The Invention of Murder

Tuesday Jun 07 2011
by Jack

The Invention of Murder by Jack

During the middle third of the nineteenth century, Victorian Britain developed crime fiction to the point that everything was ready for Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to make their appearance. The major trend that produced this result was the enormous growth of sensationalistic popular media and the identification of murder as the chief crime of sensation.

By 1800, there were over 100 newspapers being published in London alone, as well as an enormous quantity of magazines and handbills (one-page newssheets). The provinces added an equal number of publications. This explosion of the popular press was fuelled by constant improvement in the means of production, competition among publications, and an increasing public demand for both “news” and titillation, and nothing drew an audience like a bloody murder. Even in isolated York Factory, on the banks of Hudson Bay, James Hargrave was able to reconstruct the story of the body-snatchers Burke and Hare from reports in the Edinburgh newspapers received by the Hudson’s Bay Company once a year.  By 1830 many of the newspapers were published daily. Of course, it was not only the press that exploded, but all forms of media delivery systems (including some that we do not normally recognize today) that communicated information and other product to an increasingly rapacious public eager to be entertained – and shocked.  For those who could not read, there was the “patterer,” who recited aloud from the newspapers and broadsheets, occasionally developing his own story from the news The newspapers not only reported the bloody sagas of murder itself, but also carried, often verbatim, the trials of the murderers, and at the end of the day, their execution (conducted publicly to crowds numbering as many as 10,000 spectators before 1868, when public executions were ended). One crowd bought tarts from a pie-seller while waiting for the body to drop, and a thrill-seeker like Charles Dickens attended a number of hangings.  Both trials and executions were part of free public theatre, but the number of murder cases dramatized in the fee-paying theatre was considerable as well. One such case was presented in 1833 on an inventive set which showed simultaneously all four rooms of the inn that had been the scene of the crime. The playwright had been advised by a theatre manager, “look into the papers” for a subject; the daily crime sheets, the manager insisted, “had incident enough invented there.” The play ran in London for 161 consecutive performances, a record for the time, and was soon being performed in Edinburgh, Oxford, Liverpool, Ipswich, Dublin, and Belfast. Murders were also popular in the extensive puppet theatre of the time; Punch and Judy began life as a murder story (of Judy’s child by Punch). And the pictorial presentation of murder was an important component of the wax museum.  Madame Tussaud’s “Chamber of Horrors” made its reputation with a death masque of William Burke, the body snatcher.  Even further afield, a number of race-horses and racing dogs were named after notorious murderers, and Staffordshire figureware portrayed them as well.

Beyond the newspaper and the popular theatre was the novel. By 1830, Charles Dickens, with his forays into the London underworld, was the best-selling novelist in Britain. Dickens certainly popularized the crime orientation of the sensational novel tradition. Sensation fiction, which was especially popular in Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s, was melodramatic, offering characters in the grip of strong emotions, set in an environment of contemporary verisimilitude. The settings were ordinary English households, and the characters ordinary people menaced by human agencies.  Crime and detection were obvious topics, with much emphasis laid on missing wills, long-lost heirs, mistaken identities, family reunifications, unsuspected madness, and illegitimate children unaware of their true parentage.  Poe, Balzac and Hugo were Dickens’ contemporaries, Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins his colleagues. From his earliest journalism, Dickens had made prisons an important part of his work. Many Dickens novels revolved around crime, and in Martin Chuzzlewit he created a private enquiry agent named Nadgett, a short, dessicated old man, who operated furtively as an investigator. The dissimilarities between Nadgett and Dupin were palpable. Dickens was always fascinated with the jargon and trade secrets of occupational groups, and the police were no exceptions. He was fascinated by the police, and at least one contemporary claimed that he had “discovered the modern detective.” Dickens had interviewed the new London detectives of the Detective Department for his magazine Household Words, and probably used Inspector Charles Frederick Field as the model for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, often regarded as the first fully-developed English fictional detective. Dickens found detectives attractive partly because he shared with them an indulgence in theatrics and disguise. All his policemen came from humble or lower middle-class origins and were deferential to the middle classes. They were thief-takers and spies rather than professional law enforcement officials.

