The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

>> Thursday, November 20, 2008

TITLE: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House
AUTHOR: Kate Summerscale

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

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.

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.
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.

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.


Getting back in the saddle

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wow, I never meant to stay away from the blog so long! But well:

· Writing a dissertation
+ Moving to a new city
+ Starting a new job (involving a great deal of travelling)
+ Spending a month in internet hell
3 and a half months hiatus

Yep, I wrote my last post on July 24th, over three months ago (I did post a review in early September, but I had that one written in advance, so it doesn't count). I just hope I haven't completely forgotten how to do this!

So onwards. I have a lot of catching up to do, so let's start with lightning reviews of all my September and October reads (not such a tall order, as both were piss-poor reading months):


TITLE: Tribute
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

Her newest. I feared from the synopsis that it might be a flashback to what I call her Judith Krantz years (glitz, glamour and celebrities), a bit like Genuine Lies or Public Secrets, for instance. But, no, it was very much in line with what she's been writing lately, so that's good news. It's about the granddaughter of a late movie star, who buys her grandmother's old house and intends to renovate it. And while doing that, she discovers her grandmother's suicide might actually have been something else (not to mention falling in love with her next door neighbour).

There was a lot about home renovation, which I enjoyed, even though it was almost as detailed as Linda Howard's survival stuff in Up Close and Dangerous. While the Howard bored me, I felt all the detail was much better integrated here. The romance was lovely as well... I enjoyed the role reversal of the incredibly capable and handy heroine and the sweet, goofy hero who couldn't even hammer a nail without losing a finger :-) And finally, what I loved best: all the family and friend relationships, which were both very real and heart-warming. I especially enjoyed Cilla's relationship with her dad (who had been absent most of her childhood) and with her ex-husband, who had become a really close friend. Oh, and the dog! How can I forget Spock? He was a star.

Very enjoyable, a book to sink into. And now I can't wait for whatever comes next!

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

TITLE: Moonstruck
AUTHOR: Susan Grant

Very, very nice, and a bit of a change from what I'm used to from Grant. Her previous books that I've read have been good, but a bit light, especially on the romance (not that there's not much romance in her previous books, it's just that the romance there is doesn't feel particularly deep). The romance in this story was amazing, dark and full of angst and reminiscent of the amazing Games of Command, by Linnea Sinclair.

The story's set in a universe where a war between two empires has just finished. One side has been beaten, but the winners seem to have taken lessons from World War I, and rather than humiliate the losers, they decide to take them on as valued (if junior) members of their coalition. The heroine, Brit, is a respected and feared admiral on the winning side, while the hero, Finn, is a former pirate/rogue-cum-captain of his own ship in the losing side. They're ordered to work together on a new ship, which will be a symbol of the new alliance, with Finn as Brit's second-in-command. But it won't be easy for them, as Brit has a very bitter history with Finn's people, and Finn has for years been half in love with the admiral who chased him relentlessly during the war.

It's a very good story, with two damaged characters who complement and heal each other perfectly, and a cool spaceship setting. The world-building and the plot (someone wants to break the new peace) were enjoyable, too.

MY GRADE: A B+. The Warlord's Daughter is definitely on my wish list for next February.

TITLE: Alpha and Omega (in the On The Prowl anthology)
AUTHOR: Patricia Briggs

This one is a short story from the On The Prowl anthology (and the only story I read from it). It starts a werewolf series that has been highly recommended. This was good, introducing to us Anna and Charles. Anna has been abused by her pack since she was turned, because she's supposedly a submissive wolf. But when she discovers something wrong in her pack and reports them to the head of all packs, the head's son, Charles, comes to the rescue. Turns out Anna's not a submissive wolf, but something much more valuable, and Charles wants nothing more than to protect her.

The story was too short to develop much, but it was an intriguing, complex introduction, and I mean to read the first full-length book soon.

MY GRADE: Another B+

TITLE: Dark Light
AUTHOR: Jayne Castle

Can you guess what I'm going to say? Yep, predictable, nothing spectacular, but perfectly solid and enjoyable.

The hero is a Guild boss, the heroine has a problem with Guild men, but is strangely attracted to the hero anyway, there's new, mysterious alien artifacts around, and the heroine's dust bunny steals the show (this one hilariously channels the spirit of Elvis Presley).


MY GRADE: I'll go for a B. Solid fun is nothing to sneeze at.

TITLE: Sex, Murder and a Double Latte
AUTHOR: Kyra Davis

Disappointing. It's about a mystery author who finds herself targeted by a killer who's very accurately copying the murder scenes from her books. The police don't believe her, of course, and there's a mysterious new man in her life, who might or might not be the killer. The set-up was good, but I found the heroine incredibly irritating after a while. She just wouldn't shut up, had to keep spouting snarky one-liners, even when it was completely STUPID for her to do so. In the end, blah.

MY GRADE: A C-, I'm sorry to say.

And that's it for September. On to OCTOBER!

TITLE: A Year in the Merde
AUTHOR: Stephen Clarke

This book has an interesting story. The author is an Englishman who worked in France for a few years, and the books are a fictionalised account of the experiences of an Englishman in France (how autobiographical is this? I've no idea). Paul West has been hired to open a chain of English tea rooms, and the book follows him as he adapts to the French way of doing things. Apparently, Clarke self-published it and the two sequels, intending to give them to his friends, but the book became a word-of-mouth phenomenon and he ended up selling the rights to a big publishing house.

I quite liked it. There are some truly hilarious bits, and I liked that the author seems to truly appreciate and enjoy the best things about life in France, while being completely exasperated by others. The only bad thing was that the main character was a bit too sleazy and amoral for my tastes.

