Thursday, July 10, 2008
A brutal, seemingly motiveless murder and the attempts of an exceptional detective to solve the crime are the crux of Kate Summerscale's compelling book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In the early hours of June 29th, 1860, four year old Saville Kent is horribly slain and stuffed down the hole of the outdoor lavatory. Although the family is not liked among the close community, the suspicion falls on the members of the household, including the maids, governesses and the Kents themselves. When the case becomes unsolvable for the local magistrates, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is dispatched to solve the crime that has so puzzled and horrified the town. What follows are the attempts of a genius detective to solve an unlikely crime. Through missing evidence, hazy claims of madness and adultery, and a public appetite for all the gory details of the murder, Jack Whicher becomes embroiled in the case that ultimately costs him his reputation and public regard.
Whicher is the ultimate detective. Able to accurately pinpoint suspects using scant information and relying heavily on his own hunches, he rises through the ranks of law enforcement rapidly, eventually leading the first group of detectives in history. He is the model upon which the first fictional detectives are based, and his prowess and skill are fully highlighted in this book. Throughout the story, Whicher isn't afraid to pose unpopular speculations, and though the public denounces his hypothesis, he steadfastly works to bring the killer to justice. I found him to be a remarkable man whose abilities were far beyond the time in which he lived, far beyond what we even now expect a detective to be.
One of the most intriguing things about this book was the public involvement and mania regarding this case. From the adulation of the detective prototype by the likes of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to the involvement of the public in their mass attendance of the trial, the community's hunger for this case was arresting in it's detail. Many of the townspeople wrote letters speculating who the killer might be; one man even falsely confessed to the crime. It was very ironic that the public at that time was so negatively disposed to the idea of surveillance and detection. The idea that people could be spied upon and that their private homes and their proclivities could be brought into the open was extremely uncomfortable for them to imagine. Many looked upon the detective and his colleagues as unsavory operatives waiting to invade the sanctity of their private lives and abodes. It seemed as though they were eager to find out the secrets of the Kent family while shunning the detection that brought these facts to light. It must have been a fine line to walk for Detective Whicher, whose successes only compounded the community's distrust.
The book was meticulously researched and heavily laden with facts. Not only was I privy to the social customs of the time, but also to other murder investigations, detective literature of the time, and facts about the principal characters' private lives. The book was at once enveloping and confidential, while still being surprising and unconventional. The suspense of the story was meted out in an atypical way, and although it ended in a conundrum that couldn't be solved, it was still very satisfying. The one quibble I had with the book was the tremendous quantity of facts throughout. At times it was a little overwhelming. Later chapters seemed to be balanced better and I began to see that the story may have sacrificed some of its urgency by displacing its factual density. The inclusion of photographs and maps was also an illuminating and welcome touch.
This book was a very rich and intricate look at a crime that may not be familiar to many, but whose implications and originality have forever shaped the way crimes are handled today. An interesting approach to the crime novel and an enlightening picture of times past.