Crime sells, and grisly murder – especially with a sensational sexual element – sells best of all. What Judith Flanders seeks to do in this book is to demonstrate how, in the 19th century, the media production and the marketing of crime stories inter-related with actual events in new and significant ways.
In particular she sees this inter-relationship as giving rise to modern detective fiction, notably that in which the sleuth restores stability and appears to keep us all safe in a dangerous, uncertain world.
Flanders has a phenomenal knowledge of 19th-century literature in all its forms. She has also conducted her own impressive task of detection, tracing the links from real crimes to well-known and obscure novels, plays, puppet shows, unlicensed fair-ground performances, and waxwork versions in Madame Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors and its competitors.
No expense was spared by the proprietors of Madame Tussauds to get hold of possessions belonging to victims and murderers so as to add an extra frisson to a tableau. And truth was never allowed to get in the way of a good headline or a good paragraph in the newspaper press.
Not surprisingly, class and gender figured significantly in the way that killers and victims were presented to the public. Moreover Flanders shows clearly how the representation of the same person could shift over time to suit new perceptions and understandings.
Jack the Ripper may remain as the archetypal serial killer – and there is a good account here of the Ripper and his origins in the press and theatre – but the lesser known Eugene Aram went through a variety of transformations.
Exposed, tried and executed 14 years after he murdered a young man near Knaresborough in 1735, Aram resurfaced in novels and poems as a brilliant but tragic scholar, a tormented repentant sinner and an avenger whose guilt leads to suicide. He was even considered for providing a name to a London street.
Flanders has written a book rather like one of the great, rambling Victorian novels that she discusses, though most readers will find her work a lot easier, and a lot more fun. Perhaps a little more thought could have been given to the shifting attitudes to violence and masculinity, particularly in the early part of the century – issues that have been the focus of much recent cultural and social history.
Perhaps too the absence of British involvement in any major international war in Europe during the Victorian years contributed to an increase in sensational crime for the fast growing newspaper and book markets. But then countries that were involved in wars and revolutions (and that often tended to have a more restricted press) showed similar tendencies: France, as Flanders points out, produced Lacenaire, the self-confessed, poet and artist of crime.
In the end it is probably the sheer sumptuousness of Flanders’s book that leaves the reader wanting still more.
Clive Emsley is the author of Crime and Society in England 1750–1900 (Longman, 2010)