In preparation for my upcoming academic term, I figured I’d post some of the materials I’ve been using, just in case others have similar literary interests. My focus (for the time being, at least) is on the 19th century, both as a social turning point, but also as one in which crime became a social problem. Granted, crime has always been with us; it’s impossible to have civilized society without some form of crime – in it’s own way, it helps us to define what behaviors are good. That’s rather simplistic, I know, but that’s the easiest way to explain it.
I am a long-time fan of Judith Flanders. I admire how she’s able to tackle complex topics, yet utilize a writing style that makes everything so remarkably accessible. In her excellent book, The Invention of Murder, Flanders demonstrates how Victorian Britain both condemned and reveled in criminal activities. Shock and horror at what offenses were taking place, but not too stunned to capitalize on them, whether it be in the press, on the stage, or at the bookseller. What’s probably most fascinating to me about this book is that Flanders shows how this fascination with crime led to social change – especially for women and women’s rights – and ushered in the twentieth century. The discussion on various crimes, from theft to murder, is also well-done. I love this book so much that I’ve purchased copies for friends – it should definitely be on your list if you’re interested in this topic.
A de facto companion piece to Invention would be Flanders’ The Victorian City, a look at life in the Imperial Capital from about 1830 until about 1875. I like books that stress the minutiae of everyday life. There are so many things that we – as humans – do on a daily basis that we either don’t think about or take for granted. For me, it’s those little things that makes humanity interesting.
In Victorian City, Flanders paints a picture of an ancient, thriving metropolis coming to grips with the fact that it is – for the time being – the center of the known world. Realize that by 1870s, Great Britain controlled (or had some influence over) nearly one-half of the globe; the administration of that vast empire was centered in London, a city that was pushing nearly two million inhabitants (and growing), when the average city was still under 100,000. How did these people live? How did they survive? How did they not manage to go insane from it all? Flanders addresses this and a lot more. As with the other book, Victorian City is highly readable, and Flanders has a writing style that make even the most mundane issue seem interesting. If you’ve any interest whatsoever in the Victorian time period, then this is the book for you.
In Victorian Babylon, Lynda Neal tackles similar ground, but from a more literary perspective. (Truthfully, all three books emphasize the expansion of Victorian literature during this period, so if you’re no fan of Dickens, Hardy, and Thackeray, you’re in for a bumpy ride.) Contemporary social critics of Victorian London tended to adopt one of two stances: That this was a glorious imperial city – worthy of Rome at it’s height of power – but in more of a ‘New Jerusalem’ sort of way, or as an modernized version of that den of sin and iniquity, ancient Babylon. While one impression embraced British might, ingenuity, and culture, the other shone a light on the filth, depravity, and suffering that lay underneath. In Babylon, Neal draws attention to London’s dark underbelly of crime (mostly targeting women and children) and want (ditto). It is not nearly as thorough (for the lack of a better word) as Flanders’ works, but it is still highly recommended.
Getting away from the hustle of London, my next recommendation is John Emsley’s The Elements of Murder, a short history of some very dangerous chemical elements. I first encountered this book by accident; it was on the overstock table at a local bookstore, and the cover intrigued me. Since the price was right, I decided to take a chance – goodness knows that I’ve wasted more money on worse items – and boy, am I ever so glad that I did.
Elements of Murder is a fascinating look at how science was used to further criminal interests. Specifically, Elmsley has chapters on mercury (a wonder-metal for centuries, until people figured out just how lethal it could be); arsenic (the so-called “inheritor’s powder” of the 19th century, a popular choice in offing those who stood in the way of one’s economic prospects); antimony (a particularly nasty element with horrific side effects); thallium (worse than antimony, if you can believe it); and lead (the source of a lot of accidental poisonings). Elmsley gives not only a history of the use of each element, but provides case studies of how they were misused by jealous lovers, impoverished entitled brats, and serial killers. Full disclosure: I like science (especially astronomy), but it was never on the same level for me as history. Well, Elements is the kind of text one would find in a History of Science course and had I had this book when I was still a young and impressionable lad, I might have added chemistry as a second major. My only damning critique of this book is that Elmsley hasn’t written a second volume – it’s that interesting.
Well, that’s the first part of my little list. My next look (when I get to it) will center on a few event-specific books that are just as dark, but make for a few great evening reads.