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review: non-fiction

Judith Flanders

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright has provided fodder for novelists ever since his trial in 1837. A fat, bald, army officer who never saw active service, and a portrait artist of little talent, Wainewright had champagne tastes but a beer budget. He could not afford his grand lodgings on London's Great Marlborough Street, so he forged his trustee's signature on a couple of documents to get access to his capital. But the money didn't last long, so he encouraged his sister-in-law to buy some life insurance.

Anybody with a taste for Victorian melodrama knows how this story ends: The sister-in-law died only months later. Wainewright fled to France. Soon there was a warrant out for his arrest - but for fraud, not murder. He was sentenced to transportation to Australia, where he died in 1847.

The Wainewright case coincided with the birth of crime literature. And one particularly popular villain was the middle-class poisoner who had seemed respectable, yet who was evil incarnate under his fancy ways. Wainewright had not been tried for, much less convicted of, murder - but that did not rein in the popular imagination. In the absence of rules of evidence, forensic science or any obligation on the part of newspapers to stick to verifiable fact, the Wainewright case took wing. The man was soon transformed into a character with far more dramatic appeal: Contemporaries recalled elegant, raven locks and "snakish eyes" which glowed with "unearthly fire." In no time, it was widely rumoured that he had committed additional murders in France and Australia.

The greatest crime sensationalist of Victorian Britain was Charles Dickens, who had caught a glimpse of Wainewright in Newgate Prison. Dickens would incorporate elements of the Wainewright case into at least two novels (one being Martin Chuzzlewit). The Wainewright story also bubbled up in works by several other authors, including Bulwer Lytton, and by 1889, Oscar Wilde had embraced the convicted forger as an urbane, cultured artist "powerful with pen, pencil and poison." This is the character who continues to fascinate writers, most recently Britain's Andrew Motion, former poet laureate and author of Wainewright the Poisoner (2000).

Judith Flanders has produced a compelling study of how crime, and crime prevention, emerged as a popular obsession in 19th-century Britain, and came to dominate its literature. Murder did not begin in Victorian Britain (as television series such as Rome, The Tudors and The Borgias bloodily demonstrate), but the paraphernalia of crime detection and the vehicles for sensationalism did.

A perceived (but probably imaginary) rise in crime in the rapidly expanding cities of industrial Britain led home secretary Sir Robert Peel to create in 1829 the first professional police force. Initially the "bobbies," as they were nicknamed, took responsibility only for crime prevention. But when one killer remained at large for 10 days in 1842, Scotland Yard appointed its first detectives to take charge after a body had been found.

Once an arrest was made, however, courts often decided guilt purely on circumstantial evidence and unfounded judgments of "character." Although there was no way to identify a human blood stain until the 1900s, and fingerprint evidence was not accepted until the early 20th century, medical "experts" would make unequivocal arguments for or against an accused murderer.

In 1815, a cook named Eliza Fenning was found guilty of four counts of attempted murder after her employer accused her of putting arsenic in the dumplings. None of the family had died, but Eliza was young, female, working-class and Irish. The family doctor testified that he had found arsenic in the cooking pan (he lied; there was no reliable test for the poison) and Eliza was hanged.

A crowd of 45,000 spectators watched Fenning swing. Today, one can produce all kinds of explanations for the public hunger for retribution, but there was no doubt such events fed an appetite, an appetite that grew alongside rising standards of literacy and rocketing newspaper circulation. A German tourist was told a few years later that if he wanted to see "our popular festivals. … Go to Newgate on hanging day."

By mid-century, macabre crimes were an important element in popular culture, as illustrated by Madame Tussaud's waxworks of victims and villains, re-enactments at fairgrounds, Staffordshire figurines, embellished newspaper accounts and, most vividly, lurid literature. True crimes became source material for broadsides, ballads, "penny dreadfuls," "sensation fiction" and private sleuths, of whom the best-known is Sherlock Holmes.

Flanders's method is to pile detail on squeamish detail, story on horror story. Her research is deep and wide, and the subject matter fascinating. By the end of the book, I felt overwhelmed by the cruelty of Victorian life: starved orphans, workhouse brutality, filthy poverty, mutilated prostitutes and the hysterical newspaper coverage of crime. If there is a failing to this book, it is that Flanders drags her readers through the muck and mud, but rarely draws larger conclusions about the impact of public opinion on justice, or the relationship between technology and detection. Nonetheless, The Invention of Murder is mesmerizing.

Some great Victorian crime literature

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

In what is often claimed to be the first detective story, C. Auguste Dupin solves two brutal murders in Paris.

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852)

In this vast, complex novel, Inspector Bucket solves a puzzling murder and becomes the ancestor of hundreds of British sleuths.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Young drawing master Walter Hartright employs recognizably modern methods of detection to solve the mystery of the title character.

Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)

The heroine of this sensational novel commits accidental bigamy, deserts her child, shoves one husband down a well and sets fire to a hotel. Most ladylike.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The font and origin of virtually every detective story since. Elementary.

Charlotte Gray is the author, most recently, of Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. Her next book is about a 1915 killing in Toronto.