Monday, March 22, 2021

Book Review | Murder by the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens' London


Rating ⭐⭐⭐

I am strangely drawn to the Victorian era for one very specific reason: their weird obsession with death and murder - by poison in particular. The way murder and death was written about in that time period is so scandalous and salacious, which seems to be a direct conflict with the 'values' and 'morals' of the era. You may have noticed I have reviewed a lot of these books lately, and there are a couple more coming.

The murder of Lord William Russell is little-known today, but in 1840 it was a HUGE story, not only because of the viciousness of the attack, but because of how it shook the very foundation of the literary circle of London.

The well-known member of parliament was found dead, a massive wound to his throat/neck/head from an ax left at the scene. It was a brutal murder and his valet was immediately suspected, though there was little physical evidence. Small items such as coins and a watch are missing, and before his murder Lord Russell had reported that the locket containing his deceased wife's picture had gone missing also. Eventually, in an unlikely turn, it is discovered Courvoisier (the valet) had done quite a bit of reading in the couple years before the murder. At a time when the publishing industry began to boom, with books being made quickly and cheaply, it wasn't hard to find true-crime stories - which no one will be surprised about because Victorians loved the lurid tales of murder.

The valet finally claims in what feels like his fifty-third confession that he was influenced by the book Jack Sheppard, written by William Harrison Ainsworth. The story tells of a criminal who manages to escape justice time and again. He actually used this as a defense, but the idea was solid enough in that time to get the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, and even Queen Victoria talking about it.

Though this was a fairly quick read, it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. I thought the literary aspect would be a lot more interesting than it was.  It is still a decent look at a horrible crime, but the connection to Jack Sheppard is tenuous at best. The parallel commentary about the works of Ainsworth and Dickens, among others, and how the criminal element of their novels is interesting at times but also felt kind of forced. It is interesting to note that the arguments being made about violent music and video games in our lifetime were made back then about books.

Recommended for those with an interest in Victorian true crime.


  1. "It is interesting to note that the arguments being made about violent music and video games in our lifetime were made back then about books".

    I'd heard that - the idea that the 'chattering classes' would get their empty heads filled up with lurid ideas from sensational books and then decide to kill more 'respectable' people. Imagine their reaction to 'Rock & Roll' and Mr Presley's hips!

  2. I went through a period of reading when I seemed to read almost exclusively books set in the Victorian era and frequently they were murder mysteries. It does seem that the Victorians had a particular fascination with murders, the gorier the better. I'm sort of over my own fascination with the era now, although I still occasionally read something from that setting.

    1. I am so obsessed with the Victorians and THEIR obsession with murder - it is so weird! And really, I suppose we can say it is their fault that our media is the way it is today...they started it! lol

  3. Some parts of your review made me think of Twitter in these times, or social media in general being blamed for violent behavior. I guess things don't change that much.

    1. Not at all, no matter how much better we want to believe we our than our predecessors.


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