Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale


Who first thought up the idea for the classic English country house mystery? Wilkie Collins? Charles Dickens? Henry James? All three of them wrote early versions (The Moonstone, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Turn of the Screw) in the middle of the 19th century. All were influenced to some extent by a real murder that occurred at an English country house around that same time: the mysterious murder of 3-year-old Saville Kent who was stolen from his bed and stabbed to death by someone in his household. Who? The nursery maid? The errant gardener? His sister?

Early versions of crime and mystery stories were appearing in Scotland and England in the late 1840’s and Edgar Allan Poe created the first fictional detective, Auguste Dupin, in 1841 in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But it was England’s national obsession with the Road Hill House murder (as Saville Kent’s case came to be known) that really got the ball rolling. It was also around this time that the British government started Scotland Yard, and attempted for the first time to create some kind of coordinated, standardized effort at solving crimes. Before this, detection was often conducted by amateurs and was likely to be botched. It was not a great time to stand accused of a crime.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the true story of the Road Hill House murder and of Jack Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective assigned to solve the case. Kate Summerscale’s research is outstanding and her approach is meticulous. She reviews the murder in great detail and introduces us to every single character and event, even the ones that might have been ignored for the sake of brevity. And therein lies the problem with this book. As a historical analysis it is comprehensive and exacting. As a book to read for pleasure it is slow going at best and at times dull. I found that I had to skim in a lot of places, especially the middle where Summerscale describes the chaotic years after the murder and its unsatisfying solution. The best part of this book is the beginning, which is the story of the Kent family and a reconstruction of Saville’s murder. And Summerscale does provide some tasty, shocking theories at the end of the book which makes finishing it definitely worth the time.

I thought as I was reading this that Summerscale should have written a fictionalized version of the story instead of such a detailed, historically accurate account. It would have made for better reading. Then I realized that someone had already done this, or rather, three great writers had already done so. How could she top them? Marilyn Stasio, writing in the New York Times, says that “For the true lit-hist-myst buff, to reread The Mystery of Edwin Drood or The Moonstone directly after The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is akin to having an epiphany.” I’m sure she’s right.

(Book 13, 2009)