Friday, December 30, 2011

review: the suspicions of mr. whicher


image source: Downszone
Recently I reread a book that I had been given as a gift a few years ago- The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale.  Written in the style of a murder mystery novel, it's a story of a country house murder at a country house and the mystery surrounding it.

In the summer of 1860 a body is discovered at Road Hill House in the village of Road (known today as "Rode") in the county of Wiltshire (which later fell under the jurisdiction of nearby Somerset).  This incident quickly explodes into a classic "Whodunnit" as the secrets of the family pour forth for all public scrutiny and suspicion falls upon each family member and servant in turn.  Was it Samuel Kent, the patriarch of the family, caught in a sexual encounter with the nursemaid?  Was it any of the four eldest children, products of the father's first marriage?  Was it the 8-month pregnant Mary Kent, the second wife and once governess to the older children?  Was it the cook or the housemaid?  Or the 18-year-old gardener who had just given notice for not receiving a pay raise?  Or the shoemaker who had discovered the body in the first place?

As pressures mount and public outrage grows over the failure of the police to find the murderer, a Scotland Yard detective is requested.  That is how Jonathan Detective-Inspector Whicher enters the picture.  Would this man, born into the lower classes and known for his keen attention to detail and observation, be able to use the new art of detection to find out the murderer?  Or would his airing out of the dirty laundry of this respectable middle class family be his downfall?

Summerscale outdoes herself in research for this book.  Not only does she investigate the murder, but she reads countless newspaper articles, books, and novels, drawing the connections between the murder and its influence on modern day fiction.  She also delves into the world of the detective- how the public viewed this new personage, hired to find out and divulge the dirty little secrets of every day, ordinary people and things. The views of the middle class on their privacy and decency and how they could get in the way of a police investigation of the Victorian age, as well as the great inexactness of detection and the dependency on the art of the culprit making a mistake or even confessing are also explored in great detail.

For a detailed account of middle class life, detection and detectives, and Victorian crime, this book is an excellent and easy read.  For a murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the end, go no farther than the pages of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

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