>> Thursday, November 20, 2008
TITLE: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House
AUTHOR: Kate Summerscale
SETTING: 1860s England
TYPE: Non Fiction
REASON FOR READING: I was browsing in the library and it looked interesting.
It is a summer's night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks. The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them.THE PLOT: This is an account of a true case which reads like the prototype for every country house locked-room mystery novel that came afterwards. It's 1860 and a murder is discovered in the home of respectable, middle class Samuel Kent. After the local police initially make a complete mess of things and it becomes clear that the murder had to have been committed by a resident of the house, notorious Det.Inspector Jack Whicher is called in. The shocking investigation that results is even more shockingly reported in the media, with every detail of the previously sacrosant private life of the members of the family being considered fair game. Summerscale uses police reports, newspaper articles and all kinds of private documents to provide an extremely detailed account of both the case and the ins and outs of the investigation.
Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects.The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes - scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing - arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.
A true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, this has all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery - a body; a detective; and, a country house steeped in secrets.
I'm probably being a bit too coy in my description above, given that this is apparently a *really* notorious case, but I didn't know anything about it, not even who'd turn out to be the murder victim. This resulted in the book being a very suspenseful read to me, and I think Summerscale was excellent at bulding it up. I see that the synopsis at amazon pretty much gives everything away, on the understanding that it was something everyone would know, anyway, so beware!
MY THOUGHTS: The main flaw I found in the book was that, for all its research and deep level of detail, I didn't find it to be particularly illuminating about motivations. I never really understood the exact reason for the murder, never really felt it in my gut. But not only that; I also found it hard to understand why pretty much every character behaved in whatever way they behaved. Things like, why would the police develop a certain theory and be certain of it? No idea what was in their minds. Why would the governess claim certain things? Don't know.
I do recognise, however, that this might be a bit unfair of me, given that this is a true case and that Summerscale was working basically from documents and newspaper accounts. Could she have conveyed a better instinctive understanding of the characters' motivations? Possibly, but I'm not sure how without speculating even more. What's clear in my mind is that she could never have achieved the same level of understanding that is possible in a fiction book, where authors know exactly what's inside their characters' minds. That I wish this would have been a fiction case, so I could really know all about what happened, is probably a flaw in me as a reader.
All the illumination lacking about particular characters, however, is compensated by just how telling the book is about the cultural climate in which the action takes place. The very wording and tone of the newspaper accounts alone was enough to impress in me just how foreign these people and their attitudes felt to me. I think what I found most baffling and surprising was just how much people felt comfortable in concluding from witnesses physical appearance, especially when it came to female witnesses. Does she have an open face? Her ugliness makes it clear there must be ugliness inside her. Is she crying enough? Í suppose we still do it, more or less unconsciously, but it shocked me to see how explicit they were at the time.
MY GRADE: I'll go with a B. Fascinating stuff.