April 2008

Murder in an English village

By Kate Summerscale
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There are four parallel stories in play in Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, each told and interwoven with admirable skill and definition. The first concerns the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent at his home in rural England in 1860 and the manner in which that crime was investigated. Since one of the first Scotland Yard detectives – Jonathan Whicher – was called in to help solve the Kent case, Summerscale relates how the figure of the dashing, seemingly omniscient detective (both police and private) developed into a cultural fixture in the mid-Victorian era. To demonstrate that point, the author then provides a running account of the growing prominence of detectives in English fiction. Finally, she describes the operation of England's surprisingly humane criminal justice system as it applied to murder cases generally and to this one specifically.

This cascade of peripheral information may seem like a data deluge, but in Summerscale's hands it all flows quite smoothly within the banks of the larger narrative. Many of the elements that have long since become stereotypes in detective fiction surfaced here in real life, including the territorial clash between big-city and small-town cops, the sleuth's reliance on his own hunches instead of adhering strictly to clues, and the problem of pesky newspaper reporters. "The new journalists shared much with the detectives: they were seen alternately as crusaders for truth and as sleazy voyeurs," Summersdale notes. "There were seven hundred newspaper titles published in Britain in 1855, and 1,100 by 1860. . . . There was a huge rise in crime reporting, aided by the speed with which news could be transmitted by the electric telegraph, and newspaper readers came across accounts of violent deaths every week."

The "suspicions" mentioned in the book's title allude to Whicher's stubborn, but factually shaky, belief that the victim's 16-year-old half sister, acting out of resentment at his favored place in the family, took the little boy from his bedroom and slashed his throat. The consequences of Whicher pursuing that belief drive the story.


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