THE VICTORIAN SENSATION NOVEL
By David Morrell
My mystery/thrillers Inspector of the Dead and Murder as a Fine Art take place in 1850s. To enhance their Victorian atmosphere, I wrote them as imitation Victorian sensation novels.
Sensation novels were something new: the start of the modern thriller. Prior to the 1850s, thrillers portrayed threatening situations that happened in remote locations and distant times, involving clanking chains in drafty castles. In 1859-60, however, everything changed with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. For the first time in novels, crime and violence happened right now in the respectable neighborhoods that readers walked through every day.
Moreover, these crimes were committed by members of the middle and upper classes, and what unspeakable crimes they were: adultery, bigamy, abortion, poisoning, arson, spouse abuse, and throat slitting, just to name a few. Reviewers and clergymen were so shocked that they dubbed this new kind of fiction the Sensation Novel and argued that all sorts of horrid behavior would result from these “cravings of a diseased appetite,” “a virus spreading in all directions.”
In 1861, Mrs. Henry Wood made her own sensational contribution to the genre, East Lynne, and in 1862, Mary Elizabeth Braddon completed the triumvirate with Lady Audley’s Secret. Thereafter, throughout the decade, it seemed that sensation novels were the only kind of books being published.
So, what happened in the mid-1800s to change a culture and make the Sensation Novel popular?
Twelve people lived in remote Road Hill House: Mr. and Mrs. Kent, their seven children, a nursemaid, a housemaid, and a cook. On Friday, 29 June, 1860, the household wakened to discover that one of the Kents’ children, a three-year-old boy, was missing. After a frantic search, the boy was discovered, crammed down a privy into excrement, his head nearly cut off. When the local police couldn’t identify the killer, renowned Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher was summoned from Scotland Yard.
The brutal nature of the murder attracted the attention of newspapers throughout England. Every step of the investigation was chronicled in vivid detail. After searching the property and interviewing everyone, Whicher did the unthinkable and accused one of the Kents’ children: a young girl. People were outraged, complaining that a well-to-do child wasn’t capable of committing murder. Surely, one of the servants was responsible or else a beggar.
Whicher was ridiculed until his once-illustrious career was destroyed. But years later, the young girl, now a woman, walked into a police station and confessed, admitting that Whicher’s suspicion had been correct all along. Her motive, she explained, was jealousy, the young boy having gotten more attention than she did. Unfortunately, the admission was too late to benefit Whicher. (For a full account of this fascinating crime, read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.)
A remote country estate, a dreadful murder, an abundance of suspects from various levels of society, a visiting master detective who arrives on the scene to replace bungling local policemen—we know this plot very well. Countless novels and films have used it. The events at Road Hill House provide its origins.
What isn’t emphasized in later fictional versions is the sensational nature of the investigation itself. In 1860, Scotland Yard’s detective division was only eighteen years old. The idea of a plain-clothed detective was disturbing to the middle and upper classes, who considered detectives to be on the same low level as laborers and spies. A member of the working class, Inspector Whicher searched through a well-to-do family’s kitchen, laundry room, and even their privy. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
Sensation novelists replied that all sorts of horrid things took place behind the closed doors and persistently drawn curtains of middle- and upper-class houses. These authors wanted to show that people with education, money, and so-called “good breeding” weren’t any better than the people on the street. Reading habits changed. Servants sped through sensation novels to learn what their masters and mistresses were really up to, while masters and mistresses read that same book to learn what people were imagining about them.
In 1863, a critic for the Christian Remembrancer concluded that the popularity of the Sensation Novel showed “a craving for some fundamental change in the working of our society.” The critic referred to “an impatience of old restraints,” and that’s an impressive realization. Sensation novelists provided an excitement that had never before been available in fiction, and the immense popularity of the genre proved that the repressed Victorian era was ready for that excitement. By going back to the sensation novel, Inspector of the Dead and Murder as a Fine Art acknowledge the origins of the modern thriller while trying to create something new.
David Morrell is an Edgar, Nero, Anthony, and Macavity nominee and a recipient of the prestigious career-achievement ThrillerMaster award from the International Thriller Writers. He has written twenty-nine works of fiction, which have been translated into thirty languages. He is also a former literature professor at the University of Iowa and received his PhD from Pennsylvania State University.