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The Reasons Behind Society’s Growing Interest in Crime :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

The Reasons Behind Society’s Growing Interest in Crime

The rise in crime can largely be attributed to the resounding effects of industrialization and urbanization that took place in 19th century London.  Along with these developments and rapid population growth came dramatic social change.  “New” and “old” London clashed as a result of the extreme growth promoted by these developments. According to Rosalind Crone, “the pre-industrial social hierarchy and vibrant, inclusive plebeian culture had been swept away with the advancement of an industrial revolution and unprecedented urbanization” (2).  London was overrun with poverty and filth, and a new narrative subgenre emerged, constructing the Victorian city as “a space in which the individual must be constantly aware, not only of the presence of others, but also of the threat of their connectedness to him or herself” (Choi 562).  Rapid urbanization created anxieties and fears of disease and crime, and the corresponding resistance to change was “likewise strongly articulated in the representations of violence that became ubiquitous in Victorian popular culture” (Crone 27).  Urbanization also created a system of “sweating,” which threatened the position of skilled workers and increased frictions between the lower middle class and working classes.  In this new system, work previously done by skilled artisans was divided into simple tasks that could be completed by semi- or unskilled workers in various stages (Crone 20).  These new developments pushed many Londoners into extreme poverty, which led to an increasing sense of desperation and petty crimes throughout the entire city.

The government, fearing potential disorder stemming from a rising crime rate, aimed to create a more orderly society (Crone 15).  In reaction to the growing unrest, the state began to take a more active role in the lives of its citizens, creating stronger and more organized police forces. The Times published a daily segment titled “Police,” which reported crimes from drunkenness and disorderly conduct to theft and assault (“Police”).  Nothing even remotely “criminal” went unnoticed or unreported.  The rise of the detective novel closely paralleled the development of police forces and the creation of the modern bureaucratic state that emerged in the 19th century.  Within this context, detective fiction was crucial in the growth of London society, which was increasingly concerned with systematically controlling the potentially revolutionary forces released by democratic reform, urbanization, and national expansion (Thomas 4).  Political unrest and class antagonisms led Londoners, especially the working class, to take radical and desperate criminal acts to ensure their subsistence.

As new measurements of crime emerged, the public became more aware of violent offenses and took great interest in the increasing crime rate.  In London, “although the number of homicides was falling to unprecedented low levels, the rate of crime generally was experiencing a dramatic increase from the late eighteenth century” (Crone 4).  Londoners became increasingly fascinated with criminal behavior, exaggerating previously ordinary crimes to the point of creating spectacles.  London’s amusements and pastimes suggest that “excess and the carnivalesque spirit were far from eradicated or even substantially marginalized in Victorian society” (Crone 7).  Extensive newspaper coverage dedicated to crime, criminal re-enactments, and other private displays of violent behavior, demonstrated the emergence of the theme of violence in popular culture.  A news story in the Times on Jan. 6, 1840, described in great detail the attempted murder of a woman.  The article gives a lengthy description of the victim and her home, as well as the wounds she incurred: “she had received no fewer than ten wounds on the head, one of which, above the left ear, had penetrated to the skull without fracturing it, and, glancing off, had torn the scalp the length of two inches” (“Shocking”).  Articles like this, which turned crimes into fascinating narratives with all the gory details, were extremely common in 19th century London.  As human life began to receive new value, the detective story emerged as a literary genre that embraced the individual and his/her capacity for reasoning.  People in the 19th century were more fearful of crime but also intensely fascinated by it.  The character of the detective fits into both- he or she is a force that can control crime (in solving cases) and can comprehend crime, while detective stories allow readers to read about criminal acts.

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