Monday, April 06, 2009

'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House' by Kate Summerscale

6 April 2009

On 30 June 1860 a child was murdered in a country house in Road, Wiltshire. This crime was to become a national cause célèbre that would influence the fledgling art of detection, policing methods and the judicial system and would launch a new literary genre. The Road Hill House case was the original 'country house murder' - the first in a line leading through Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple to Inspector Morse. 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins, generally considered to be the first real English detective novel, was published in 1868 and was modelled on the Road Hill murder - with Collins' Sergeant Cuff taking the role of the real Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Echoes of the Road Hill case also occur in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' by Charles Dickens and Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'. Kate Summerscale's remarkable book 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House' describes the investigation of this horrendous crime in forensic detail. Although it is written in the now familiar murder mystery form, 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' is not fictionalised. Kate Summerscale has written a wholly factual documentary, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports, police records and other sources. Dialogue is quoted verbatim and everything is carefully referenced. The book starts on the day the murder is discovered and the chapters step chronologically forwards, revealing only what was discovered by the police at each stage. The level of detail at first appears overwhelming and I worried that I would not be able to retain enough too follow the unravelling of the story. But within a few chapters I was completely gripped and could not put down this compelling tale. Without ever dropping the thread of the murder investigation, Kate Summerscale manages to weave a social history of Victorian Britain, encompassing class, employment, politics and the influence of Darwinism. 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' is an amazing story, brilliantly told: I urge you to read it.



At 4:10 pm, Blogger LauraHD said...

We might have to agree to disagree on this one!

I thought it was patchily paced and overwhelmingly detailed with a huge cast of characters. I was certainly gripped by the last third of the book - but I didn't find the first half particulary gripping - maybe because you can't know any of the people in detail at that stage, and in fact, don't really ever know the victim at all...

Glad you enjoyed it though - lots of people I know who've read it have raved as you have, so guess it's just me!

At 4:18 pm, Blogger Robin Simpson said...

I guess a lot depends on your expectations: I hadn't heard anything about the book before I started and, at first, found the level of detail overwhelming and thought I was going to find it hard work. So when I got into it and began to enjoy it, my initially low expectations probably led to my zealous enthusiasm!


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