Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This book is courtesy of Mini Book Blogger Expo and if you're interested in free books I suggest you check them out.

"The Road Hill case was dense with fabric. The setting of the murder happened to be cloth making country, a land of sheep and wool mills. The family's dirty laundry lay at the heart of the investigation, their washerwoman was a key witness, and the investigation threw up three clues of cloth: a flannel, a blanket and a missing nightdress." - page 70

In an English country house in 1860, three year old Saville Kent was murdered and thrown down a privy. This incident shocked the country and became the focus for Detective-Inspector Jonathon Whicher, a member of the newly formed detective force at Scotland Yard. What followed were a variety of false leads, trials and years of painful silence. Throughout this journey to discover Saville's murderer, Kate Summerscale shows us how the investigation evolved, what went wrong and how it informed on the growing field of detecting both at Scotland Yard and in literature.

The Good:

I really enjoyed the fact that we see the story from before the murder until long after it was committed. Summerscale gives a full account of the incident and follows the consequences to their conclusion. She doesn't leave anything out, including colour inserts to give us an idea of what the family looked like and blueprints to show us a layout of Road Hill House. It's obvious that a copious amount of research has gone into this book and I appreciated the inclusion of footnotes. For example, apparently a "defendant as not allowed to give evidence at his or her own trial until 1898." This had an impact on the various trials that took place after the murder.

Also, it was interesting to see the proliferation of newspapers at this time and how they sensationalized stories to make money. They may not seem different from today's tabloid newspapers but in that day and age newspapers were often guilty of libel and outright lies when it came to cases like murder. Summerscale calls journalists "crusaders for truth" and "sleazy voyeurs" for their earnest need for stories and biased coverage of said stories. In the Saville Kent case, the papers not only attacked various members of the Kent family, accusing them with no evidence but they also went after Whicher.

The Bad:

There was so much detail about the investigation and trial that I felt overwhelmed. At times the book read more like an academic piece than a story. I was really looking for more of a story and instead the investigation read more like a technical playbook. This is the weakness of the book. I was also disappointed with the ending though this is no fault of Summerscale's. The outcome of the case leaves something to be desired.

It was almost more interesting to see how detectives operated and the how real cases influenced an influx of detective stories by people like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For example, "Lady Audley's Secret" by Mary Braddon and "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens were written in the period with various influences from the "detective fever" that had taken over England.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach.

Rating: 3.5/5

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