Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

One of my reading goals this year is to read more non-fiction (another is to read more of the classics). And if all the non-fiction books I pick up are like Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, I would gladly and eagerly read them all.

For this is an exciting book. It is full of intriguing details of a 1860 murder of a child in an English country house. Summerscale dug up this information from archived government and police files, newspaper articles and books written on the crime.

"The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville's death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, disassemble, 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.

The danger, in a real murder case, was that the detective might fail to solve the crime he had been sent to investigate. He might instead get lost in the tangle of the past, mired in the mess he had dug up."

The book is thoroughly engaging, and not just because it was an interesting case. Summerscale brings that period to life, describing similar cases that took place around the time as well as cases that Whicher had previously handled. She also often quotes from the fiction of the period, such as that of Collins and Charles Dickens, which reflected - and sometimes incited - current affairs and public interest. But the most fascinating aspect of this book is how this new field of detection reveals so much about Victorian life.

"The mid-Victorians were transfixed by the idea that faces and bodies could be 'read', that the inner life was imprinted on the shapes of the features and the flutter of the fingers. Perhaps the fascination stemmed from the premium placed on privacy. It was terrifying and thrilling that thoughts were visible, that the inner life, so jealously guarded, could be instantly exposed. People's bodies might betray them, like the heartbeats of the killer in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1843), which seemed to pound out his guilt."

Equally fascinating is the public's interest in the case - letters poured in from all over with theories and suspicions. Even the press had their suspects pinpointed. So did Dickens.

I hardly read any crime fiction or detective novels, but had noticed this book on the 'new' shelves at the library and remembered reading about it in a positive light. A quick flip through some pages... looks interesting enough, why not toss it in the pile. It was a good pick, and an interesting shift away from the fiction that I usually lean towards. I'll definitely be browsing the non-fiction shelves during my next library visit. All in good time.


Tym said...

I'm not sure if you enjoy Julian Barnes, but his novel Arthur & George about a Victorian era murder case walks an interesting line between historical fiction and history/nonfiction.

You make the Summerscale book sound fascinating. I'm gonna try and find it at my library ...

olduvai said...

Thanks for the recommendation! Will put that on my list (although whether the library has it is another matter...)