Madeline's Reviews > The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
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May 09, 10

bookshelves: assigned-reading, history-nonfiction
Read in May, 2010

There don't seem to be many glowing reviews of this book on Goodreads, which I can totally understand. Yes, Summerscale gives us way, way too much extra background information on everything, her attempt to connect Detective Whicher to every single literary detective that has ever been is weak at the best of times, and the book's content doesn't pack quite the sensational punch its title promises.

Those are the book's flaws. I acknowledge their existence, and will now proceed to completely disregard them as I gush over this story.

So, in brief: the book is a nonfiction account of a murder that took place in 1860 and inspired this crazy obsession with detectives and detective fiction in England. The circumstances of the case and the detective (Mr. Whicher) who investigated it would become staples of the mystery and detective genres for decades to come.

The case itself is hella creepy and so unreal it's hard to believe this story isn't fiction. One morning in Road Hill House, a small country manor of a well-off family in England, three-year-old Saville Kent was discovered missing from his crib. After a frenzied search by family and servants, the child's body was discovered in the privy, wrapped in the blanket from his crib. His throat had been cut so far that he was almost decapitated, and he had also been stabbed in the chest. After the local police made absolutely zero progress figuring out who could have done the murder, they called in a London detective to solve the crime. Summerscale documents the investigation, the trial that followed, and Whicher's tireless efforts to discover the killer.

As I said, there's a lot of information in this book. Yes, some of it is useless and obviously padding, but I thought most of it was awesome. For instance:

Random Stuff You Will Learn From This Book
-Details of every case Jack Whicher ever worked. I think it's interesting, anyway.
-At the time of the Road Hill House murder, the London police force had only had actual detectives for about seven years
-Police officers' uniforms included a thick leather collar, to protect them from getting their throats cut
-If someone was being put on trial, they were not allowed to testify in court on their own behalf
-The police employed women so that female suspects could be searched without any impropriety (oh you fussy Victorians, never change)
-Lots and lots of slang, most of it criminal-related
-Origins of the words "clue", "sleuth", and "red herring"
-At the time, policemen were unable to tell if bloodstains on a lady's nightgown were menstrual blood or not, and would usually start behaving like bashful schoolgirls if they had to speculate on this for more than thirty seconds.

Kate Summerscale is doing more than just telling us about a murder investigation. She's giving us an introduction to detective fiction as a genre, and using the Road Hill House murder to illustrate all its different aspects: the brilliant and meddling detective, the closed-house murder mystery, the one odd clue that leads to a solution, the suspects and their secrets, the motives and capacity for murder. You will either find this all fascinating or tedious, depending on your attention level and how much of a crime thriller you're expecting to get. Results may vary.

"A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes - the vestiges of the beast in man - into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill House the image of the detective darkened. ...He exposed the corruptions within the household: sexual transgressions, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing. ...His conclusions helped to create an era of voyeurism and suspicion, in which the detective was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demi-god."

Read for: Social Forces in the Detective Novel
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