Do Crime Like a Victorian: 11 Nonfiction Recommendations

Is there anything better than a Victorian crime story? From Poe and Collins to Doyle and Hornung, some of the 19th century’s most enduring tales revolve around Victorians behaving very badly indeed. This was the era that saw the rise of both the detective novel and serious media interest in crime—the more gruesome, the better.

This list highlights 11 nonfiction books about Victorian crime and the legendary criminals who were among the era’s most infamous celebrities. Read a few of these, grab a time machine, and then you, too, can do crime like a Victorian.

(Writer’s Note: Nonfiction about the Victorian era is dominated by white authors, and so is this list. Hopefully this will change soon. It would be great to read about this wide-ranging topic from a non-white perspective!)

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

Boy, did Victorians love crime. Every high-profile murder was followed by a media frenzy, and every book, song, and play about crime—no matter how tacky or trashy—was almost guaranteed to turn a profit. The Invention of Murder explores how Victorians became the morbid, crime-obsessed weirdos that still intrigue us today.

The Napoleon of CrimeThe Napoleon of Crime cover by Ben MacIntyre

This is a fascinating look into the life of art thief Adam Worth, who stole an enormously valuable painting but could never bring himself to sell it, instead hanging onto it for over twenty years. Worth’s criminal empire was so successful that it provided the inspiration for a certain desperately overused Sherlock Holmes villain.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher coverThe Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale

Jonathan Whicher was one of Victorian England’s best detectives. But the murder of a little boy proves his professional undoing. Classism prevents Whicher from proving that the boy’s wealthy family committed the crime—until a belated confession thrusts the case back into the spotlight.

The Giant and How He Humbugged America coverThe Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

In 1869, as America struggled to rebuild after its civil war, a farmer in Cardiff, New York, announced that he had dug up the petrified corpse of a giant. Dubbed the Cardiff Giant, this discovery electrified the nation. Everyone, professional or otherwise, had an opinion on it. Was it an ancient statue? Was it proof of the Bible’s veracity? Or maybe—just maybe—it was all one giant lie?

The Inheritor's PowderThe Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel

The events of this book start just before the Victorian era, but is there a murder weapon more quintessentially Victorian than poison? This book puts the spotlight on arsenic, the cheap availability of which made it popular with anyone wanting to bump off an inconvenient relative or two. It also follows the footsteps of the chemist who finally figured out how to detect arsenic in autopsies.

The Murder of the Century coverThe Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

The discovery of a man’s dismembered body scattered around Long Island sparks a tabloid war unlike any seen before (but which will likely sound familiar to modern readers). The murder itself is no less interesting: it involves a love triangle, conflicting testimonies, and a method of body identification so scandalous that even the tabloids couldn’t print it.

Murder in the First-Class Carriage coverMurder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing by Kate Colquhoun

A London man mysteriously vanishes from a first-class train car, leaving no trace but a few personal belongings and a pool of blood. Who killed him, and how, and why? The ensuing rush to answer these questions captivated newspaper readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Apparitionists coverThe Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost by Peter Manseau

Whenever someone invents something new, someone else will find a way to make a scam out of it. Such was the case with William Mumler’s “spirit photography,” which allegedly showed the ghosts of a person’s loved ones in an otherwise ordinary photograph. But was Mumler cheating people on purpose, or did he genuinely believe his own hype?

The Wicked Boy coverThe Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London by Kate Summerscale

In 1895, two boys are accused of murdering their mother. The younger one, 12-year-old Nathaniel, turns on his brother Robert, and Robert is condemned to an asylum. But why did he commit this horrible crime? Victorian audiences were spellbound by news of Robert Coombes’s trial, and thanks to Summerscale’s engrossing page-turner, you can be too.

The London Underworld coverThe London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes by Henry Mayhew

If you want to hear the story of Victorian crime straight from the horses’ mouths, look no further than this book. Henry Mayhew, co-creator of the Victorian satirical magazine Punch, spent years interviewing London’s poorest and cataloged their statements in this four-volume opus—although it should be noted that some of his interview subjects were not happy with the final product.

