The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale, narrated by Simon Vance
When the three-year-old son of an upper class landowner goes missing in Victorian England, the authorities become concerned. When he’s found murdered and left in an outhouse, things go from bad to worse. In Kate Summerscale’s meticulously researched book, she tells the story of the infamous murder of Saville Kent, and the detective sent from London to investigate the crime. Summerscale uses the investigation, widespread interest in the case, and the lives of the characters to paint a picture not only of how sensational crime was handled in the mid-19th century, but how detectives came to be what they are today, evolving from the early fictions of writers like Poe, Collins, and Doyle into a regular and real part of the police force.
A few thoughts:
- One of the reviews I glanced at before starting this piece called the book “over-researched.” I would instead say “under-edited.” Summerscale does often include too much detail in her descriptions of things — I noticed this particularly in her tendency to name the price individuals paid for everything. While the occasional discussion of incomes was certainly in line with her larger discussion of the role class played in the circumstances, the constant reference to costs felt like too much. I also felt like the epilogue-like biographies of the principle players following the murders should have been trimmed significantly.
- My favorite of the facts I gleaned from the book (and there were many, to be sure), was to learn that the antiquated spelling of clue was an etymological hint about the origins and meaning of the word. Apparently, the original spelling of clew (we see this in lots of Victorian-age detective stories) springs from its Greek ancestor, the word for string or thread that one would follow, as in a line of thought. The metaphor comes from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, as the string he threaded through the labyrinth allowed him to walk back out.
- If you decide to read the book, you’ll come to a point at the end when Summerscale seems to be doing a long-form version of the end of Animal House, telling you where each character went and what they did after the mystery was resolved. While this takes too long, it sets up her Epilogue, which reveals some really interesting additional facets to the case that have only come to light in the last sixty years or so. So feel free to skim some of the biographies, but be sure to read the last chapter.
- One thing this book highlights, for me, is how much sensational crime has always been a part of the popular press. Summerscale does an excellent job exploring how much public interest there was in the case, how this influenced the magistrates and the investigation, and its ramifications for larger discussions of policing in Britain. She also highlights the way class played a key role in everything people in Victorian England did, particularly in the way half the people in the house had a lot less suspicion placed on them because they were gentry. Regarding the public interest in the case, this book reminds me both of how the penny papers in New York cultivated crime writing as one way to generate popular interest in newspapers, but also of the art form journalists had made of such writing by the 1920s.
- In looking over the reviews of the book that disliked it, I’d say it’s a marketing problem. Summerscale’s book uses this specific murder to explore the rise of detectives as a cultural institution. It’s a historical work that uses the crime to achieve a larger end. Most of the reviews seem annoyed with that larger end. When coupled with the over-use of details, I can see how the casual reader wouldn’t enjoy the book. For me, though, the history of detectives at the core of the book becomes all the more interesting as Summerscale highlights just how much the police detective is a product of the literary engines that were creating him as much as they were imitating him.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a solid, enjoyable book with immense depth of detail and an intense story at its core. At the same time, it runs a bit longer than it needs to, leaving the reader without the punchy ending that would have suited the tale better.