September 19th, 2008

reading

Horrid Murder




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.

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