Flanders (Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain, 2006, etc.) attempts to trace the growth of murder and its detection in Victorian England.
The author does not track the history of crime-solving during this period; most crimes were solved by the simple expedient of someone pointing a finger. The accused had very few rights, and those who couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer were on their own. Flanders devotes most of her book to murders—one after another after another, many sensational, others notable for the innocence of the executed. Since the author does not present the murders chronologically, it’s difficult to tell if the murder trials had any effect on the evolution of the rights of defendants. Instead, Flanders organizes the text according to who killed whom: husband/wife, servants/employers, etc. The author demonstrates the significance of the press in the investigations of the murders. From the beginning of the 19th century, broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” were circulated immediately after an event. Those and the newspapers of the time readily admitted that truth was irrelevant—profit was the goal. Their treatment of the accused depended largely on their social class. Theaters and authors profiled victims and events from the news of the day. Charles Dickens was the most prolific of these, using incidents and even quotes in many books, including Bleak House and Oliver Twist. Though Flanders ably follows the important role played by the media, readers seeking information about the establishment of the first police force or detective department, or laws passed to protect defendants, should look elsewhere.
A grisly, grim slog through the history of Victorian murder, punctuated occasionally by intriguing historical lessons.