Many crime novelists are fascinated by “true crime”, and I’m one of them. The Crime Writers’ Association has always been open to writers of fact as well as fiction and awards Daggers for non-fiction books as well as for novels. And countless mysteries over the years have derived plot elements from real life cases. The story of Dr Crippen, for instance, has inspired fictional takes by writers as diverse as Ursula Bloom, Peter Lovesey, Richard Gordon, Andrew Taylor – and me. Great names from the Golden Age such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and especially Anthony Berkeley all wrote highly successful books which drew upon classic cases. However, it is not an entirely risk-free method, as their contemporary Milward Kennedy found in the Thirties when he wrote a novel based on a recent case in which the prime suspect was never convicted, and was sued for libel. Even so, the appeal of true crime for mystery writers is enduring.
Just how enduring is shown by a fascinating new book, The Invention of Murder, by Judith Flanders (HarperCollins). The subtitle is self-explanatory: “How the Victorians revelled in death than detection and created modern crime”. The history of murder in the 19th century is described through short but pithy accounts of cases both famous and little-known, ranging from the body-snatchers Burke and Hare to Jack the Ripper. Judith Flanders traces the development of police investigation and forensic science, as well as recording how the British public reacted to major crimes – people panicked, for instance, when there was an outbreak of arsenic poisoning.
The main focus of public reaction, however, was to seize upon murder as a source of endless entertainment. Theatre-goers used to enjoy a good murder and those waxworks which could boast a chamber of horrors did a roaring trade. Above all, though, murder cases intrigued and inspired writers of popular fiction. Flanders opens and concludes her book by referring to Thomas de Quincey, author of that classic work of prose “On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts” . His satire highlighted the first time how murder might amuse, as well as terrify.
The early “penny bloods” (later known as “penny dreadfuls”) fictionalised crimes and trials in a very crude fashion, but gradually a more sophisticated type of writing developed. Wilkie Collins was especially accomplished at taking factual material (for instance, elements of the Constance Kent case) and transforming them into outstanding works of fiction. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are famous examples, but it was a method he used on a number of other occasions, as in the under-estimated Armadale.
The huge popular success that Collins enjoyed paved the way for the explosion of public interest in detective fiction, and Judith Flanders draws neat analogies between the work of real-life investigators and their fictional counterparts, most notably Sherlock Holmes. “An apparatus has developed around murder, a scaffolding: there was a police force now; there were detectives… Crime fiction took this new scaffolding, and covered it with an attractive surface… Detection – in fiction, at any rate – made the world safe… Most people in Britain had never had to worry about murder: by the nineteenth century it was vanishingly rare; by the start of the new century therefore, a love of blood could be indulged in safely and securely, without any fear of an ugly reality bursting in.”
I enjoyed Judith Flanders’ book immensely, and thanks to her admirably diligent research, learned a great deal. And one special thing fascinates me about what she has done. In The Serpent Pool, my character, Daniel Kind, is researching Thomas de Quincey, with a view to writing a history of murder. Judith Flanders has written precisely the sort of book that I had in mind, and I’m very glad she has. Daniel, certainly, would be proud to have produced it!
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)