At the same time, Dickens wrote more about crime than about detection, and he was more skillful at getting inside the mind of the criminal than the mind of the detective. Like many 19th-century novelists, he found it easier (and more profitable) to empathize with a criminal than with an honest man. In his later years, Dickens often performed as a reading “Sikes and Nancy” from Oliver Twist, concentrating on the murder of Nancy and as a performer fully identifying with Sikes. Dickens found the reading emotionally draining, but he became virtually addicted to it. At the time he left his wife, his reading consisted almost entirely of accounts of murders and murderers. Despite the emphasis on murder in his fiction, Dickens was not properly speaking a detective story writer. Three of his most complex characters are villain-murderers, and his probing of the psychology of the murderer got better and better. He may have been working toward another form of crime fiction, one not in the Poe-Doyle tradition. It would have concentrated on the question of not who but why, focusing on the mind of the murderer rather than the ratiocination of the detective.  Dickens left The Mystery of Edwin Drood half-written when he died. Despite the appearance of a mysterious stranger named Datchery, obviously a detective and equally obviously in disguise, Dickens intended in this novel to focus ultimately on the inner mental and emotional state of the murderer, a middle-class citizen of the utmost propriety. George Gissing called attention to the similarities between this approach and the writings of Dostoevsky.

Another way in which Dickens operated outside the bounds of crime fiction was in the complex episodic nature of his fiction. This was a characteristic he shared with all the English sensation novelists -- and indeed all English novelists -- of mid-century. While the employment of multiple narrators and points of view was on one level quite advanced and exciting, these techniques also resulted in the disappearance of the detective (and the mystery or puzzle he was investigating) for long periods within the novel. To some extent episodic complexity was a product of both the serialization of much fiction and the prevalence of the three-decker novel tradition. The former encouraged the creation of multiple subplots, each of which could be brought to a climax at the end of the episode (much like the modern television soap opera). The latter encouraged length rather than brevity. Readers of 19th-century novels did not expect to whiz through them in a couple of hours.  Agatha Christie would later have to introduce second and third murders in order to bring many of her books to even short-novel  length, but Christie much more clearly concentrated her plot on a single puzzle. Mid-Victorian novelists would have had trouble in focusing on a single plot or in stripping the plot of considerable descriptive detail. Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds is a excellent example of contemporary English fiction in which detection was an important subplot without becoming the paramount plot. Although Wilkie Collins in novels like The Woman in White and The Moonstone has an overarching theme of detection, there are many byways to the final denouement. To some extent modern crime fiction has returned to the complicated novel, encouraged by the insistence on “literary” qualities to the writing. Agatha Christie seldom wrote a book much over 200 pages, while recent novels by P.D. James and Elizabeth George come in close to 1000 pages. The difference is in the detail, and in the subplots. 

The term “sensation” had come from the introduction from America into the London theatre in 1860 of popular melodrama with elaborate mechanical paraphernalia. Most of the so-called “sensation novelists” were unable to avoid making readers aware that they were being manipulated by the author, in much the same way that Walt Disney sentimentality -- as in the death of Bambi -- presently intrudes on most adult sensibilities. A temporary suspension of belief is necessary to make the tricks work, and that was and is often difficult to pull off. Not surprisingly, contemporary literary critics were especially hard on the sensationalists for their improbability. It was the combination of incidents, not the individual one, that was so highly unlikely. It was the failure to probe beneath the superficial emotion that disturbed serious readers.  Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Braddon discovered temporary madness as a way of permitting ordinary people to do terrible things without having to probe very deeply into their psyches, and temporarily mad women became a staple of the genre.  One of the few critics able to take a balanced view was G. H. Lewes (George Eliot’s significant other), who wrote in the Fortnightly Review in 1865 that it was unfair to “demand from the writer qualities incompatible with, or obviously disregarded by his method.” He continued, so long as “the improbabilities are not glaringly incongruous, we grant the author a large licence.” Another reviewer two years earlier in The Quarterly Review made a similar point: “Deep knowledge of human nature, graphic delineation of individual character, vivid representations of the aspects of Nature or the workings of the soul -- all the higher features of the creative art -- would be a hindrance rather than a help to work of this sort.” The attacks on the sensationalists for their “unreality” and lack of intellectual substance remind us that the inability to meet popular culture on its own grounds is hardly a twentieth-century phenomenon. 

What was still needed was the concept of detection as a systematic, rational, and scientific enterprise. Reading the early nineteenth-century trials in the newspapers makes clear that crime solving was a pretty hit and miss business. Most successful detectives credited “intuition” rather than “ratiocination” for their success. In the next installment we will examine the development of the detective – in life and fiction.

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