MY GRADE: A B-. It really made me laugh, but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth at points.

TITLE: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell

First of the several non-fiction books I read this month (a couple of them I merely started reading and haven't yet finished, which is why they're not in this round-up). Hmm, how to explain what this is about in just a few words? Allow me to let Gladwell himself explain: "The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."

In this book, Gladwell explores just how this happens; what qualities the "message" needs to have to be "sticky" enough to cause an epidemic, what kinds of persons need to be involved, and much more. He does this in a very readable fashion, through fascinating anecdotes. Eye-opening stuff.


TITLE: Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness
AUTHOR: Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

I read this one for work, as we've been looking into the application of behavioural economics concepts in some of the areas we´re working on. Like The Tipping Point, Nudge was eye-opening, but it's recommendations were a lot more immediately applicable.

The main idea of the book is that real human beings don't behave as what the authors call "Econs"... the famous homo economicus that all classic economic fields assume. Thaler and Sunstein look into how "choice architects" (i.e. those who design how to present people with choices) can influence people's choices in a way they call "libertarian paternalism". That is, they believe there's ways of designing choices (by deciding what the defaults should be, for instance), which lead to people being better off, as judged by themselves. But the key for them is to do it in without coercion, allowing those who would truly *want* to choose something else to do so without much trouble.

This sounds all a bit abstract, so a quick example of one of the areas they cover. Among many examples, they look at people's pension choices, and note that many people simply do not even MAKE a choice. They just stay with whatever the default option at their job is, because making a choice involves looking at complicated choices they might not really understand. And this is not uneducated, ignorant consumers... they mention how many of their university professor colleagues have done exactly that (and to my shame, so have I, although I would defend myself by saying I still have a couple of months to change, and my decision will be retroactive!). So they propose that this default option should be designed to be what choice architects would consider people would choose themselves, if they were Econs (what they themselves would judge leaves them better off). But the key thing is that it should not be prescriptive: people should be allowed to move from this default easily, if they so want. Hmmm... I don't know if this is clear at all. You really need to read the book to appreciate the argument.


TITLE: Never Romance a Rake
AUTHOR: Liz Carlyle

A good book, but Carlyle isn't what she used to be. Her books used to be incredibly absorbing, rich and amazing. This story was more than competent, but not particularly compelling. As much as I did enjoy it, I just couldn't get completely into it, submerge myself into the action. What's it about? Dissolute rake Kieran wins a heiress in a card game and they marry, something the heiress, Camille, is perfectly happy to see happen, as she needs to marry in order to get the inheritance. Kieran is determined not to care for Camille, nor to let Camille care for him, as he believes he doesn't deserve happiness (not to mention that he's also sick and convinced he's got only a little time to live). But of course, he can't resist his new wife.


TITLE: Night Pleasures
AUTHOR: Sherrilyn Kenyon

This one I abandoned after some 50 pages, at most. It was disappointing, because I very much liked the first one in the series, Fantasy Lover, and was looking forward to sinking into a long, complex series.

Problem is, I read Fantasy Loverback in 2003. I have a very strong feeling that I would have liked Night Pleasures well enough back then, but I'm a much more demanding reader these days, especially with regards to heroines. Back then, a silly ninny was par for the course. I would have sighed and rolled my eyes at Amanda's shrill stupidity, her priggishness, her foolish determination to ignore anything to do with magic, even though she's perfectly aware that it exists and that there's supernatural danger all around her. I would have sighed and rolled my eyes, but I would have continued reading and probably would have been reasonably content with the book.

But this kind of heroine isn't par for the course anymore, thank heavens, so I have no reason to persevere through gritted teeth. There are much better heroines around, smart women who I actually enjoy reading about. With my reading time suddenly scarce, I'd much rather spend it on them and not on all those Amandas in romance-land.


TITLE: Thyme Out (aka Second Thyme Around in the US)
AUTHOR: Katie Fforde

I was about two-thirds into Thyme Out when I decided I wouldn't finish it. It was basically a hot-button thing.

The heroine, Perdita, is a gardener who grows exotic veg. One of her clients is a posh hotel, whose new chef turns out to be her ex-husband, Lucas. She and Lucas were briefly married almost 10 years before, when Perdita was a very naive 18, until Lucas dumped her for another woman. But now both have grown, and Lucas seems to be interested in another chance.

Here's the thing: I refuse to read a book with a cheating hero. Just plain refuse to. I'm not too technical about it and can buy the more exotic excuses (say, stuff like in JR Ward's Lover Eternal, when Rhage had to sleep with other women to keep his beast under control... I was ok with that). But plain, garden-variety, boyfriend/husband sleeps with another woman just because he feels like it, even though he's in a relationship where fidelity is expected? That will make me close the book in a minute.

And that's exactly what I did here. I had kind of hoped that the whole "left Perdita for another woman" thing had been a misunderstanding, a way to make a clean break, whatever. So I kept reading, especially because I was enjoying Perdita's relationship with her 80-something friend, Kitty. Now that was something fresh and wonderful. But then Lucas clearly admitted coming home smelling of all those other women's perfume and actually had the gall to blame Perdita's passiveness for it. And sorry, that was it for me.

Too bad about the Kitty thing, but this cheating thing wasn't my only problem with the book. Perdita was also getting on my nerves a little bit, especially because she didn't feel 29 at all; she felt like a little old lady. Plus, she had this martyr complex + obnoxious stupid pride that made for a horrid combination.

MY GRADE: DNF, either.

Ahhhh, feels good to be back!


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