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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

By Carrie | Books | July 27, 2009 | Comments ()

By Carrie | Books | July 27, 2009 |


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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale is a detective story with a nice twist: the tale is true. In June 1860 the Kent family of Road, Wiltshire awoke to find the youngest son missing from his cot. His body was later found in an outhouse, his throat slit and a stab wound to the chest. But worst of all, it seemed that one of their own must be responsible, the house having been locked from the inside.

Summerscale recounts the events in an easily readable style, one which makes this book one you don't want to put down. It's been a while since I had that with a book, and it was lovely to be stuck at work watching the clock, unable to wait and see what happened next. We're given the history of the Kent family, and their status within the community. At the time an Englishman's home was very much his castle, and his privacy respected above all else. The police who intitally investigated the murder did not even thoroughly examine the family for fear of looking improper.

Into this very private family came detective Whicher. We're given his background within the police, and information on the force itself as, at the time, the work of detection was in its infancy, and Whicher was one of the original eight detectives at Scotland Yard. Whicher sets about finding the truth, unwilling to fear being disrespectful of the family, he searches the home and questions everyone, but two weeks had passed since the crime, and evidence was lost. He had a suspect, but not enough evidence, and had to fight against the press and the nation as they attempted (and mostly succeeded) to discredit him. The public had their own opinion on who was guilty, and with no real evidence to dissuade them, they turned on Whicher.

Detective fiction was also becoming popular around this time, and the murder at Road Hill House inspired many writers who incorporated events and twisted the outcome a number of ways. Summerscale includes sections of works by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, among others, which help to set the scene. There are also quotes from the newspapers at the time, and letters written to the police from concerned citizens, offering their own take on the case. Everyone wanted it solved so they could rest easy that they weren't harboring a murderer unknowingly in their midst.

It is a fascinating read that would have worked had it been fiction, but as it's true it's even more compelling. The level of detail is remarkable, and you can see just how much work has gone into putting it together. The only slight problem I have with it is that, at times, the extra information can seem too much. Towards the end the additional information from works of fiction began to grate and felt a bit like unnecessary padding. I wanted to concentrate on the main story and find out what happened, not what Dickens wrote in Bleak House. It felt slightly like the author had done so much resarch she was going to put it in whether it was totally relevant or not. But that's a minor issue really. For the most part it's a brilliant read and I really recommend it.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Carrie's reviews, check her blog, Teabelly's Place.


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