Victorian Convicts coverVictorian Convicts: 100 Criminal Lives by Helen Johnston, Barry Godfrey & David J. Cox

This book doesn’t have a narrative per se. Rather, the authors have combed through historical records to compile the life stories of one hundred people arrested for various reasons. It gives readers a broad look at the true face(s) of Victorian crime.

4 Historical Fiction Books About the Romanovs

“Grandma, it’s me, Anastasia.”

via GIPHY

Like so many, I grew up watching Don Bluth’s animated classic, Anastasia. The filmwhile charming and fun, also took a considerable amount of creative liberties in telling the story of the Russian Royal Family. Nevertheless, the film sparked a fascination in me for reading more about The Romanovs and modern Russian history. These are my favorite historical fiction books about the Romanovs.

The Last Romanov By Dora Levy Mossanen

1991, Darya is the (fictional) last surviving member of the Romanov household. She is brought to Crimea to identify someone from her mysterious past as lady-in-waiting to Tsarina Alexandra. Darya has an a healing touch and an opal eye, but there could be more that she’s hiding.

Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess By Carolyn Meyer

One in the Royal Diaries series, this middle grade book is a haunting introduction to the Romanov family. Meyer expertly captures Anastasia’s preteen and teenage voice as she struggles to come to terms with her family’s eventual exile. This was my second introduction to the Romanov story after Bluth’s Anastasia. Some of the gruesome details were a shock to me at the time.

The Kitchen Boy By Robert Alexander

Russian immigrant Misha has spent most of his 94 years in Chicago. He decides to share his life’s story with his granddaughter—his time spent as a kitchen boy in the Romanov home of exile. Young Misha assists in the attempted rescue of the Romanovs, smuggling notes in and out of the heavily guarded home. Misha secretly witnesses the assassination of the Romanov family before fleeing the country.

Romanov By Nadine Brandes

Anastasia “Nastya” smuggles forbidden magic into the Romanov’s exile in the form of spell ink. A carved doll holds the secrets that could save her family, but if only she could open it! Hints of the first blushing of romance, political intrigue, and a likable protagonist make this YA novel an original mashup of history and fantasy.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

 

Hopefully, this list whet your appetite for more about Russian history and the Romanovs. Anastasia is now a full length musical and is touring the U.S. Countless nonfiction books have been written about the Romanovs, featuring every theory and angle. As the Romanovs continue to be a popular fiction subject, hopefully we will continue to see future works by diverse authors and in new genres.

For a taste of Russian Literature, start with 5 short Russian Literature classics, or for go for Russia-inspired and read up on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series.

7 Haunted Civil War Books

When I was in high school my government class went on a trip to Washington D.C. We made the requisite tourist stops at Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and a few battlegrounds of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. I can’t remember all the names of the battlefields, or all their history. Mostly, when you visit battlegrounds, they’re just fields of grass, and all look the same.

But Chancellorsville has stuck in my head. Not because the battle held any meaning. I’m naturally very uninterested in war or battles or saber rattling of any kind. But I remember my government teacher telling us this was where Stonewall Jackson was shot, lost his arm, and then died shortly after from pneumonia. He said losing Stonewall was a huge loss for the Confederates and his death changed the course of the war. And I said something simplistic like “that’s good.” My teacher was very enamored with the Confederate leadership. I remember the lecture I received after my “that’s good,” because it’s the same rhetoric I hear today surrounding Confederate statues and the Confederate flag. It’s basically this: the South was not fighting over slavery, they were fighting for their state’s rights (aka the right to own slaves) and also, the South had less soldiers, and better leadership, and they could’ve won if…yada, yada, yada. It’s the kind of speech that you want to end by screaming: THEY LOST!

The Civil War still haunts this country. Slavery still haunts this country. So it only makes sense that there have been so many ghost stories surrounding the Civil War. Ghost stories that are told from the perspective of the ghost, or characters haunted by Civil War ghosts; there’s also the metaphorical haunting of the Civil War, the statues that many states and municipalities refuse to take down, the rebel flag that hangs in front of houses, government buildings, from the backs of trucks. The worship of Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. The Civil War is a ghost that our country refuses to exorcise.

