Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale

Are you a fan of true crime? What about murder mysteries? Well, what we have here, recommended by Jackie at Farm Lane Books, is the original true crime mystery, laid out before us in journalistic detail. From the actual investigative files, newspaper articles and various other published works comes a story that set the standard for literary greats such as Charles Dickens, Henry James and Wilkie Collins.

In 1860, in the blended Kent family, a three-year-old is viciously murdered...suffocated, throat cut, and thrown down a privy hole. Based on the facts, it is a given that the perpetrator must have been someone within the Road Hill mansion - a servant or a family-member. Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher is summoned to investigate the crime. He is the white knight of and intuitive, with a pristine track record. He unknowingly stumbles into a nest of hidden family secrets, jealously and dysfunction. The crime is close to impossible to solve, and the great Mr. Whicher stands by helplessly as his reputation, and those associated with the case, falls into ruin. Not only that, but the entire country turns its back on the profession, spawning derision and suspicion, and more than a few fictionalized accounts of the disaster.

The book goes on to follow the lives of the Kent family, the investigators, and the Kent servants from the night of the crime until their deaths. The author even muses and interprets, with the benefit of modern science, a few conclusions. While the true nature of the crime eventually, horrifyingly, reveals itself, the damage has already been done.

Before I started blogging, approximately 80% of everything I read was murder/mystery, either in the form of true crime or fiction. I've read The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, which is said to be the first fictional mystery thriller, a story which was based on this case. Let's face it. This book was made for me. I will admit, it was fascinating stuff. When they say that truth is stranger than fiction, this must have been what they were talking about. There were diagrams of the crime scene, pictures of the major players (I love pictures), and examples of significant documents from the case. It reminded me of Patricia Cornwell's "Portrait of a Killer", where she investigates the unsolved Jack the Ripper case over a hundred years after the fact. The puzzles pieces haunt you.

It was quite a struggle to wade through, however. The writing is very factual and very dense. If I weren't such a fan of the genre, I'm not sure I would have been able to persevere. You can't pick this up and read it when you are waiting for a doctor's appointment or over lunch. You will not be able to absorb the detail. This is a book that must be read in peace and quiet, without a glass of wine and not late at night. You need all your synapses firing for this one.

It is also important to mention, too, that many references are made to various works of literature that were inspired by the case, and their plots. In some examples, you might even find a few spoilers. For me, this was not a huge hill to die on, but was prominent enough to acknowledge.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, absolutely! Would I recommend it? Yes, if this is your genre. Just make sure you are well-rested and on your game!

3.5 out of 5 stars


Melody said...

This is such a frighteningly brutal yet compelling book!!

I've not read The Moonstone but I've it in my pile. I think the main reason I didn't pick it up sooner is because it's a chunkster to me. I'm intimidated by it, and yet I want to read it badly! *sigh*

Unknown said...

It does require a bit of attention and I found that I couldn't read large sections at a time, but I just loved finding out all about the way they investigated crimes back then.

Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy it as much as I did.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Melody - Don't let The Moonstone scare you...I actually found it very easy to read and didn't take all that long to read.

Jackie - I love true crime, which really is what this is. Everything about their investigative techniques were fascinating, the story twisted and confusing, and inspired such wonderful works of fiction. I just STRUGGLED to get through it. It could have been my mood, I don't know. When you described it as dense, you were spot on!

Iliana said...

Most reviews I've read about this book have been pretty good. Everyone does say it takes a while to get through it so that's probably why I haven't picked it up. I may have to though after I finish my first Wilkie Collins book though :)

Unknown said...

I like all kinds of crime books and watch several different true crime TV shows. I think I'm going to check this book out at the store or library but I'm not decided on reading it because you said it's quite dense and a lot to wade through. But I read all of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the initial crime totally hooks though it's quite sad. Hmmmm....thanks for a great review Sandy!

Beth F said...

Sounds interesting but a little too dense for my life at the moment. I'm going to remember it though because I might like it when I'm in a different mind-set.

Andreea said...

Wow, this sounds like an engaging read! I think I would like this book, as I love mystery stories! Thanks for this review!

Ana S. said...

I'm not a huge fan of true crime, but the historical setting interests me! It sounds like I'd be better off reading The Moonstone, though.

ds said...

I am very curious about this book; thanks for setting me straight. It sounds like one for the List for sure. As for Mr. Collins, Moonstone or Woman in White? That is the question...
Great review! Thanks!

The Bumbles said...

I, like Amy, read and really enjoyed In Cold Blood. How would you compare this to that?

I must admit though, no drinking while reading and unexpected spoilers to other literature are problematic!

Amy said...

I have wanted to read this book for some time! I'm sorry to hear it's a struggle to get through, though. I"m unlikely to pick it up anytime soon. :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Iliana - yeah, as long as you go into the book knowing it is dense, then you'll be OK. I think I was just feeling antsy or something.

Amy and Bumbles - I may have misrepresented myself. In Cold Blood would definitely be on my top books of all time. This one would not, but they are both very thorough true crime novels. Really the similarities stop there!

Beth - right, mindset on this one is everything!

Andreea - I think this is the time period that you really like, so you would probably be fascinated with it!

Nymeth - The Moonstone is wonderful. And it was really amazing to see the influence of this book over its plot.

ds - I can't comment since I haven't read The Woman in White yet (but I hope to remedy that soon!)

Amy - sometimes I just don't have the time or patience for books that take a long time to get through. I know that I need to just chill out and enjoy the ride, but this time I couldn't do it!

Melanie said...

I don't read too much true crime but i read this last year and felt about the same way as you did. I didn't realize (or didn't remember)that Collins based The Moonstone on this case; i guess i need to add that onto my RIP list!

Anna said...

Not sure this is my cup of tea, but it does sound interesting. I haven't read many true crime books.

Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

this sounds fascinating....great review!