Summerscale: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

November 21, 2012

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
Kate Summerscale
(Raincoast, 2008)
384 p.

The scene was Road Hill House, an old country manor in Wiltshire. The year was 1860. On the night of June 29 the family and its servants, twelve people in all, went to bed in a house that was locked up tight. The next morning a child, the youngest member of the family, was found dead — brutally murdered — on the grounds. The case caused a sensation throughout England, not only for its shocking nature but also because of the puzzling facts of the case and the difficulty the authorities encountered in their investigation. In response, Scotland Yard sent one of their finest, Mr. Jonathan Whicher, to solve the crime.

This book is an account of this crime and the subsequent investigation, as you would expect, but it is also more. Kate Summerscale is interested in a character who was just emerging at the time of this murder: the detective. It had not been long since London had established a permanent, dedicated police force, and the decision had been controversial. People were suspicious of these civil servants with extraordinary powers of search and seizure, arrest, and surveillance. The detective inherited all of that mistrust, along with a bad reputation for prying. Victorians valued their privacy, and anyone who poked around in people’s private affairs was regarded as something of a public menace, and distinctly lower-class. (For example, in the Road Hill murder investigation the local authorities searched the possessions and examined the clothing of the servants, but not the family members. This reticence was one of the reasons that the initial investigation was inconclusive.) A satirical article about Jonathan Whicher referred to him as ‘Mr. Watcher’ of the ‘Defective Police’.

On the other hand, a certain mystique, worthy of admiration, attached to the detective. He was a dispassionate and close observer who could illuminate concealed crimes using forensic evidence and shrewd reasoning. This was a few decades before Sherlock Holmes first appeared, but already something of his character was attributed to the best of the London detectives. Writers felt the allure of detection, and it was at this time that the first detective stories began to appear. In fact, both Wilkie Collins, in The Moonstone, and Charles Dickens, in Edwin Drood, incorporated elements of the Road Hill murder into their tales. It was the birth of a genre that was to make a triumphant progress.

Lest I spoil the suspense for prospective readers, I am not going to reveal the conclusions of the Road Hill murder investigation. Mr. Whicher had his suspicions, and they were vindicated when, at last, someone confessed to the crime. Kate Summerscale argues, however, that the confession as it stands does not satisfactorily account for the facts of the case and was probably partly intended to conceal the involvement of another party. If you want to know more than that, you’ll have to read the book.

(It is a good book, by the way. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in Britain.)

The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The writers of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word. ‘There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty,’ observed Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848. ‘I thought I saw the end of a good clew,’ said the narrator of Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864). William Wills, Dickens’ deputy, paid tribute in 1850 to Whicher’s brilliance by observing that the detective found the way even when ‘every clue seems cut off’. ‘I thought I had my hand on the clue,’ declared the narrator of The Woman in White in an installment published in June 1860. ‘How little I knew, then, of the windings of the labyrinth which were still to mislead me!’ A plot was a knot, and a story ended in ‘denouement’, an unknotting.

7 Responses to “Summerscale: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher”

  1. This sounds completely fascinating.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I don’t dip into the “True Crime” genre very often, but since I did this time, I can say that I chose pretty well. I forget where I heard of this book. It might have been on one of those “Five Best” lists that the Wall Street Journal publishes (or used to publish?).

  3. Janet Says:

    I wish I had time to read this. Writing the blog is making me have to re-read books that I normally wouldn’t because I want to write about them, and I don’t want to say something stupid and untrue.

    I tried to write about Lord of the World without re-reading and gave it up. When I read the book again, I found that I had made horrible errors in the first draft.


  4. cburrell Says:

    …I don’t want to say something stupid and untrue.

    I long ago stopped letting that feeling deter me.

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