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

This is a remarkable book, but not a very readable one. Judith Flanders seems to have read every novel, newspaper story, play (the Lord Chamberlain's office kept a record), broadside and treatise that pertains, however glancingly, to her chosen subject - and that includes work she describes as "almost unreadable today". The problem is that she wants to share all this with the reader. At times, The Invention of Murder resembles an extremely detailed list of every violent crime that took place during Victoria's reign (and not only then, because the book reaches back into the 18th century).

Flanders starts by considering the appeal of murder - "very pleasant to think about in the abstract" - but this is all the analysis we get. By the start of the second paragraph, we are being told about the murder of Timothy Marr, his family and his apprentice in the East End in 1811. The author recounts this and dozens of other murders, as well as the attention they received in the press and, when applicable, the arts, the relevance of class, the means of detection, the court case and the testimonies of great men of the day (such as Dickens and Thackeray).

The book's subtitle, How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, suggests a narrative or even thesis rather than a survey; but those 12 words are made to do a lot of work. It's as if the subtitle doesn't announce the shape of the book, but, in fact, has been assigned the task of shaping.

In moments of desperation, the reader may use it as a mental weapon with which to tame the book's amorphousness.

Chapters in a book dealing with one broad subject may be used to separate chunks of material artificially, but with the exception of "Panic" (about the mid-century fear of poisoners) and "Middle-Class Poisoners", the chapters here have a porousness that limits their ability to aid the reader's memory and comprehension. Flanders is able to note that the plot of Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White seems more complex than it is because of the "overlapping narratives" without identifying the greater damage such overlap might do to a compendious work of history.

Murder attracted so much attention in the 19th century because journalists and novelists were alert to its juicy dramatic possibilities, but whenever Flanders has an opportunity to give a chapter some propulsion she squanders it. During her account of the murder at Road Hill House (the subject of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher), she observes that "Many novelists turned to the shattered Kent family" before giving us a paragraph each on works by Mrs Oliphant, Charlotte M Yonge and Mrs Braddon. And this is ever Flanders's way. The closing sentence of her opening paragraph - an ideal place to get the reader in your grip - is a statistic-heavy parenthesis. Instead of delivering a knockout conclusion to the strange fact that murder was virtually non-existent at the beginning of the 19th century, she recites the murder figures for 2007-2008 for Canada, the EU, Moscow and Cape Town.

At the other end of the book, in the opening paragraph of her "Modernity" chapter, Flanders follows the enticing thought that "Jack the Ripper brought with him a new kind of crime, and a new kind of fear", with the story of Israel Lipski, the murderer "popularly described as being the precursor to Jack the Ripper". Lipski was a Polish-Jewish immigrant; he arrived in London in 1885; and so on, for eight pages.

By the time we get to the murder of Martha Tabram, the Ripper's first victim, that introductory frisson has been crushed by the weight of background detail.

Flanders's ability to connect things is astonishing, and she has made all kinds of marvellous discoveries (some of them reported casually, in footnotes), but again and again across this vast book, she proves a more dutiful servant of her research than her readership.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide