Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER by Kate Summerscale

On the morning of June 30th, 1860, a toddler named Savill Kent was discovered missing. Later that day, his body, throat slashed, was found on the grounds of the Kents' home. Suspicion pointed everywhere--including the parents--but the police were unable to discover who the murderer was. Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the stars of the newly formed Scotland Yard detectives division, who was assigned from London to close the case. Although Whicher believed he knew who killed Savill Kent, he was never able to prove it.

audiobook cover

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a true crime book detailing a case from Victorian England that bears striking resemblances to the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey in our own time, including the media storm surrounding the investigation. I had a few problems with this book, and the major ones aren't really the book's fault. First of all, I listened to it audio. The reader, Simon Vance, did a great job of indicating imbedded quotes using accents and making the text interesting to listen to. But I don't read non-fiction books in the same way I read fiction books--I tend to read them back-to-front and out of order, so listening to a non-fiction book where I couldn't jump around from chapter to chapter at will was a little difficult for me. It also drove me CRAZY that I couldn't see citations (which I certainly hope Kate Summerscale included) or read footnotes.

Secondly, the subject. If anything else, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher reminded me why I avoid true crime. Killing a toddler is some hardcore shit. For some reason I thought, since the murder was a really long time ago, it wouldn't be so bad; but trust me, it is. And if hearing every single detail about the death of a little kid doesn't depress you enough, Whicher's investigation will nicely send you over the edge. Summerscale invests a lot of time in making Whicher appealing--unfortunately, this case is what's called a career-ender, and it isn't likely to end happily or bring about justice for anyone. I suppose, being one of the first detectives to ever investigate a murder like this, Whicher didn't realize that; but still, it doesn't make for cheerful reading.

That being said, if you have any interest in the nineteenth century or Victorian detectives, you should consider picking up this book. There is a ton of delicious detail concerning Scotland Yard in the 1860s, what types of crimes they fought against, how they investigated, what a detective's work routine was like, and so on. Since I never got a look at Summerscale's footnotes or bibliography, I can't swear to the historical accuracy of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, but based on what I already know her research seems very solid and thorough.

That being said, some of her conclusions, particularly in regard to Whicher and his influence on Victorian literature, seem like a stretch. Summerscale draws connections between Whicher and detectives in novels by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The Big Three of Victorian writers, no? While it seems likely Whicher might have provided some inspiration for some aspects of some of the detective characters in the authors' novels, the direct and pervasive influence Summerscale argues for in this book isn't backed up by solid evidence, in my opinion. Evidence of a solid and pervasive influence would include being close friends with the authors, meeting with them on a regular basis, and plot points in said authors' novels directly mirroring events in the detective's life--which IS the case with Eugène François Vidocq, the world's first private detective and several very popular writers in early 19th-century Paris (see my post about Vidocq at PGP). A random turn of phrase or investigative technique that was probably shared by all of Scotland Yard, on the other hand, isn't entirely convincing. One gets the feeling that if Summerscale would have logically been able to argue Whicher influenced Edgar Allan Poe's mysteries, she would have thrown him into the mix as well.

Meanwhile, her focus seems to be on the über-famous male writers of this era. I started reading Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon around the same time I began The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (completely by coincidence) and there are a lot of similarities between the Kent case and Lady Audley's Secret, as well--more direct similarities, it seems to me, than any novels by Dickens or Collins. Yet Summerscale only briefly addresses those parallels, I suspect merely because Braddon isn't as famous a writer as Dickens. Not to get all nitpicky or anything, but there are only 6 mentions of Braddon in the book, as compared to 46 mentions of Dickens and 24 mentions of Collins. Even Poe, who at the time of the Kent murder was long dead, receives over 20 mentions in the book. Based on these numbers, I think Summerscale's goal is to elevate the fame of Whicher, not truly investigate the Kent murder's influence on Victorian literature.

Other than that, however, I was impressed with the level of research in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. It's certainly not a book I would recommend to everyone--it is not history that reads like a detective novel. It's more of a true crime novel meets historical research. If you don't like true crime or those history books where there is massive infodump, you should probably not read it. But I did learn a lot and think it's a good resource and a fascinating case.


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