Sunday, March 21, 2021

Book Review | The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime


Rating ⭐⭐⭐

I had such high hopes for this one, but it ended up being somewhat of a disappointment.

The premise was fantastic. The author set out to explore some of the most sensational attention-grabbing murder cases of Victorian England. I feel like the title and subtitle were misleading because we know the Victorians did not invent murder. They did, however, invent making it salacious. Sensational newspaper accounts shouted grisly details (often inaccurate, but who cares? It's murder!) and people actually went sight-seeing to the locations of the crimes. So gross.

Side Note #1: It reminded me of the Villisca Axe Murders in Villisca, Iowa in 1912. A family of six and two girls who were friends with the children were horrifically murdered with an axe and the killers never captures. People from all over the town traipsed through the house when the murders were discovered, even HANDLING THE MURDER WEAPON. So gross, on so many levels. No respect for the dead.

Side Note #2: Okay, so I have been to the Villisca Axe Murder house on a tour given by owner Darwin Linn, who has sadly passed away since then. But we were on a tour of the restored house, not the bloody crime scene, so it is not the same.

Murder became entertainment and the author recounts all the ways in which this entertainment was produced - ballads, operas, novels, broadsides, and more. It is easy to see how this fascination with gruesome deaths paved the way for novelization of these crimes to develop - Sherlock Holmes is a product of this age.

Overall it was not a terrible book, but it became a repetitive one. The chapters were long, and followed the same format: the murder or group of murders were discussed with a good amount of detail, and then we are told how the crimes were depicted and in what medium. I skimmed at times only because the latter was indeed repetitive.

The author has researched and explains the ones you would expect of the era: Burke and Hare, Sweeney Todd, and Jack the Ripper, but also delves into some cases that are lesser-known today, but were huge when they occurred. I appreciate the variety, as many kinds of crimes were explored, though murders were always the most sensational and best-selling.

Side Note #3: When my mom and I were in Edinburgh, we went on a Burke and Hare night tour. It was November, so it ended up just being the two of us and our tour guide, Dougal. He was lovely and quite pleasant to follow around the city. We saw all the places associated with the body-snatchers and their crimes. This is kind of morbid too I suppose, but again, at least we didn't make a day of visiting a crime scene to look at dead bodies and having a picnic lunch with the kids!

I did find it distracting and unnecessary that the author would randomly insert herself in the story to make some quick little quip about the research she conducted. I really hate when authors do this.

Recommended for those with an interest in the shenanigans of Victorians  who were obsessed with murder.


  1. The Victorians DID love a good - and especially grisly - murder. It's probably why they also produced some of the great early detective stories/characters, like Holmes etc..

  2. Definitely not my cup of tea but I agree that the premise is interesting. It's too bad that it didn't live up to your hopes.

  3. Aww, that’s disappointing. I have this book on my TBR list because the premise is fascinating. I’m interested in everything Victorian.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  4. The explosion of newspapers and urbanism probably helped to make murders more salacious -- more people, more opportunities for violent crime, more potential eyes to read grisly details.

  5. Skimming is a wonderful ability sometimes!

    1. And wholly necessary for this one! Still, it was quite an interesting read.


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