The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
Finished: July 26, 2008
First Published: Apr. 2008
Genre: true crime, nonfiction, history
Awards: Samuel Johnson Award for Nonfiction 2008
Reason for Reading: The publisher, Walker & Company, sent me a Review Copy. Book Award Challenge.
This is the story of a murder committed in an English country house in 1860,
perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time.
Comments: This is a most ambitious book which documents the murder case of a three year old boy, is a biography of one of the very first police detectives and shows how this murder and this particular detective spurred on the very first detective fiction such as that written by Wilkie Collins. The book succeeds on all points and is a riveting and incredibly interesting read.
The murder is quite memorable in this time period because it is the first time that public attention focused on a murder committed in a middle class home where one of the inhabitants of the home must be the murderer. At this time in England a man's home was literally his castle and the recent ruling that allowed police to enter one's home without the owner's specific permission was absolutely shocking to the middle and upper classes.
The author takes the reader back to this time period (1860s onward) and expertly discusses the mindset and proprieties of the day which make the understanding of why this case was so scandalous for its time. The formation and early days of policing, plus the introduction of "detectives" into the force is fascinating, as is the life of the firstly lauded then scorned Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher. The references to the detective novels which were just starting to replace the sensationalist fiction of the previous generations is fascinating to the reader of Victorian literature. Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White", Dickens' "Bleak House" and several books by a popular writer of the times known only as 'Waters' are quoted and referred to often, though many other books are also mentioned.
The book profusely uses direct quotes from contemporary sources such as newspapers, broadsheets, books, trial documents, journals, letters, etc. There are also a few helpful footnotes along the way and an extensive 'Notes' section at the back, along with illustrations, photographs, and endpapers that show the schematics of the house the reader is immersed in the time period.
Well written in an engaging voice and obviously well-researched this is a gem of a book for those interested in Victorian life. Though the book focuses on a true crime and the police procedures of the time there is a wealth of information on all aspects of life in the time period. I also went into this book not knowing anything about the murder case itself and found the revealing of the investigation and eventually the killer to be as exciting as any mystery novel. Highly recommended.