“The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective” - Kate Summerscale - reviewWednesday, October 15th, 2008
Another lovely book review thanks to Mini Book Expo:
“The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective,” by Kate Summerscale, published by Raincoast Books, 2008.
This is a fantastic piece of historical nonfiction that reads as grippingly as any murder mystery of the more fictional variety. Summerscale is an excellent researcher as well as an excellent writer, and I can’t think of a single weakness in the way this came together.
It’s 1860, and the body of a three-year-old child is found stuffed down an outdoor lavatory. His throat has been cut, and his chest stabbed, and he appears to have been suffocated as well. The killer must be someone known to the victim and his family — someone from the nearby village, or one of the help, or even one of the family. This horrible killing quickly becomes a national obsession. While the local police fumble evidence (accidentally or with help?) citizens from across the country write in to newspapers with their favourite theories, and the Metropolitan Police sends in their best detective to help.
The role of plainclothes detective is a new one, and one that’s not regarded fondly by the upper class British at this time. It’s shocking that someone could be authorized (and paid!) to spy upon citizens who have done nothing wrong. It’s even more shocking, of course, when one of these working-class, little-better-than-a-criminal-himself detectives enters a respectable home to interfere with its private workings and accuse a teenage girl of murdering her brother. Detective-Inspecter Jonathan Whicher is certain that the killer is Constance Kent, sixteen years old and half-sister to the victim. (After her mother died–and was rumoured to be insane in the years before–her father remarried the governess and had several more children.)
Unfortunately for Whicher, there just wasn’t enough evidence to convict Constance, and what with popular suspicion falling upon the boy’s governess, she went free and the crime went unsolved for years. Whicher’s career suffered, as did the reputation of the detectives in general.
Detective fiction did pretty well, on the other hand. Authors like Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens found lots of material for their stories in this new method of crime-solving. Summerscale traces nearly the entire history of the genre back to this and a few other famous cases in the mid-nineteenth-century.
And by the end of the volume some more light is shed on the murderer, the motive, and the way all of these lives played out after the tragedy.
As I mentioned, this book is excellently written, compelling, and thoroughly researched. One is given no reason to doubt Summerscale’s theories and conclusions. A good deal of context is given to put the murder itself in the proper time and place, and this never seems to bog down. No detail is irrelevant. The quotations from contemporary literature are perfect for shedding light on public opinion towards crime and detection.
While there are very few footnotes in the text itself, the voluminous research to support the work is indicated in an extensive Notes section. The reference material also includes a bibliography, an index, maps, and a list of characters (which I must admit I referred to frequently.) Incidentally, the binding and printing are of a pretty good quality, and I’m fond of the subtly hyper-sensational cover image.
All of which may pale beside the fact that this is a fun read. I got through much of it in airports (true of so many things I read, unfortunately) and it was more than sufficient to help me forget my surroundings. Goes quickly and is thoroughly enjoyable.