Books

Find of the week: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury, 2008

I blogged a few months back about this book's taking out of the Samuel Johnson Prize and have been desperate to read it since. The handful of bookstores in my region either didn't have it or wanted to charge me $30 for it in times of financial drought. The other day, however, on a giant book-buying road trip for which I saved mucho dollars, I found it, stuffed haphazardly in the true crime section at Bendigo's old fire station-turned-secondhand bookstore.

I believe I may have squealed.

Kate Summerscale's book is exactly what you might call "my thing". It's crime in the Capote style, a rich, true account written in the form of a novel, with revelations plotted throughout to create storytelling over basic retelling. Not only that, as the detective investigating the crime at hand was the inspiration for characters in the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and others, it's also a history of English literature. True crime and a lesson in literary history -- what could be more perfect?

And it was just as I suspected -- educational and utterly thrilling. I knew very little about the murder at Road Hill House going in, so the twists and turns gripped me exactly as they should have. I read compulsively, especially the second half as the mystery began to unravel.

It begins, in 1860, with the murder of Saville Kent, the four-year-old son of Samuel and Mary Kent in their home at Road, Wiltshire. As Kent is a private man with an unpopular profession, his home and family, including maids, nurses, and the children of his former marriage, are securely locked up at night in their large home. The security assumes the murderer resides within. Celebrated detective Jack Whicher is brought in to find the culprit. Yet with so many suspects and a range of plausible motives and means, Whicher's job is difficult. The call he eventually makes as to the perpetrator of the crime is unpopular and costs him his reputation (in the US, the book is subtitled, A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective).

But Jack Whicher has a reputation for a reason, and he stands by his suspicions as the crime goes unsolved for a number of years. When the answers finally come, most everyone is surprised. I was, too. My keen eye and marked understanding of the personalities involved proved entirely, wholeheartedly wrong. (But I was so sure!)

Summerscale is just a dream to read. She sticks to the fact, digressing into detail only at key moments. Her insight into the players and the era is convincing. And her conclusions are shocking -- Summerscale admits that in her verve to tell her story, she lost sight of its centre: a dead child. Funny, too, that in my race to read the book and the joy I received while doing so, deep in the shadows of Victorian England, peeping through the keyholes into the lives of this private family, I, too, lost sight of little Saville and the horrors that occurred to create this entertaining, spellbinding read.

I don't really know how to reconcile that thought, actually. Might delve into that another time.

Still, it's a marvellous, historical tale with great insights into the origins of detection and detective novels. It's also the story of upheaval in the lives of the Kent family, and just how they deal with the everlong aftermath of one horrible event.

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