Friday, January 1, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale

Read Dec. 30, 2009

The author obviously has done in-depth research into not only the case itself, but into the mores, lifestyles, and beliefs of the time, even to the use of urine to clean wool in the mills.

Many terms in use in the mid-1800s are explained in current times as they are used, including those names given criminals and detectives. Charles Dickens' Bleak House featured the first detective in a novel, the story somewhat based on Whicher. Wilkie Collins also based some writings on this case.

There's a very interesting section on how Whicher became an undercover detective and how these investigators worked behind the scenes and were more or less undercover and invisible. This book is a very in-depth epistle, Kate Summerscale has made it easy to understand from a wording point of view, if not from the point of view of civilization. And who indeed could understand such an inhuman act although we do get a good look at the possibilities. A work of the time of women knowing their place, rich men taking advantage of their station in life, and where children were not the responsibility of a parent but of a stranger: governess, nursemaid, or other servant of the house.

This lurid crime becomes a scene of controversy on a large scale, and as such is made even more so by the press of the time. Nothing was sacred when it came to reporting, and everything is poked and prodded that would be expected of tabloid reporting today. There were no restrictions on the press, therefore speculation runs high and loud in the streets.

Summerscale takes us through Whicher's mind and method as he conducts many discussions, and his interpretation of the disappearance of a nightdress that may or may not have anything to do with the matter, it is simply a fact that it disappeared from the laundry, suspicious in nature for the fact that had it gone to the laundry as supposed, it may have had signs of blood on it, or it may have been innocent. Perhaps this was the original "red herring".

The culmination is that Whicher himself comes under fire and is made a laughing stock, bringing him down in the end. His theories are based on observations and appear to him and to the reader as correct but the country is too riled up to believe him.

This case became a turning point in the murder mystery genre and several fictional detective books were written in a manner closely related to Whicher and to this crime in particular. Once a suspect has been arrested and charged, the book turns to "what if?" It follows the continuing untangling of the skein of wool, leaving us wondering if the wool was pulled over our eyes. The case ruined many people, including the very detective who worked in such a clear manner but disturbed the balance of the classes. This is an interesting case and the author has handled the delivery well. There are many endnotes, references cited, and clarifications of text. I give this book 4 ½ stars on its content and handling of a difficult subject and will gladly read another book by Kate Summerscale.

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