Audio Transcripts: The Invention of Murder


Audiobook of the month is here! Even though it is a bit more like audiobook of the every six months recently. That is now due for a change however, as my days are affording me a little more time to listen to books as I womble about.

I always think that books are better in the autumn for some reason. Holiday reads are light and fun, but Autumn reads transport, mystify and inspire you. Murder is always better when it is cold out too; a crackling fire, a tin of Quality Street and a good old grisly murder mystery. This fact was the main motivation for me picking up The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders.

The book traces Victorian Britain’s interest, verging on obsession, with real life crime and how the reporting of these cases and their subsequent portrayal in literature created the cannon of crime fiction we know today. Within the book infamous murder mysteries such as the Road Hill House murder, which was bought to the attention of modern audiences via the Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and of course Jack The Ripper are interspersed with lesser known cases, including the sweet shop poisoner of Brighton and a frankly disturbing number of domestic (i.e. wife) murders perpetrated by husbands.

The book is long, really long. It took me ages to get through. While the content is incredibly thorough and the compilation of so much original source material in one place undoubtedly useful, it does feel a little dry. The chapters move through the reign of Victoria chronologically, covering a murder at a time. The reader is given a description of the murder, an account of the court case and then the reporting of it. It is a little formulaic in places, to the point that (due to the annoying Audible chapter vs sections breakdown) I lost my place on many occasions and because I had literally no idea where I was in the narrative, had to go back over the same material multiple times (this also contributed to why it took quite so long to get through). I think this may be one of those books that merely fails work well in audio form. Without the text and photographs on front of you, the dialogue becomes a fairly monotonous stream of dates and newspaper quotes.

The infuriating thing is that I found the content very interesting indeed, it was just the method with which it was fed to me that I found hard to swallow. Who wouldn’t find it interesting? There are tales of Burke and Hare, megalomaniac doctors feeling a cross the Atlantic on ocean liners, and scheme upon scheme of scoundrels bumping off the neighbours for the insurance monies. I don’t mean to be glib. I realise that these were real people who were cruelly killed, often by those closest to them. However the book focusses in part on the ture crimes, but more fully on the wealth of garish literature and theatre which resulted from them; the Pennybloods, the Victorian villains and the poor innocent maiden archetypes. Dickens, Wilde and Doyle were all as susceptible to the salacious goriness of the crimes they read about; Dicken’s most popular spoken word piece was Nancy’s murder, during which Dickens would apparently become almost manic with rage during his many public performances.

Of course as a reader you can’t help but compare the cultural zeitgeist of the Victorians to our own. The Victorians are characterised by a buttoned-up attitude towards sex (grossly inaccurate in my view) and a love of the gothic, the macabre and the scary. Well, just like ‘us’ then really? Our society loves an unsolved murder. We would never say so openly, that’s not polite. But we sure as heck print it in all of the papers, we discuss it when Granny calls for a catch-up and we certainly have our own personal judge and jury bellowing pronouncements whenever a potential suspect is paraded before us. There was nothing that extraordinary about the Victorian’s ‘invention’ of murder, they merely were the first to create a cultural art form from it.

Next time: A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup