Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Book #53 The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher Or The Murder At Road Hill House

Winner of The Galaxy Book Of The Year, British Book Awards 2009, Winner of the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize and Shortlisted for The Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, this book has considerable pedigree. It was also A Richard and Judy Number One Bestseller, but never mind.

In a nice, middle class family, with a nice middle class home in June 1860, a toddler vanishes from his bed in the middle of the night. His bloodied, brutalised corpse is discovered the following day, but who did it? And why?

The Murder At Road Hill House isn't just A Locked Room Mystery, of the sort you see in many Agatha Christie novels or the sort you compete to solve when you play a game of Cluedo. It is THE Locked Room Mystery. The original real-life crime, which inspired popular detective fiction of the era, and the impact of which is still felt in crime fiction today. For those who don't know what is meant by Locked Room Mystery, it is now the fodder of Murder Mystery Weekends. A murder occurs in a country house, the doors were locked for the night, the only possible culprit has to have resided in the house that evening. It's been seen in Poirot, Marple, Doctor Who and even most recently in Steig Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo albeit on a grander scale. In the case of Road Hill House, there was no elaborate dinner party involving a vicar, a disgruntled nephew, and a wealthy American socialite; just the Kent family, a husband and wife, seven children and a few servants.     

Jack Whicher was among a new breed of plain clothes detectives recently established by Scotland Yard sent to Wiltshire to help solve the crime, but the locals and the nation at large reject his findings. What emerges is an astonishing picture of just how fallible and frankly rubbish the early judiciary system was in Britain. To question someone of good social standing or class, or of an age or gender that would be unseemly, is considered an affront to decency regardless of grounds, but it is the class system that truly is an over-riding factor. In addition, public speculation was apparently encouraged with any Tom Dick or Harry across the nation as a whole believing they had the right to have a say on the case. Juror meetings were held in public, cross examination was ridiculously biased, and the press were allowed a veritable free-for-all on editorial comment.

The utter lack of respect for the legal process is breathtaking, and Summerscale comments at length at the way in which though Mr Whicher had his suspicions, the nation had its suspicions of Whicher. The very existence of a plain clothes force was again considered an affront to decency, the privacy of the Englishman and his home were at stake. These values apparently worth more than the advantages of modern progress in crime solving. Following the Road Hill House case Whicher finds himself a laughing stock and his career is ruined. Whilst fictional detectives of the type written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens surged in popularity their real-life counterparts were considered 'vile' and 'grubby'.

Where this non fiction book succeeds is in the way in which it brings the story of The Kent Family in the earlier half of the book to life, almost but not quite in the manner of a Victorian novel. Where it slightly falters are the moments in which it begins to read like a PhD thesis, and becomes a bit dry and academic. What is certain though is the phenomenal amount of research and background work Summerscale has put into this book, and the respect it deserves for breathing new life into an old but highly influential tale. 9/10

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