Even though I’m not officially participating in Nonfiction November, there’s still something about this time of year that calls out for me to read non-fiction. It must be the plummeting temperatures and early dark nights that just seem so perfect for getting some serious reading done.
What could be more serious than The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime? I spent the past few days reading about over fifty grisly, horrible murders, often when I was in the dark (and spending my downtime watching American Horror Story: Freak Show which actually made me cry a lot).
This book was interesting – Judith Flanders really knows her subject matter and she’s clearly spent a lot of time meticulously researching. It is extremely detailed and I loved Flanders’ voice throughout the whole thing. She had this lovely way of using brackets to convey her scepticism or even make little jokes which, given the subject matter was surprising and seriously awesome. For example: when referring to one of the novels based on one of the crimes, she writes “(The novel also contains the splendid line: ‘I am obliged to say now that I…cannot marry a person whom I believe guilty of a murder.’ A rule to live by.)”
It took me a while to get my head into this book – it was one of those books that I felt I really needed to spend some quality time with. This is not the kind of book you tuck into your purse and chip away at a few pages at a time. This is the kind of book that you barricade yourself in a room with, preferably buried under a pile of blankets with provisions close at hand. I suspect that casual non-fiction readers would find this a tough go.
Because this book not only covers the murders and executions but also how people reacted to them and how they were used as fodder for plays, newspaper content and novels, at times it felt like I was re-reading the Charles Dickens biography and I was treated to the summaries of the plots of The Moonstone, The Woman in White, Dracula, Edwin Drood, Little Dorrit, Mary Barton, and various Sherlock Holmes stories. Luckily I’ve read a number of those and hopefully the details of the others will fade before I should ever attempt to read them.
Still, I learned a lot – the Victorians are endlessly fascinating to me. A highlights tour for you:
- Often the proof that poison was used was that there was no sign of it in the body post-mortem. If you were accused of poisoning someone, you were probably going to hang for it. Unless you had money, obviously. Rich people don’t commit crimes!
- Dracula was based on the Jack the Ripper murders.
- Executions were public until about the 1860s and middle class Victorians loved nothing better than a day out to watch a man swing.
- Wilkie Collins was a little plot thief – his stories are basically lifted from the newspapers plot for plot and he always pretended like that was a coincidence, that he’d never read about the originals. But ALL Victorians read true crime accounts in the newspapers.
- Penny-dreadfuls were originally known as penny-bloods and created a vast new readership for fiction.
- Madame Tussaud’s made a lot of money from tableaus of murderers and from displaying the personal belongings of murders and victims (but people mostly wanted to see the stuff belonging to the murderers. Some things don’t change.)
- Newspapers held an incredible amount of sway in the court of public opinion and in actual courts. There was one case where a newspaper editor hated the Home Secretary who supported the decision to execute a man, when there was barely any evidence. The editor made the case for the defendant and the public got behind it. The execution was delayed before ultimately going ahead – 6000 people stood outside the prison which was the largest gathering since executions had become private.
After all this time spent reading about the worst of mankind, I’m ready for something a little lighter!