Daniel'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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's review
Jun 25, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: first-edition, 2009
Read in June, 2009

It's a bit hard to understand all the acclaim "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" has received. A recounting of the murder of a three-year-old English boy in 1860 as well as an exploration of the killing's impact on detective work both real and fictional, the book certainly isn't terrible but does suffer from being something of a data dump for the author.

It seems Kate Summerscale felt a need to give us every niggling detail she was able to dig up about the murder, its coverage by the press at the time, and the family history of each of the case's principles. She also not only ties in every famous piece of literature loosely connected to the case -- the Sherlock Holmes stories, Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone," Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," and Charles Dickens's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" among them -- but also gives readers the etymology of myriad detective terms, from "clue" and "red herring" to "sleuth" and "hunch."

None of this is bad in and of itself. Summerscale clearly intends to use the investigation of Saville Kent's murder as a starting point to discuss the rise of the modern detective and the development of the mystery novel. The problem is that her analysis of the subject is relatively shallow. There's almost nothing here that someone with a rudimentary knowledge of the history of detective fiction and police work would be surprised by. One comes away with the feeling that Summerscale really wanted to write about only the Kent case itself, found herself with too little material, and ended up padding the story with anything tenuously connected to the crime.

Another problem with the book is the title character, Jonathan Whicher himself. So little is known about the detective beyond his involvement in the Kent investigation -- it's not clear whether or not he had a son, for instance, and Summerscale is left guessing what earlier cases he might have worked on -- that it seems a miscalculation to put the weight of the book on his shoulders. The crime, too, is not quite enough to carry the book. Sure, the murder of a three-year-old would always be shocking, and was probably even more so in its day. But the victim, being a three-year-old, is by definition a less-than-fascinating character. Don't the best murder mysteries -- and Summerscale herself says at the outset that she's hoping to recreate a murder mystery with this book -- have the most intriguing victims?

All criticisms aside, and I realize I've heaped a lot on "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," the book is obviously thoroughly researched -- arguably too well-researched -- and Summerscale's prose is clear, straightforward and free of unnecessary ornamentation. The book doesn't invite loathing, certainly, but is quite a slog to get through. And the reader isn't left feeling it was much worth the effort.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Kemper Great points. I liked it a little better than you, but I thought it was thin on her premise that Wicher and this case had a profound influence on detective fiction.

Daniel That's a good point, Kemper. After all, unlike in almost all detective fiction, Whicher never uncovers any hard evidence or catches the criminal in a deception. Sure, he follows his instincts, as fictional detectives start out doing, but never gets beyond them. So how much of a role model for fictional detectives could Whicher really have been?

message 3: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Interesting. I just noticed your edition is titled "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective".

Mine is "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or The Murder at Road Hill House".

The different titles cast rather different emphases.

Daniel Mine is the American title. Here in the U.S., we demand superlatives in our book titles, particularly if they are popular history books. We're not so big on nuance or subtlety here.

Kemper I first noticed this trend on The Devil and The White City a few years ago. Apparently, just calling it The Devil & The White City wasn't good enough so the had to make it The Devil and The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. It's getting pretty ridiculous.

I guess they think that unless you explain the title, no one will buy it. Can you imagine if In Cold Blood would have been In Cold Blood: Murder and Regret on the Plains of Kansas? Ugh..

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Kemper, you made me laugh out loud.

Thanks for the review, Daniel. THe book sounds interesting but lately I just do not have the patience for wordiness or anything that could have used a good editor.

message 7: by karen (new)

karen none of my goodreads.com friends like this. but i have it and i still have to read it!! growl. i hope i like it, even if no one else does.

message 8: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Good review Daniel. You have saved me from reading a book that would leave me feeling, ehh.

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