Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

Where would the readers be without detective fiction?  It’s a tremendously popular genre, and it all started back in the mid-19th century with a notorious murder case investigated by Jack Whicher, one of London’s first detectives.  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a factual account of the murder investigation and its impact both on Whicher and broader society.

Jack Whicher was an experienced detective in 1860, when he was assigned to investigate the Road Hill murder, where a three-year-old boy was brutally murdered during the night.  It was a classic “country house murder,” except there was no such thing at the time.  The crime shocked the country and rocked people’s sense of safety in their own homes.  Worse yet, it was extremely difficult to identify the killer:

All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns. (p. 75)

Victorian society was fascinated by the murder, and by the emerging art (or science?) of “detection.”  New words crept into the language.  According to Summerscale, “In 1849 the word ‘hunch’ was first used to mean a push or nudge towards a solution. In the 1850s ‘lead’ gained the meaning of a guiding indication or a clue.” (p. 82)  And, “the word ‘detect’ stemmed from the Latin ‘de-tegere’ or ‘unroof'” (p. 157). During the 1860s, the literary scene was dominated by “sensation” novels, such as Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (a book which, incidentally, I also enjoyed — read my review).  This book had many elements in common with the real-life Road Hill murder, and was an instant bestseller.

In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale struck a difficult balance:  retelling the murder investigation with all the suspense of a crime novel, while also providing context and facts about the Victorian society in which the murder occurred, and the emerging role of the detective in that society.  Unlike fiction, the investigation and its aftermath dragged on over several years, and the case lacked the dramatic “summing up” we’ve come to expect from great literary detectives.  Summerscale filled the slow periods with fascinating facts and commentary, insight into London’s Metropolitan Police Force, and details of Whicher’s life and career.  Recommended for anyone who enjoys a good mystery and/or the Victorian period.

22 thoughts on “Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

  1. Ahh, thanks for the reminder about this book. I’d nearly forgotten about this read and about how much I enjoyed it! I may need to add it to my semi-regular feature Books I loved Before I Blogged.

  2. I knew only a little about the case before I read this, and I was just fascinated from the first page (and horrified in spots). I had no idea about the later lives of the family, and Summerscale’s suggestion of collective guilt really made sense to me. I’ve finally gotten her new book from the library (Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace).

    • Lisa, I found the case fascinating as well. Because of its narrative style, I often forgot I was reading nonfiction. And when I remembered, it made me shudder to think, wow this was a real crime and a real family. I’ve heard good things about Summerscale’s new book, too. Enjoy!

  3. I read this book a few months ago, and I was reading Lady Audley’s Secret at the same time (coincidentally). They really do perfectly compliment one another.

    I had some problems with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, mainly because I was listening to it on audio and I tend to read non-fiction fiction books back-to-front. It was just hard for me to adjust. But overall I loved all the details about Scotland Yard and what it was like being a detective in Victorian England in this book. It was pretty depressing, though.

    • What a lucky coincidence heidenkind! I agree it was a depressing story, especially because it was factual. With fiction, I can shrug off the bad parts more easily.

  4. I read this when it first came out and did enjoy it – I like books that delve into the past like this. However, I did find it dragged just a little in places and I would have liked a little more resolution (although you can’t always get that in real life). The photo of the house with the figure at the window was spooky tho!

    • kaggsy, I agree it had its slow moments. I could accept that considering it may have been because events happened in “real time” where a novel would have cut out the dull parts.

    • Claire, good to know that about her latest book. She sure seems to know her Victorians though, so if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing it seems like her books would a good choice.

    • Ugh, yes, the waiting! It took such a long time to get “closure,” and then I’m not even sure it would have felt that way for the family.

  5. I struggled with this one and couldn’t get beyond a quarter of the way through it but I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t want to read further. I love period details like this and picking up nuggets of info about how our language has developed.

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