Wednesday, January 09, 2013

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

Detective Inspector Jonathan "Jack" Whicher of Scotland Yard was somewhat of a celebrity in 1850s London. One of Great Britain's initial batch of trained detectives, he had been praised frequently in newspaper accounts for solving many cases of theft and murder. Authors Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens followed his career closely and reshaped bits of it into their highly popular tales. Whicher was, of course, the professional to call when the rural Wiltshire police could not solve the mystery behind the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860.

According to Kate Summerscale in her The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, the case known as the Road Hill Murder proved more difficult than any other for the great Victorian Era detective. Neither the local constabulary nor the family of the victim welcomed his involvement in the case. As days went by, all described by Summerscale in detail, the family and its staff became primary suspects, as every possibility of outside involvement was disproved. While Whicher asked members of the household many uncomfortable questions, the public demanded for a solution. When Whicher finally arrested a daughter of the house but she was released because no firm evidence could be found, he was vilified widely as careless and "lower class." Good public opinion of the detective never recovered and he was forgotten.

Though a confession was later made, the case is still far from truly solved. Was the confession false or partly false? What were the true motives? Were there accomplices  Summerscale recounts how thinking about the case has evolved over time. She also profiles the lives of the key players in the mystery up to their deaths and tells how Wilkie Collins spun the tale into one of his own.

Biographical but really better classified as history, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a great read for anyone who studies or greatly enjoys the literature of crime fiction.

Summerscale, Kate. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. Walker and Company, 2008. 360p. ISBN 9780802715357.


Anonymous said...

Our library's nonfiction group read this a while back, and there were mixed reactions. Some people really liked it, and some people were more "meh" on it. Personally, I thought it was interesting, but not something I would re-read. :)

Donna said...

I read this last summer and loved it. Of course I had just finished "The Moonstone" which resonates strongly with the Rode House Murder and in the fall I read "Bleak House" with its own detective subplot. Your comments are right on... if you read detective fiction you owe it to yourself to read this book.

ricklibrarian said...

Jen and Donna, you are both right in that you do have to care about the subject. It may be a bit slow for someone who doesn't like the slow revelations of a mystery.