The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
On a plane recently, my seatmate asked me about my book, "Is it fact or fiction?" The cover image depicts an English manor home, with sinister trees and darkened windows. It has all the makings of a good horror novel... made all the creepier due to its place in history. It is factual, sir, and nearly impossible to put down.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher details the case of a gruesome 1860 murder in Victorian England and the cunning detective assigned to the case. At the time, detectives were a new breed of policeman, the fledgling force at Scotland Yard created only several years before. Detective Whicher is sent from London to Road, a small town northeast of Bath to investigate the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent.
The case shocked the nation and invigorated a collective interest in crime, detecting, and the idea that behind closed doors, the middle and upper classes had much to hide.
In 1860, the English home was viewed as a private sanctuary. What was once considered the family - aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., had become the extended family. Family constituted the nuclear family - those that lived together under one roof. Infiltrating the English home construed images of forced violation. But once the doors to Road Hill house were opened, all dirty laundry became fair game.
The Kent family was a blended one. After the death of his first wife, Mr. Kent married the former nursemaid, producing several more children. The new family's dynamics were skewed, resulting in both jealousies and secretive relationships. But what led to the murder of an innocent?
Kate Summerscale does an absolutely brilliant job of recreating the scene and the emotions (some might say hysteria) of the times.
Historical fiction novels are tricky - I've read some that were so dry I thought that they would spontaneously combust. I knew that this book had the potential to be mind-numbingly dull, but I was absolutely hooked from page one. Though non-fiction, Whicher tends to tiptoe on the edge of historical fiction, and this helps. However, the author never once makes the reader feel like he is reading her thoughts or ideas. The book is based entirely on police reports now on file at the British Museum, newspaper articles, and personal letters, while secondary sources rely on detective fiction of the time and stories like Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw.
Summerscale draws out the details of the case perfectly, only rarely changing course to cover additional back story. And even these dalliances were welcomed as part of the flowing narrative. While the reader might have a good guess as to the identity of the murderer, the author is careful to present all evidence before revealing the satisfying solution.