Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Book review: "The suspicions of Mr Whicher", by Kate Summerscale.

Şencan saw this book in WH Smiths last week and pointed it out to me. I was instantly put off by the 'Richard and Judy' book club sticker on the cover, but the blurb on the back cover piqued my interest. At first it was hard to tell if it was fiction or non-fiction - the title and the cover have a certain fiction styling to them. When I flicked through and saw the photographs, I realised that it was based on a true story.

This book details the investigation into the murder of a 3-year old boy, Saville Kent, in a small village in Wiltshire. The death was particularly brutal, and the boy's corpse being left in a cesspit below a privy.

Immediately the suspicions of the local police, the locals and the media fall on different people within the household. Was the murderer the father, the nursemaid, the sister, the brother, the stepmother, or some strange combination of the above? They were all suspected, and all suffered because of those suspicions.

The lack of progress by the local police (which included allowing themselves to get locked up into a room by the head of the household one night) allowed a detective from London, the eponymous Mister Whicher, to come along and try to solve the case. As much as anything else, this book is about Mister Whicher and the formative years of the detective force.

This was the first locked-room story, and the author shows how the case influenced mid-Victorian writers. This was partially because the murder occurred at a time when both policing and particularly detectives were new. Detectives were disliked in many quarters as being people who pried into private lives - an ungentlemanly act. There was a first, highly-botched trial that ended in an acquital, followed by another, much later one. During this process, the reputation of every man, woman and child who had been in the house at the time of the murder was dragged through the mud.

Charles Dickens had his own opinions of the case, and his suspicions also get mentioned. It is fascinating to see what he believed happened, and how wrong he got it - or did he? For at the end of this book there is a great deal of doubt about who the real murderer was.

I could not help but make parallels with the Madeleine McCann case; a media frenzy; a family accused; alleged local police incompetence. As with Madeleine McCann, it involved an innocent beyond repraoch, and as in the McCann case the truth will very probably never be known.

There are some negative points about this book- it starts off trying to be a murder mystery or thriller but soon drops that aim, preferring to discuss reactions to the case. It contains large tracts of descriptions about the Victorian world. I found the latter fascinating, but others would not. Once the initial murder has occurred and the suspects discussed, the book loses much of its pace.

Additionally, although the author can hardly be blamed for this, the characters involved (Mister Whicher aside) are actually not that interesting. They were normal working an upper-middle class people, typical of their times.

All in all it is a strange piece of work, but an enjoyable read. I give it 3.5 out of 5.

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