The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

January 25, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land. Inspector Jonathan Whicher’s real legacy, however, lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, all-knowing and all-seeing detective that we know and love today…from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher reads like the best of Victorian thrillers, and has been nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize in London.

Liked:

  • This book was obviously well researched. I imagine it would be hard to give a detailed account of a murder that took place 150 years ago, but Summerscale managed to present a very clear picture of the crime and the subsequent investigation.
  • Whenever the pages focused on the actual crime, I found myself totally engrossed in what was going on. It was a grisly murder, and I could totally see how it would occupy the public interest for so long.
  • I didn’t like many of the author’s detours, but did appreciate how she outlined a number of other crimes that followed on the heels of the Kent case. For all the ways literature presents the Victorian era as polished, refined, and formal, there were some real whackos back then too.

Disliked:

  • The book wandered far too much. It probably had to do with the fact that the author simply couldn’t generate enough pages on the crime, investigation, confession, and trial itself to fill a whole book, so she had to branch off in a bunch of different directions. In addition to the main focus, there was also a thread about Whicher and his career/family life, the Kent family life (complete with implications of rampant sexual misconduct), and the history of detectives as presented in literature and in the real world. Honestly, all of the threads had some interesting tidbits, and I guess I could understand why Summerscale wanted to include the stuff, but it failed to make for a cohesive whole.
  • I never really got a true feel for any of the main players in the story. Again, this is probably due to lack of material relating to the case and to the sheer distance in time from then to now, but regardless, I found that I didn’t really care much how things turned out. Was it horrifying that a little boy got his throat slashed and was unceremoniously dumped in what amounted to a cesspool by a member of his own family? Yes, of course — but only to the extent that we read about a murder in the newspaper. I was expecting to feel like I knew the family members fairly well after spending so many hundred pages reading about them.
  • It seems to me that Constance got a pretty light sentence. I know, she was only 16 or something at the time she killed half-brother Saville (out of jealousy because her father paid more attention to his “new family” than to his old one), but still… she was originally sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in prison, but she ended up only serving 20 years. She was 41 years old when released, and lived to be 100. Wow, that hardly seems fair, does it.

Rating:

The description of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher sounded pretty interesting, but the book fell short of expectations in several areas. A number of reviewers have mentioned that Kate Summerscale’s effort resembles an unfocused graduate thesis more than a book, and I agree with that assessment. I give this work 3 stars out of 5.

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