30.9.09

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale


I have the internet in the form of a dongle supplied by my lovely sister so I shall be able to log on every now and again! It is very childish but the word dongle makes me giggle every time I say it!!
Anyway with the nights drawing in and the leaves beginning to change colour, it felt like the right time for a good old murder mystery. Kate Summerscale's book is truly excellent and the best thing about it is that it is all true:
It is midnight on 30th June, 1860 and all is quiet in the Kent family's elegant house in Road, Wiltshire. The next morning, however, they wake to find that their youngest son has been the victim of an unimaginably gruesome murder. Even worse, the guilty party is surely one of their own number- the house was bolted from the inside. As Jack Whicher, the most celebrated detective of his day, arrives at Road to track down the killer, the murder provokes national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes- scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing.
This true story has all the hallmarks of a classic gripping murder mystery. A body, a detective, a country house steeped in secrets - it is the original Victorian whodunnit.

Obviously this book has a gripping, page-turning story as we follow Jack Whicher as he tries to discover what happened on that fateful night. I won't go into it too much as I don't want to give the plot away to anyone who hasn't read it yet. However, I will say that this book is so much more than the recounting of a murder case.
Kate Summercale's research covers so much ground yet she ties it all together perfectly, almost as though she has been playing detective herself. I think that we take it for granted that we have hundreds of police detectives nowadays but Jack Whicher was one of the very first in the UK and at that time there was merely a handful of them. The public in the main disliked detectives and their methods, they were vilified in the press for their handling of cases and often treated with as much suspicion as the villains they pursued.
The class issue was a major problem, it was deemed improper by many that a detective from a humble background could be allowed to question and accuse people of a higher social standing. This is exactly what happened with the Road Hill House case, Jack Whicher had no choice but to suspect and point the finger at a member of this seemingly respectable middle-class family.
Kate Summerscale gives the reader so much information to take away with them, I know that I will want to re-read this book again in the future. I loved how Summerscale highlights the new ground that detectives such as Whicher were having to break. They were the first of their kind so they had to create their own rules and codes of conduct as they went along and obviously this caused many a problem .
As I have said, the author explores many different avenues using the murder at Road, however, I found the influence it has had on literature to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Summerscale highlights throughout the book how writers of the day such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins took the true life events and used them in their fictional creations. Dickens especially was fascinated with the figure of the detective and he personally spent time with Whicher and his colleagues learning about the type of men they were and where their job led them. Kate Summerscale describes how Wilkie Collins' books, especially The Moonstone and The Woman in White were influenced by the real life murder cases of the time and the fate of both the victim and the murderers.
If you are a murder mystery fan then I would highly recommend this book. I feel as though I have learnt so much about the origin of the detective novel and the way in which shocking, real-life events were fictionalised by some of the greatest writers of our time.
Reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has got me ready to take part in Sensation Season which is being hosted by Simon over at Savidge Reads. Simon is working his way through some of the greatest sensation novels ever written, a number of which are by the excellent Wilkie Collins. I shall be joining in by reading The Woman in White which I am looking forward to even more now. I love it when a book leads you to read others, the following will be added to my TBR pile thanks to Kate Summerscale's excellent writing and enthusiasm:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

6 comments:

Nadia said...

What a fab review! Sounds like a perfect book to read in October!! Also, just out of curiosity, what exactly is a dongle? Cheers!

Okate said...

I've read it. This volume is a page-turner for anyone into true crime stories. Well done, Ms. Summerscale.

savidgereads said...

So glad you like this. I think its brilliant. Am thrilled your joining in with The Woman In Black, I think you would also really like Armadale.

I must mention this book again as its soooo sensational!

Dot said...

Nadia- thank you! A dongle isn't as exciting as it sounds! It's just something that you plug into your computer so that you can get on the internet if there isn't a wireless connection or anything! Quite useful really!

Oakte- I totally agree, Kate Summerscale's extensive research definitely paid off.

Simon- I started The Woman in White yesterday and I am already engrossed! I started reading it now as I was worried that it would take me ages to read but I shall save my review for the right weekend if I finish it early! Thanks for the recommendation of Armadale- shall add that one to my list too!

Kim said...

Great review, Dot, it sounds like something I would like to read and you have convinced me to read along with The Woman in White! It has been sitting on my TBR pile for ages, just looking at me so I'm off to Simon's place to get the scoop. What fun!

Dot said...

Kim- thank you! Hope that you enjoy it! I started reading The Woman in White yesterday and I am already gripped!

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