Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The fascinating story of a famous Victorian murder case - and the notorious detective who solved it It is a summer’s night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks.

The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them. Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects.

The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing – arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.

I was very curious about this book. I enjoy historical mysteries very much and that this one about a true crime seemed perfect to my tastes. Unfortunately that was not so... I found it very interesting in terms of analysis of the Victorian mind, in terms of early detective work but I ended up finding it a bit dry and too cluttered with information that while important to the real investigation dragged the story.

The crime in question is the murder of three year old Saville Kent. In 1860, in the middle of night and in a locked house someone removed him from his bed, took him to an outside privy and slashed his throat. The first suspects are his family and their servants. The local police couldn't come up with answers and the Scotland Yard sends one of their best detectives, Mr. Jonathan Whicher.

Whicher arrives two weeks after the crime and some of the evidence is already lost. But careful analysis of what he could find and the family history led him to the conclusion that one of the family members was indeed guilty but the evidence was not conclusive and the case almost brought him to ruin.

I thought, from what I had read about it, that the book would be about his investigation, finding the clues and analysing them to reach a conclusion. Instead it ended up being more about the family relations, class system and mental illness. Which is also very interesting but it doesn't make for a fluid reading when it is described with as great detail as it is here.

One interesting aspect is when Summerscale mentions how Mr. Whicher influenced the detective fiction of the time and the works of writers such as Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Readers who enjoyed The Moonstone or Bleak House will find this a very interesting read. Other shocking murders of the time are also mentioned, some with motivations more material and, to me, easier to understand than this one.
In the end it is clear that the author did a great deal of research about the Saville Kent murder and her explanation of what might have happened to the two Mrs. Kent sounds like a plausible one but I think that is terms of resolution, despite the fact that Mr. Whicher's suspect confessed half way through the book, we are still left with many questions.
This book is very interesting for people wanting to find out about the family life in the Victorian world, about the crimes of the time, the motivations and the beginning of the forensics methods that led some of the criminals to justice. As for people wanting to find out just about this murder, the information is there but you need to filter through all the other details provided.

Grade: 3.5/5

1 comment:

  1. I felt the same way about this one. I was hoping for more true crime mystery, but it was very dry. Well researched but is academic in tone. I felt like I was reading a thesis paper rather than a story.