Saturday, October 23, 2010

Redux #36 - "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" by Kate Summerscale

A true-life crime story mixed in with some historical perspective and a woman author to boot was all I needed to make me pick up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008) by Kate Summerscale. I didn't really know what to expect and now that I've finished it I've come out with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, the story is fascinating, and there are so many different elements, from mystery, to women's and class issues, to family dynamics, that bring a lot to this book. Unfortunately, I was frustrated throughout a lot of the book because Summerscale didn't focus on what I was most interested in.

Kate Summerscale tells the true, historical tale of a grisly murder that took place in 1860 in a country home in England. An innocent child was taken from his bed one night and found murdered the next morning. The house had been locked up and was secure, leaving the family and servants as the primary suspects. After a lot of initial confusion, and because of the intense public interest in the case, Detective Whicher from Scotland Yard was sent out to investigate the murder.

There were many fascinating aspects of this story from the history of the newly formed detectives unit, the people's perception and fascination of detectives, class and social issues within the context of the murder, the details of how murder investigations and trials took place, and the natural mystery of the story. I could not help but compare this story to that of the similarly sensationalized murder story in my own hometown of Jon Benet Ramsey. Both involved children murdered at night, both involved a wealthy family that invited ridicule and jealousy, and both involved suspicion of virtually every family member in the house. It was also interesting to see the difference between the treatment of the servants and the family. The female servants were almost immediately strip-searched while the daughters of the family were passed over. Finally, seeing justice try to unfold as the magistrates brought suspects before them, accusing them of murder, but with none of the evidence and knowledge that we have to help us today, was eye-opening.

I did, however, have some problems with the book. Summerscale went into a lot of detail about when "the detective" was first seen in literature, and what was written about them. Although she posited that some of the writers were basing their detectives on Whicher, their descriptions felt out of place and added more confusion than substance to the story. I was also very interested in the family's thoughts and perceptions, of which there were none in the book. I realize that Summerscale was writing a story about something that happened over one hundred years ago, and there is a limit to what information is out there, but the entire book felt that it was lacking in emotional detail. I wouldn't even have minded if Summerscale had made some educated guesses about what the family might have been doing and thinking--just something so I could be reminded that these were real, thinking people.

On the whole, I think Summerscale found a fascinating story, and it appears that she tried really hard to only discuss the facts and things she learned in her research, keeping her opinions and voice out of the narrative. However, the book would have been much more interesting if I knew her perspective. As long as she's clear about what is known and what is her opinion, it would have helped personalize the story. I was even frustrated at the end when she apparently proffered some evidence that maybe someone else might have been involved--but she wouldn't go out and just say what she thinks about it, instead leaving me to wonder what actually happened.

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