About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders (Part II)

Photo of Judith Flanders by Clive Barda
 On Saturday I started my review of The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders with a post in which I discussed the importance of murder in the newspaper and plays of the century. I touched upon the painful development of the modern criminal trial. In this post I will continue by examining how Flanders addressed the development of crime fiction in Victorian times.

Flanders puts forward Mr. Buckett in Bleak House (1852-1853) by Charles Dickens as the “first fictional detective”.

It was interesting to read that Dickens in Bleak House and Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White both drew upon the murderess, Maria Manning, in writing those books. Flanders has an extensive description of Manning and her crimes.

She offers definitions of crime fiction and sensation fiction and explores the origins of crime fiction in England.

Flanders points out that, long before there were real life female police officers, there were fictional women detectives in the 1860’s.

From her descriptions of the books I concluded that Flanders did not think much of Victorian crime fiction. There were not many positive comments.

She extensively discusses Dickens book after book as works involving crime fiction.

Flanders sees Sherlock Holmes as the extension of the detective to a character neither a member of the police nor pursuing investigations for money.

She effectively concludes with a recounting of the public fascination, more obsession, with Jack the Ripper. She points out the interest of the literate middle class was from a safe distance to the murders of the lower class women. Unlike a multitude of authors she does not attempt to identify Jack. She does show how the reams of newsprint on Jack demonstrated how murder sells in real life and fiction.

Blog readers need to know before starting the book that her descriptions of Victorian crime fiction are spoilers of virtually every book. She sets out full plots. Endings are freely discussed. If you are interested in reading Victorian crime fiction without summaries of the books it is best to skip over those sections of the book.

I found the detail excessive at times. Following all the permutations of print and theatre for decades about a murder made reading slow going in too many sections of the book. I think quite a few of the 466 pages could have been left to footnotes and produced a better narrative. I was glad I read the book. The analysis is solid and convincing. I learned a lot about murder, newspapers, law and crime fiction in the 1800’s.


  1. Bill - Thanks for such a helpful and thorough review! Such an interesting perspective on the role the Victorians played in modern crime fiction. And thank you for letting everyone know about the spoilers. Still, this seems like a very informative book even if the detail is a bit overmuch. Definitely worth me reading, methinks.

  2. I enjoyed reading these two posts, Bill. The review of the book (previous post)was fascinating to me as I learned a lot I did not know about the prevalence of murder and the way trials were carried out in that era. I would not be likely to read a book such as this (I read mainly fiction) so it was a very interesting review.

    Today's post is interesting, too. I did not think Inspector Bucket was the "first" detective in literature but I don't really know - people have cited Poe and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I suppose it depends on how precise one's definition of "detective novel" is. I wonder if this book covered novels by Collins, who could be said to have been more of a "crime" novellist than Dickens, and certainly wrote a lot more about the law/crime "interface" in various ways in his many books. In Anthony Trollope, too, one can read about police detectives trying to solve a case (eg The Eustace Diamonds) and private investigators (eg He Knew He Was Right).

    Pity about the spoilers.

  3. Margot: Thanks for the comment. The book provided me with information on the strong connections between real life crime and crime fiction in the 19th Century of which I was unaware. I think you would find it interesting.

  4. Maxine: Thanks for the comment.

    Flanders wrote extensively in the book about the novels of Collins. I mentioned Dickens more as I had not thought of him in the context of crime fiction. Collins is one of the authors for whom she provides such detail for the books it would be hard to read them after reading Flanders. She sets out how Collins was not always willing to acknowledge influence of real life crimes in his books.

  5. I find it quite strange that in all these books (Collins, Dickens, A Trollope) that I've read, and I have read many by each of them, the detectives who appear as part of the plot are excessively "clunky" and portrayed in a heavy-handed way that seems obvious to a modern reader. In some cases, it is the detective that really "dates" the book, rather than any of the rest of it.

    This makes me wonder if the evolution of the detective novel has happened at a much faster pace than the evolution of the "novel" per se, as we have moved so quickly from these initial Victorian efforts, through the Golden Age authors, to the police procedural and through all that to now, when crime novels are really very imaginative and the detective part is often very subtly and cleverly done.

    Sherlock Holmes, the first detective stories I loved, worked better in the short story format, I think. This means he hasn't dated, unlike some of his "within large Victorian novel" contemporaries!

  6. Bill, thanks for the second part of your review of Judith Flanders' book. Spoilers have never put me off reading books or watching movies. I'd certainly like to read this book for its historical perspective on how the Victorian era shaped modern crime. Your reviews have made it that much more interesting for me.

  7. Maxine: Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

    I have read little Victorian crime fiction so I can offer little on the nature of the detectives.

    With regard to the development of crime fiction I agree that crime fiction evolved through the 20th Century to more complex mysteries.

    One of the reasons I think Sherlock has endured is that he has a real life.

    It took most of the Century for the personal lives, especially with regard to families, for sleuths to become complete characters.

  8. Prashant: I admire your ability to ignore spoiler comments. With regard to fiction, especially crime fiction, I can no longer enjoy the book if the mystery is gone.

  9. Me neither! Cover blurbs are terrible, often giving away key very late plot elements, so I have long stopped reading them. I think there is no point in reading a crime novel if you know exactly what is going to happen.

  10. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. I wish I could meet someone who writes blurbs to ask why they are giving away key parts of the plot.

  11. Your first post made me very curious to read the book, but I am less sure after this one as it seems she is more interested in true crime than fiction.

  12. Dorte: Thanks for the comment. While the book is about real life crime there are significant parts about crime fiction especially as inspired by real life crime. The book has caused me to think how much current crime fiction is based on actual cases.