Saturday, 7 June 2008

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I'm not a big fan of crime novels and if I do read them it's usually for something other than the investigation of the crime (see, for example, my review of Ruso and the Demented Doctor by R. S. Downie).

However, I can't resist a real-life murder story, particularly if it happened in a prosperous middle-class Victorian household and opens up a Pandora's box of seething emotional turmoil concealed beneath a veneer of stuffy respectability. The names Florence Bravo, Adelaide Bartlett, Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick and of course Lizzie Borden, spring to mind. And if they're unsolved mysteries, so much the better.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the investigation of a child-murder in 1860s Wiltshire, ticks all these boxes, except the last. But that doesn't stop Kate Summerscale from telling a fascinating story with all the skill of a practised crime novelist, carefully setting out the troubled family background, the personalities involved and the circumstances of the murder, before gradually revealing the clues so as to allow the reader to play detective along with the real article.

Not a great deal is known about Jonathan Whicher, one of Scotland Yard's Victorian best, and the author doesn't embroider the facts, preferring to concentrate on contemporary police practice and the urban working class from which this detective sprang. Jonathan Whicher's police career ended in failure (though his suspicions in the Road Hill House murder, otherwise known as the Constance Kent case, were later proved right), and his real legacy is a literary one. The Constance Kent case was the original country house murder, sensational in its own time, whilst Wilkie Collins's Sergeant Cuff and Dickens's Inspector Bucket were both inspired by the intriguingly shadowy figure of Inspector Whicher.

Because they involve the brutal deaths of real people, true-life murder stories I find rather a guilty pleasure, though I hope I'm not being disingenuous in claiming that the real satisfaction lies as much in what they reveal about life in the eras in which they're set as in solving the mysteries themselves (or, as in the case of Adelaide Bartlett and Jack the Ripper, not solving them).

In any case, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a perfect gem of the genre, worthy to sit alongside such classics such as Poison and Adelaide Bartlett, Death at the Priory and The Poisoned Life of Mrs Maybrick.

The book has a website here.


Bernard Ryan Jr. said...

Hello, Sarah Cuthbertson --
How nice to see your favorable reference to my book "The Poisoned Life of Mrs. Maybrick." I continue to keep it prominent on my website, which I think you would enjoy visiting. Try
I'll hope to hear from you. Best regards . . . Bernie Ryan

Carla said...

This sounds really interesting. I always liked Inspector Bucket, and his real-life original sounds just as fascinating.