Abstract for Chemical Crimes

Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction

This book argues that Victorian crime fiction tackled the problematic places where science and crime overlap through literary representations of the poisoner, a figure who simultaneously embodied scientific progress and its abuse. The Victorians believed they were experiencing a surge in poisoning crimes, caused (as an 1856 article wrote) by the fact that “the crime of poisoning has become a scientific art or profession, and while science has afforded increased facilities of detection, the advancement of such knowledge with the details of each case has been equally available to the criminal.” Chemical Crimes: Science and Poison in Victorian Crime Fiction focuses on the poisoner to trace how crime becomes scientized and the implications of this process on both fiction and the ways the Victorians understood crime. This book illustrates that Victorian authors used the chemical criminal—which I define as a poisoner who employs science to murder or otherwise manipulate bodies—to create a counter-narrative to progressive portrayals of science. Whether they are professionally trained chemists and doctors, or just laypeople who employ scientific methodology in the commission of their crimes, these poisoners at once benefited from new innovations in science and raised questions about its progress. To show how authors adapted the poisoner for evolving critiques of science, Chemical Crimes traces this figure though the various genres of Victorian crime fiction, including Newgate, sensation, detective, and gothic fiction. By doing so, Chemical Crimes reveals that nineteenth-century crime fiction responded to, and was shaped by, anxieties about the progress of Victorian science.

 Chemical Crimes’ focus on the poisoner differs radically from previous examinations of science and crime in the nineteenth century because it shifts the critical focus back onto the criminal and away from the detective. There has been such a scholarly emphasis on the detective in crime fiction that, as Heather Worthington notes, much nineteenth-century criticism uses the term “crime fiction” synonymously for “detective fiction.” Following D.A. Miller’s 1988 work The Novel and the Police, which argued for “a radical entanglement between the nature of the novel and the practice of the police,” critics have focused on the detective and this disciplinary figure’s influence on shaping Victorian crime fiction. Linking the detective’s disciplinary power to the rise of professional science works such as Ronald R. Thomas’s Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science argue that detective fiction and forensic science were mutually constitutive and contributed to each other’s legitimacy. But this approach, which charts the trajectory of nineteenth-century crime fiction as aimed teleologically towards a scientized detective form, has occluded how the fictional offender adapted scientific methodology, technology, and knowledge to the commission of crimes. This book’s focus on the criminal frees it from the disciplinary model established by Miller and exposes just how much authors were willing to challenge the supposed triumph of forensic detection. Chemical Crimes shows that Victorian crime fiction is concerned as much by the scientific innovations of the criminal as it is by the detective and interrogates the widely-held belief that this fiction contributes to the legitimization of professional science in the nineteenth century.

The chemical criminal is an ideal figure for identifying the complex interaction between science and crime fiction, not only because of their link to scientific knowledge, but also because of the cultural perception of poison as slippery, indeterminate, and invisible. Poison’s complex association with both scientific progress and decline was typical of the ways in which the Victorians symbolically interpreted deadly chemicals. To theorize how the Victorians harnessed the complexity of the poisoner, this book uses Jacques Derrida’s work on the pharmakon, a Greek word which simultaneously means both “remedy” and “poison.” Derrida’s notion of the pharmakon is useful for understanding how the Victorians employed poison in their literary and cultural discourses because, like the pharmakon, poison was “apprehended as a blend and impurity,” which “acts like an aggressor or a housebreaker, threatening some internal purity and security.” For the Victorians, as for Derrida, poison has a slippery hybridity that collapses binary distinctions. Thus, while authors such as Ellen Wood, Wilkie Collins, and Edward Bulwer use poison to add sensation or mystery to their plots, they also use poison’s indeterminacy as a metaphor for larger cultural instabilities. In literature, poison acts as disrupting force that reveals deep anxieties about modern “progress”—particularly in relation to science. In particular, the fusion of science and hybrid, unstable poison allows Victorian authors to probe the limitations of forensic technology and question new scientific theories and methodologies.

In addition, Derrida’s use of the pharmakon to discuss Western culture’s suspicion of “dangerous” writing is especially pertinent to the ways the Victorians metaphorically employed poison. The word “poison” is often used as a metaphor for dangerous texts—particularly those which experiment with novel ways of depicting criminals or crime. Authors employed the hybridity of poison to not only challenge dominant cultural narratives but to also probe the boundaries of established literary genres. Tracing how poison became a metaphor for texts and dangerous acts of reading throughout the century, Chemical Crimes proposes new foundations for the signature generic developments of nineteenth-century crime novels. For example, my third chapter analyzes how Ellen Wood incorporates the medical gothic into the “poisonous” genre of sensational fiction in order to critique the growing domestic power of Victorian medicine.  Atypically, Wood’s texts feature heroines who resist medical authority, a move which allows her works to make a unique contribution to both the tradition of the medical gothic and sensation fiction.  This chapter, as with all the material related to this project, explores the intersections of science and chemical crimes at moments of generic transformation, revealing that developments in Victorian crime fiction were often shaped by contemporary concerns about the growing power of science. Thus, one of the primary contributions Chemical Crimes makes to literary studies is that it offers an alternative way of understanding the generic characteristics of nineteenth-century crime fiction by arguing that developments in this fiction were largely influenced by concerns about the link between criminal innovation and scientific progress.