The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield suffers from the blogosphere enthusiasm that precedes it. The quotes on the front, 'terrific', Ian Rankin, and 'absolutely riveting', Sarah Waters, don't help either. The build up makes you approach it like a traditional whodunit, and of course it is not. It is a piece of non-fiction, and as such it is excellent. But as non-fiction it has the 'and then' quality of a bald narrative of events. This is not 'riveting' in itself though the 'story' is certainly readable and keeps the attention. Shardlake it is not. But then why should it be; it is not the same thing at all.
So what is it? The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a true story of a horrific murder of a small boy and the subsequent investigation. The detective force based at Scotland Yard is in its infancy; there are just eight detective inspectors of which one is Mr Whicher. Once the investigation starts there are faults and failures throughout in the collecting and retaining of evidence. The local force and the London police do not work overly well together and we wonder how things can be brought together. But Mr Whicher and Kate Summerscale eventually do shed light on the events of 1860.
In the introduction Kate Summerscale points out the sociological implications of the murder. We know far more about this family, their possessions, how they lived their lives, because of the murder. What we discover is important not just for the dramatic aspects, the solution of the murder, but for the mundane and the everyday aspects. The social history is incredibly detailed:
Everything we know about Road Hill House is determined by the murder that took place there on 30th June 1860. The police and magistrates turned up hundreds of details of the building's interior - handles, latches, footprints, nightclothes, carpets, hotplates - and its inhabitants' habits.
The second important aspect of this murder is in its place in literary history. The murder and the initial lack of a solution was a sensation and was reported in great detail in both the local and national press. Members of the public pontificated in letters pages of major newspapers and in private missives to the detectives involved, and even to the home secretary. As the weeks wore on the instalments of Wilkie Collins' sensational page turner The Woman in White continued their timely serialisation and parallels are drawn throughout by Kate Summerscale. What is really superb about The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the high quality literary criticism as Summerscale locates aspects of the murder and investigation in the embryonic British and European crime fiction genre. The murder at Road Hill House is the real forerunner of the countryhouse mystery, and with Summerscale's careful handling of the material we can see exactly why both in terms of literary antecedents and contexts, and in terms of the likely reception of such works with the Victorian public:
A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos.
Once I had realised that this was not the fictionalised version of a true story but instead a thorough work of non-fiction, then I was away. It is very readable and you do want a dénouement but of course, in real life, the dénouement is not as satisfying as the ones offered by fiction. Whatever the truth after all, a little boy lost his life at the hands of nurse or relative, at the hands of someone in whom he should have had complete trust. Dorothy L. Sayers can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand-up with the shadow of gallows behind her investigations, but this real murder takes that feeling so much further.
On all levels then, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is to be recommended. If you are interested in the literary history of the detective story then a great place to start is The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan which as a read is a nice balance between scholarship and pleasure. There is also the more studious Murder by the Book?: Feminism and the Crime Novel by Sally Rowena Munt. Both are feminist critiques unsurprisingly as crime fiction lends itself well to that approach.
Edited to add:
Kristen made a comment which I think is well worth bumping up into the main text of this post: She recommends, "The Beautiful Cigar Girl about the real life murder of Mary Rogers, the formation of the NY police force and Edgar Allan Poe's attempts to write his own solution to the murder. I reviewed this and a fiction written about the same topic here."