Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher [2008]

I have not read much nonfiction in 2010, in contrast to my somewhat regular consumption in 2009, but Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective has been on my TBR list for several years now. When the folks at Unshelved noted that the audio version was narrated by Simon Vance, that was all the incentive I required to put it on my holds list immediately.1

In a country house in 1860, three-year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered and his body disposed of in a privy, most likely by a member of the household. Suspects in what came to be known as the Road Hill Murder included Saville's father, governess, and siblings. After local police bungled and obstructed the investigation, detective-inspector Jack Whicher was sent from London to work the case, which had gained fervent national interest due to detailed and sensational newspaper accounts. When Whicher identified Saville's sixteen-year old half-sister Constance as the murderer, but was unable to produce anything but circumstantial evidence, his career was seriously jeopardized and the family's privacy was permanently shattered. The solution to the mystery, unraveling in the eye of a scandal-hungry public, took intriguing twists and turns over the course of the next century.

The book is nonfiction that reads more like fiction. On the surface, it's about a crime committed in Victorian England, but Summerscale uses the murder to tease out the complicated relationships between public and private spaces, between the working and middle classes, between husband and wife and first families and second families, and most importantly to examine the rise of the detective, both historically and in popular literature. Along the way, the reader learns word origins, peculiarities of Victorian behavior, historical tidbits, and a little bit about the religious controversies of the late 1800s. A fascinating read.

Grade: A-

Random Thoughts:

As an ex-Victorianist-in-training, I often had the sensation that I was reading someone's dissertation, particularly because she tied it so strongly to detective and sensation fiction like The Moonstone and Lady Audley's Secret. Therefore, I spent a lot of the book thinking about how much grueling research Summerscale must have conducted in order to generate such a well-nuanced depiction of not only the crime itself, but the overall atmosphere of Victorian society. She uses weather reports, railroad schedules, portraits of the people involved, and other primary sources to set the scene with minute details for each stage of the investigation. One of the reviews described her approach to the material as "fastidious," and that pretty much nails it. The voracity of Victorian appetite for sensation (fed by and resulting in a constant stream of newspaper articles) no doubt gave her an absolute wealth of information from which to generate her story. The overwhelming amount of information about the case also points to a public fascination--on the level of an OJ or similar trial today--with murder and scandal that clearly did not develop as recently as one might have theorized.

The pros of reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher in print form include the photo pages, as well as voluminous end notes that reveal the scholarly approach behind Summerscale's fiction-esque narrative. The pros of listening to the audio book: Simon Vance. The audio version also has an insert that depicts the floor plan of Road Hill House, which is pretty cool, even though you wouldn't necessarily be scanning it while driving.

For more about how the book was written, see Bookslut's lengthy interview with Summerscale here.

Book Review Index
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1Seriously, I am strongly considering checking the catalog for whatever Simon Vance has narrated and putting it on my list. I know him primarily as the dreamy voice of the Temeraire series, but I am more than willing to listen to him talk to me on just about any subject. Needless to say, I follow him on Twitter.

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