The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
nonfiction five 2008
Summerscale has written a very interesting book about the history of detectives, real and fictional, as well as investigating a true murder that scandalized Victorian England in 1860. The subtitle is "A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victoria Detective."
The murder was of three year old Saville Kent, killed during the night while he slept. The shocking part was that it had to be a member of the household who killed him. The great Victorian detective was Jack Whicher, one of the first members of London's detective squad. The research in this book was amazing, although I read it straight through and did not refer to the copious notes at the back for the reference source. Because it was a scandalous murder in a time of increasing media, there was certainly a lot of material written about the murder and the characters for Summerscale to use. At the time, England was entranced with the details of the murder and trials in the newspapers. The telgraph made information more immediately available and the public could not get enough of the sordid details. The critics bemoaned the downfall of society and the general decline of morals. Sound familiar to today?
Throughout the book, the author parallels the development of detectives and the detective novel. I am anxious to read something by Wilkie Collins now, as his mystery novels were referenced the whole way through, as well as Charles Dickens, a friend of Whicher's. It's hard to imagine a time when Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot were new literary characters, but until Poe's detective Auguste Dupin in 1841, the detective was not invented. The first real detectives weren't hired in London until 1842, so they were still quite a new commodity at the time of the murder and conflicted with the idea of privacy in Victorian days as well as highlighting the class situations between middle, upper and working classes.
The time of the murder, 1860 is such a fascinating time. It is far enough away that it seems long ago, but recent enough that so much information is still available. One of the sisters of the murdered child lived to be 100, so it wasn't until 1944 that she died. There are some great pictures and relics included in the book.
This would be a great book for people who like reading true crime mysteries, readers of detective novels, Victorian era fans, and well researched nonfiction books. I had originally planned to slowly pick away at the book, a little bit every day, but by page 100 I had to keep reading and find out the ending. Great suspense and pacing in the book to describe each of the characters and what happened to them after the murder.
Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy.