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Review – The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Author: Kate Summerscale

Publisher: Bloomsbury

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The murder at Road Hill House in 1860 terrified and mystified the British public because it was a particularly brutal crime against a three-year-old boy, the third son of a wealthy, middle-class family. The method of murder was of “the locked room” variety, which became a sub-genre of the crime novel beloved of Agatha Christie much later, and a favourite too, of the earlier crime novelists. In fact the modus operandi and the psychology of this murder inspired at least three major novels of the nineteenth century: Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone; Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood; and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. The method of detection used in solving the crime may have even pointed the way for psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, to evolve his investigations into the psyches of his disturbed patients. It would no doubt have had an influence on the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. The real-life Mr Whicher had been a celebrity in his time, rather in the way that Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, became so, even though, as Summerscale points out, the fictional Holmes was not a police officer but an amateur detective, a gentleman, and always correct in his assumptions.

You get a lot of “bang for your buck” from Kate Summerscale’s book. There is an investigation not only into the Road Hill House murder, but into the attitudes and evolution of the police force which obfuscated and then finally solved the crime thanks to Detective-Inspector Jonathan, aka Jack, Whicher. Whicher was one of the eight original detectives in the force established at Scotland Yard in the 1840s. Also explored is the history of the English crime novel because the public’s fascination for the detection of crime spilled over into a fascination with the literature of crime. The language of crime detection became of necessity the language of the literary crime genre, though it would appear it was the literary masters rather than policemen who first coined or adapted new words for their own specific use.

Wilkie Collins’s thriller, The Moonstone, first published in instalments in 1868, is considered the first English detective novel, however Edgar Allan Poe, an American, was publishing stories by 1840 and The Murders in the Rue Morgue followed a year later. The word “sleuth” was initially used as a synonym for “detective”, Summerscale tells us, in 1870. It is actually an abbreviation of “sleuthhound” which Charlotte Bronte used to describe the detective: a dog that followed the scent of its quarry’s sleuth, or trail. Other words came into being to accommodate the art of detection; in 1849 acting on a “hunch” was used to suggest taking a step closer to a solution and in the 1850s a “lead” was used to mean a clue. The word “clue” is actually derived from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It came to mean “that which points the way” because of the Greek myth of Theseus, who was given the ball of yarn by Ariadne so that he might find his way out of the labyrinth after he had slain the Minotaur. Then there is the word “detect”: which apparently comes from the Latin “de-tegere”, to unroof. He who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside, was Asmodeus, the prince of demons, says Summerscale, pointing out that many Brits of the mid-nineteenth century thought the new detective force was an infringement of human rights, a terrible invasion of privacy, when a suspect could be interrogated by a member of the constabulary within the walls of his sanctuary, what was inviolably his own space. Such people really did believe that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and were horrified that the long arm of the law could reach inside it – especially when the investigator was perceived to be the inferior of any suspect from a higher social class.

So the Murder at Road Hill House was a catalyst for some changes in Victorian attitudes which clearly clashed with the evolution of the art of detection. Summerscale’s book reveals the social mores, opinions and hypocrisies of Victorian England, such as the habit of men of a certain class to shed their wives by claiming they were insane and having them committed to a mental asylum. It delighted me to learn that Charles Dickens was a friend of Jonathan Whicher – even though the novelist did not deduce the identity of the real perpetrator of the crime at Road Hill House. Whicher, of course, did, but could not conclusively prove his suspicions, earning the disapproval of the public for his apparent failure to solve this most sensational of crimes. He disappeared, almost without trace, from the public view. However, some five years after the murder, the perpetrator admitted to it, did the required amount of time in prison -20 years – and lived until the age of 100 years, what seemed to be an exemplary, selfless life. Another mystery: was there an accomplice? The nature of the crime seemed to demand one. Both perpetrator and probable accomplice ended their days in Australia as model citizens.

This is a most satisfying book. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction in 2008. Summerscale, a former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph seamlessly weaves life and literature together. One is simply the logical outcome of the other. The crime too, has a certain logic, considering the circumstances surrounding it. This is one of those crimes where you can feel as much pity for the perpetrator as you can for the victim.

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