The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale is about a real, horrific murder which took place in the summer of 1860 and seized the imagination of the Victorian public. Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher was one of the first official detectives appointed. These men wore plain clothes and were held in deep suspicion at the time because they seemed like spies and the English hated surveillance. Most of them were highly intelligent men from working class backgrounds and when they started poking around in middle class homes and impugning the purity of young ladies, they were even more reviled.
Whicher was known to Dickens, whose Bleak House (1853), featured the omniscient detective, Inspector Bucket. Dickens was as interested in the Road House case as everyone else. He was wrong about it and Whicher was right but Summerscale suggests that Whicher’s original failure to secure a conviction and the blackening of his name changed the course of detective fiction. Bucket got everything right but Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) made a mistake. Sherlock Holmes and his successors were amateurs and always right.
I hope this gives some idea of the depth of this book. It’s a well documented case but I’d never heard of it so the first layer is simply the story, fascinating and baffling. Victorian England with its railways, its sensational press and population avid for sensation seethes in the background. There’s obviously a huge amount of research in this book but it’s never obtrusive. The whole thing is very well done indeed and I recommend it highly.
I seem to be having something of a crime-fest. My latest Robert Goddard book is Hand in Glove and it’s one of the best I’ve read so far. An elderly spinster living in Rye correctly foresees her own murder and takes steps to ensure that it will not bring the murderer what he wants. At the heart of the story is the poetry written by her brother, killed in the Spanish civil war. In typical Goddard fashion the action moves all over England and takes in New York, Spain and Paris. Full of twists and turns and quite gripping.
Very different is A Death in the Family by Hazel Holt, which was lent to me. I’d never read any of her books before, not even her biography of Barbara Pym, so I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be a treat if you’re in the mood for quiet reading; ‘Miss Read’, say. A Death in the Family is one of a series of books about Sheila Malory, a widow living in pretty comfortable circumstances in a nice area with nice friends. Unfortunately, nasty things will happen even in such places and Mrs Malory seems to get involved with them. A heroine who loves Siamese cats and the novels of Charlotte M Yonge is bound to appeal to me, so I’ve taken a couple more Mrs Malory books out of the library.
While I was there I also picked up The Stabbing in the Stables, a Fethering novel by Simon Brett, which I’ve just started. The Fethering series was recommended to me by someone who knew I’d enjoyed the Hazel Holt book and I can see why. An agreeable Sussex community, two women amateur sleuths, plenty of local murders, lots of good social detail. I love After Henry and the other gentle comedies Simon Brett has written for Radio 4 so it’s not surprising that I’m liking this book.
Of the four books, the non fiction Mr Whicher is by far the best.