Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

I often get caught by surprised by my purchases at Chapters.  I’ll pick up a book from a shelf, think to myself ‘hun, that sounds like an interesting plot,’ and it’s not until I get home that I realize it’s a work of non-fiction.  That’s exactly what happened with my latest read, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale.  But, just like the last time I did this (with The Witness House), I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the work, even though I was expecting something completely different.

As a non-fiction, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher recounts the events surrounding the brutal murder of three year-old Saville Kent in rural England in 1860.  Saville was apparently taken from his bed in the middle of the night, murdered, and his body dropped into the servant’s out-house.  The crime, committed in Victorian England, was shocking for its brutality, but more so for the fall-out.  The local police, at a loss to figure out what happened, appealed to Scotland Yard to send out a detective to undertake an independent investigation in hopes of leading to the murdered.  Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher.

As Summerscale points out, while the crime itself was shocking, perhaps the most upsetting part of the whole fiasco for the general public was the way in which the private life and the sanctity of the English country-gentleman’s home was destroyed in the following investigation.  Whicher’s arrival on-scene led to a lot of uncomfortable questions for the family.  As it turns out, Mr. Kent was married to the second Mrs. Kent, who was Saville’s mother.  The first Mrs. Kent’s children were still living in the home with their father, step-mother and half-siblings, but they were doing so in serious discord, almost as if there were second-class family members.  As Whicher begins unraveling the relationships and history of everyone involved, several ugly truths come to light which make it clear that the Kents were not living the ideal Victorian family-life everyone had believed.  

The problem with Whicher’s investigation is that it was hampered by the same Victorian ideals that the Kents tried to portray; the local police had made assumptions about the family dynamics, they were uncomfortable asking ‘delicate’ questions of the women in the household, and they trusted in the gentlemanliness of Mr. Kent.  When Whicher arrived on scene, he was forced to re-trace the steps of the local police (while dealing with their hostility) during which he recognized multiple gaps and problems that the original investigation had created.  While Whicher, a long time (and highly talented) detective formulated a theory on the crime, there was no way of proving it, and the case went ‘cold’ for many years.  Summerscale does, in the end, reveal what happened to young Saville Kent (who is almost forgotten in the rat’s nest of truth and lies that Whicher uncovers), but I still found it hard to believe the case’s outcome – and I think Summerscale does too.  And no, I’m not going to tell you who done it.

If the murder reads like a who done it to you, that’s because, as Summerscale points out, it was the inspiration for the modern detective story.  The drama surrounding the Kent family was widely reported in the press, and many aspects of the crime ended up a plot points or character-basis for works by the likes of Dickens and Collins.  In fact, Dickens was a contemporary and something of a friend of Whicher.  While I found the parallels that Summerscale drew to the literary detectives and plots interesting, I only found it interesting the first time; I think it’s a major flaw in this work that Summerscale repeatedly goes back to pointing out how some aspect of the case influenced some author’s plot.  It takes away from the flow of the story and become repetitive very quickly.

While Summerscale does beat the literary connection to death (that seems to be bordering on a bad pun – apologies), the other aspect she touches on is the dynamic of the Victorian family and household.  I was familiar with the concept through my own studies, but it was interesting to see how the ideal of the private sphere was viewed by the population when it was suddenly thrust into the public sphere, as it was for the Kents through the ‘media’s’ fascination with the case.  It seems to me that Summerscale could have spent more time investigating this dynamic, and less time rehashing her assertions that the Kent case served as literary fodder in order to strengthen the work.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  Summerscale’s writing style and the manner in which she presents the facts of the Saville Kent case is fast-paced and well written.  While it may be non-fiction, it reads like a good old-fashioned who done it that will have you trying to guess at the motives of the suspects, and all the while you’ll be trying to determine who the real culprits and the real victims are.  Summerscale took a topic that was interesting and engaging enough to be a fictional work, but presented it in a non-fiction format that bridged the gap; I don’t for a minute regret picking this work up, and I encourage everyone to give it a read.

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