial by Newspaper, Entertaining Murder, Policing Murder, Panic, Middle-Class Poisoners, Science, Technology and Law, Violence and Modernity - and focuses on each topic while looking through the whole of the 19th Century. I have to say I found the Policing Murder section fascinating as it talked about the history of the police force and how it developed over time to become what it is today. I would say that the only chapter that dragged a bit for me was Middle-Class Poisoners, since it was around 70 pages long, and also since there wasn't much variety in how the crimes were committed. It was still interesting though.
As a massive Sherlock Holmes fan I was excited to read about Authur Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character and also some of the murders the stories were inspired by: if you're a fan, you'll enjoy these little asides. An overarching theme throughout the book is the birth of detection and the detective as a character in a novel. Also, throughout the book there's plenty of pictures, including two sections of in colour photographs at thirds, which I feel added to the appeal of the book and made it more interesting to read than if it were just 500 pages of words.
It costs around £7 for the paperback and £6.50 for the e-book version in Waterstones: at 500 pages it is well worth the money. The length and content of the book also means that it isn't a light-hearted read: this isn't a book to dip in and out of due to the detail put into researching each of these people and their crimes. You can hardly read it from cover to cover in one sitting but it is an engrossing read, and the way that Judith Flanders links all of the murderers together makes you want to read on. Also, her tone throughout the book is chatty and funny, which for the subject matter, really makes it easier to read. For someone who enjoys reading about this sort of thing, even I can get a bit freaked out by what these people did.
Yes, I did get a few funny looks while reading this, possibly due to the front cover with the word 'murder' on it in massive red letters. This aside, it is a great and interesting read that takes an in depth journey through the invention of murder as an art form in Victorian society, along with its theme throughout of analysing the trends in society in regards to murder in literature and in the press.
This hardback will set you back £9 on amazon (or you can download it for your kindle for £11). A paperback is scheduled to appear in September 2011.
Apparently there were very few murders in Britain before the 19th century, and those that did take place didn't really kick up too much fuss. That all changed pretty much overnight, with the Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1811), in which two families in London's East End were brutally murdered without apparent motive. The press of the time went into panic overdrive, and so set the stage for a century of increasingly lurid murders, with the most famous crimes seeping into the literature and theatre of the day.
That's the premise of this entertaining book by Judith Flanders, which runs through a century of murders, giving decent accounts of some of the celebrated crimes of the day, while also tracing the ways in which they were reported; the growth of the police (and changing attitudes to it); and the influence the murders had on culture, high and low.
Although the book's subtitle implies it's about the Victorians, Flanders takes the whole 19th century as her subject, allowing the inclusion of famous earlier cases like the Ratcliffe Highway killings, the Murder in the Red Barn, and Burke and Hare. It's not trying for completism, although I was a bit surprised that two of the Victorian murderers who are still well known today, Charles Peace and Amelia Dyer, weren't included (especially Dyer, as there's a lot about baby farms and infant murder in the book).
The thing that's very striking is that people had a very different attitude to murder in those days. The newspapers ran all kinds of incredibly lurid reports, revelling in explicit medical details which would never be printed nowadays (although very coy about anything sexual; it was possible to print gory images of famous child murder victim Fanny Adams - one of which is printed in the book - but not to openly discuss whether she had been raped. Papers also printed all kinds of often ludicrous gossip about murder suspects, frequently before they'd been brought to trial. It was fascinating to learn that one of the worst examples was The Times, a paper which is supposed to have been the very bastion of establishment respectability.
It wasn't just the papers that profited. Amazingly, people were charged for admission to houses where murders had taken place, sometimes with the corpses still there. Souvenirs were openly sold, and the bodies of executed murderers were displayed publically, at least early in the century. William Corder, who murdered his young lover Maria Marten in the famous red barn, was publically dissected and even had electricity applied to his corpse to make it twitch, presumably for the amusement of the gathered crowd. It's nice that he gave something back.
This gory spectacle gradually faded throughout the century, especially after public executions were stopped. But pamphlets, ballads and plays kept the popular murders in the public eye, not to mention waxworks, ornaments and children's toys - there was even a Jack the Ripper board game! I can't imagine anyone writing jolly or maudlin ballads about contemporary murder victims today. It's slightly obscure why some murders caught the public imagination and others didn't. The assassination of Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, doesn't seem to have made much impact, while isolated murders of rustic maidens obsessed great portions of the nation for months on end.
The really popular ones lingered on in literature. There's a lot of interesting material about which real-life murders are being referenced in famous novels by (mainly) Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but Flanders also delves into the grottier world of the penny dreadfuls. Sometimes murderers were transformed from hated villains to tragic heroes by some mysterious alchemy. John Thurtell murdered a gambler supposed to carry large amounts of cash around with him and was hanged; in death he somehow became a tragic figure. Even weirder was Eugene Aram, who murdered an associate and hid his body in a cave. Somehow he was reinvented as an important scholar, an artistic soul more sinned against than sinning, and was the subject of highbrow literature.
Attitudes to the police changed over the course of the century, as they gradually became more respectable. As professional detectives began to emerge, and new technologies came into play, inevitably they started to become popular in fiction too. Initially detectives were looked down on somewhat (as Mr Whicher was in the Constance Kent case, seen as a lower class busybody blundering into the lives of the wealthy with comically offensive consequences). Later, of course, they became fictional heroes, Sherlock Holmes being the most famous. Class plays a huge part in the book - generally upper class murder suspects had a better chance of acquittal as they could afford lawyers. Lower class people, women especially, were the source of various upper-class panics. Semi-literate servants were executed on suspicion of trying to poison their employers because they couldn't afford lawyers to point out the flimsiness of the evidence.
But if all this sounds hideously grim, it really isn't presented as such. There's enough distance between us and the murders that the book is never depressing. And the author has a good eye for absurd details, especially when discussing some of the fictional representations and ludicrous rumours. She has a nice line in deadpan humour, never labouring it or descending into sneering at the past. I'd say she strikes the right balance between respect for the people she writes about and amusement at the ways in which they wrote about each other.
The criticism I have is that I'm not really sure what the point of the book is - there doesn't seem to be any central hypothesis. It takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the best murder cases in Nineteenth Century Britain, but never really tells us why. Unusually for a book like this, there's no introduction, where you'd expect the author to explain what they're hoping to achieve. This isn't really a problem - it's an entertaining book that will teach you things you didn't know, but to me it felt like it needed some focus that wasn't there. Some of the chapters are a bit puzzling, too. It's thematic rather than chronological, so it looks at, say, several poisoning cases all together, But some of the chapters are a bit more tenuous - it seems a bit eccentric to put William Terriss, a murdered actor, in a chapter about technology just because his funeral was filmed.
The book ends with Jack the Ripper, which seems appropriate - he was the first of the modern-style, sexually motivated serial killers, and there's very little humour to be derived from his crimes. Because they've been so extensively studied we know an awful lot about the victims and the world they inhabited. That kind of grinding urban poverty is a world away from the Victoriana of the rest of the stories here. The Whitechapel case lacks the whiff of melodrama that other stories exude. It looks forward to a darker century.
The book has plenty of illustrations throughout. The cases I knew a bit about are reported without factual errors, so I'm sure that's true of all of them. This is an easy, enjoyable read, and a lot more pleasant and good-humoured than you might imagine from the subject matter. Recommended.