That ghost shows up in a lot of books that are written today about the Civil War. It shows up in a ghost named Beloved that haunts a former slave. It’s the 38 hanged Dakotas haunting Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s Abraham Lincoln, haunted by his dead son. It’s the men spooning together for warmth on a cold battlefield, reenacting a war that was fought over 150 years ago. Both metaphor and fantasy, the ghosts of Civil War literature captures the terror and horror of the time.

Here are a few of my favorite haunted Civil War books:

cover-of-tales-from-the-haunted-south-tiya-milesTales From the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era by Tiya Miles

We have been thoughtless for so long about race, our country’s history of slavery, segregation, and the appropriation of African American culture. Part of the experience of many tourist areas throughout the South features ghost tours. Savannah, for instance, has a plethora of tours and gothic historical attractions. Tiya Miles finds the macabre storytelling problematic. Many of the homes and ghost stories feature the slaves that worked in the homes. Some even are about slaves who died, and the gruesome stories that accompanied their demise. It’s appropriation of African American history for monetary gain.

toni morrison beloved book coverBeloved by Toni Morrison

A horror novel about slavery. Sethe lives with her daughter at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. The story begins in 1873, long after Sethe has escaped from the south and slavery. 124 is haunted by a ghost called Beloved. Sethe’s two sons have left the house because of the ghost, but Sethe’s daughter Denver likes the ghost. The story is told in two parts starting in 1873, but then travels back in time to the plantation where Sethe was held as a slave. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.”

cover-of-confederates-in-the-atticConfederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

This book had been on my radar for years. I’d expected it to be a funny exploration of southern culture and Civil War reenactments, but what I got was an extraordinarily prescience preview of a world that has seen a resurgence in national politics. Yes, there are funny elements in this book. During reenactments, in an attempt to be thoroughly realistic, men spoon in ditches on cold battlefields, so they can experience what their Confederate ancestors experienced before battle. Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, so his reporting on Confederate culture is even-handed, this book is not an indictment, but it could be interpreted as a warning.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This was the first George Saunders I’d read. It’s a quick, weird book told from the perspective of the ghosts that haunt the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s dead son is being interred. Its style seems silly, but it’s a profound story about loss and tragedy.

“He is just one.

And the weight of it about to kill me.

Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result.”

grace by natashia deonGrace by Natashia Deon

This is a story told in two parts, and both parts are narrated by the ghost of Naomi, an escaped slave who finds refuge in a Georgia brothel. Naomi is found in a field after running away from the plantation where she was held as a slave with her mother and sister. She’s brought to a brothel where she works as a maid. Soon, Naomi falls for a smooth talking white man named Jeremy and becomes pregnant. The second part of the story is Naomi’s ghost watching over her daughter who is a slave. It’s a harrowing story about slavery, and the particular vulnerability of women on slave plantations.

Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss

A fever dream, not haunted by ghosts but by alligators. A post–Civil War world, unrecognizable to the United States we’ve learned about in our history books. Prepare to suspend reality. This is powerful and bloody and violent. And maybe the best way to write about a war and a time so fraught with pain and death. The story is told in second person—a style I always find challenging.

cover-of-savage-conversations-leanne-howeSavage Conversations by LeAnne Howe

Another challenging book, both for its style and its subject matter. I didn’t know about Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental illness until I read Alligators of Abraham, but that book was so surreal, it was hard to tell truth from fiction, so it wasn’t until I read Savage Conversations that I learned the true extent of Lincoln’s illness. Mary Todd believed that a “Savage Indian” was slashing her scalp and throat every night. Her delusion led her son to commit her to Bellevue Place Sanitarium. But what was the root of Mary Todd’s delusion? In 1862 Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakotas. Could this be the source of Mary Todd’s visions?

Need more Civil War books? Try these:

8 Great Novels Set During the American Civil War Era

100 Must- Read Civil War Books About the Historic Era