Book review: The Invention of Murder

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THE INVENTION OF MURDER Judith Flanders Harper Press, £20

IT IS a rare book that can say something new about the Ripper case, and yet this riveting and meticulous account of 19th century crime manages just that.

A public-minded citizen wrote to the police to inform them of suspicions about Mr Richard Mansfield, then playing Dr Jekyll at the Lyceum: "When I went to See Mr Mansfield Take the Part of Dr Jekel and Mr Hyde I felt at once that he was the Man Wanted… I do not think there is A man Living So well able to disgise Himself in A moment… So well able to Baffel the Police".

In itself this is interesting; but the real achievement of Judith Flanders in this book is to make this confusion of murder and theatre, killing and literature, the culmination of a century of such activity. Although many of the crimes she discusses predate the Victorian period, - and the book's presiding genius, Thomas de Quincey, author of On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts wrote beforehand as well - it was the Victorians who put murder literally and metaphorically centre-stage.

From broadsheets and "penny-bloods", through to puppet shows and waxwork museums, right up to the work of Dickens, Braddon, Bulwer-Lytton, Collins and Doyle, murder was transformed, dramatised, sanitised and made more gruesome.

The most telling case is that of Eugene Aram, an 18th century murderer who dashed in the brains of a shoemaker for 200. In a poem by Thomas Hood, as disguised in Godwin's Caleb Williams and eventually starring as the hero of Bulwer-Lytton's Eugene Aram, he becomes a tortured and sensitive soul, whose poverty constrains his genius and whose crime is almost metaphysical. Across a range of murders, Flanders shows how the posthumous fame usually has little to do with the sordid realities. In other cases - particularly those of female killers - the notoriety is far more infernal than the actual crimes.

Flanders balances judicious facts with lively story-telling: a perfect example of how non-fiction can have its cake and eat it. The media hysteria of poisonings around the 1840s leads to several well-crafted narratives; despite the fact that only 0.003% of murders were the result of premeditated poisoning. The rise of murderers was paralleled by the establishment of the police force and eventually the detective; and although Dickens and Collins could make exemplars of Inspector Bucket or Sergeant Cuff, 1,790 of the original intake of 2,800 policemen were dismissed for drunkenness.

The research behind this book is phenomenal: from major literature to fugitive accounts of amateur plays, newspaper reports and even such esoterica as greyhound names, Jack the Ripper novelty watches and Staffordshire figurewear of murder scenes.It is a tad London-centric, and it seems unusual to omit Scott's Heart Of Midlothian, an early version of a novel based on genuine criminal proceedings. Likewise, I hankered for more on Dickens' Edwin Drood, in which disguises and split personalities play so prominent a role. But these are minor omissions compared with the wealth of data and drama.

It is all enlivened by Flanders' frequently wry asides, which can sometimes be laugh-out-loud funny (a local newspaper reported a play in "supposed" blank verse, and Flanders raises an eyebrow at the adjective). Sometimes it's far more sombre: a Mrs Joyce poisoned her children, giving the reason "I don't know, except I thought it was such a thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world", and Flanders notes how this chilling note never made it into the newspapers. The papers, indeed, are almost the villains of the piece. With scant regard to legality, The Times in particular would embellish any story: it was the blood red-top of its day.

The Invention Of Murder is what great non-fiction should be; as erudite as it is entertaining, as gripping as fiction despite being "stranger than fiction".

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