Thursday, April 21, 2011

Suspicions of Mr Whicher

This truly excellent detective story which is also a glorious piece of social history comes to the small screen over Easter. I am in two minds about whether or not to watch, because I loved the book so much.
I suspect that anyone watching might then want to read the book anyway, if the TV folk manage to go half-way to making such a gripping tale so well told.
Most people had never heard of Mr Whicher before Kate Summerscale’s lovely book brought him the attention he so well deserved.
In a country that has crime dramas on the telly most evenings and high sales of crime detection books, it was fascinating to discover that these English roots and obsession with trying to solve fictional crimes can be traced to a particular real life case and one detective.
Mr Whicher was the first police detective and it is difficult to believe that no-one had attempted a biography of him before or the notorious case that brought him fame in 1860. But thankfully, the biography was handled with great aplomb by little-known author Kate Summerscale. Her surprise hit grew in popularity and eventually was voted the Best Book of the Year at the national book awards.
Mr Whicher was brought in when the local police failed to solve the murder of a child who was taken out of his house in the middle of the night and killed.
Mr Whicher was able to establish that it had to be one of the family – a respectable upper-middle class gentleman, his second wife, one of the children from his first marriage, the nanny, or one of the other servants.
The interest in the case was phenomenal, with a frenzy of press and public interest. The case, and Mr Whicher himself, were the inspiration of very early detectives created by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and the closed circle of suspects, country house mystery was born.
Publishers since have tried to capture the essence of Kate Summerscale’s book and there have been a few published reinvestigations of celebrated murders since.
But what they were missing was the fact that although the crime itself is interesting, it is the detective’s story which was is particularly fascinating – and those historic roots of real life detecting.
Kate Summerscale has researched deeply and used her research to great effect. I love the touches such as converting monetary values so you can more fully understand the historical context. Her explanation, for instance, of the social significance of the children of the first marriage sleeping on a different floor from their parents.
The mystery was never satisfactorily solved and public interest only slowly waned. Kate Summerscale tells us that when the house where the murder happened was put up for sale it was swamped with people who wanted to follow in Whicher’s footsteps, check the situation of the windows and the rooms that had led to some of Whicher’s early conclusions.
Kate Summerscale, viewing the case retrospectively and draw some pretty interesting conclusions.
In fact it makes me want to go and read the whole book all over again.
Suspicions of Mr Whicher  Kate Summerscale  Bloomsbury  7.99

4 comments:

  1. Having read your piece I will read the book first and then watch the television adaptation. This may be a mistake!
    Keep up the good work.
    www.stags-book.co.uk

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  2. I gave up on the book as it seemed to be a chronological, though well researched list of facts with no writing skill to link them together...rather like reading police files.

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  3. I have only seen the TV adaptation last night and thought it was quite interesting, if overlong.

    The most fascinating thing about it is how it marked the birth of the 'detective', both in life and in fiction.

    What detracted from it is that there weren't really any other serious suspects other than the daughter of the house, so the meat of the mystery was purely in the hunt for physical evidence to link the suspect to the crime.

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  4. But I thought there *was* a neat twist at the end - the daughter of the house being the cuplrit wasn't the whole story...

    But yes - the meat of the book is in the cultural impact the case had (the Maddie McCann of its day). And when you think of the explosion of newspapers at the time, all desperate for copy, it kick-started the tabloid culture.

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