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.