The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I have been reading a good amount of sensation novels lately; it is these ever darkening October nights that are attracting me to good old fashioned tales of melodrama and suspense, I think. I am thoroughly enjoying exploring this genre; from its very beginnings in the Victorian times to the present day, there are no end of wonderful books out there to keep you up into the wee small hours, hooked, desperate to unravel the mystery that is unfolding, and endlessly promising yourself  ‘just one more chapter’…or perhaps five…

So what better way to complement my recent love of all things sensation than by reading a real life version? The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has been on my wish list for a while; a lot of people have been talking about it, reading it on the train, and generally shoving it in my face, and it has intrigued me ever since it came out. However, I don’t like to read what everyone else is reading, so I like to leave a decent interval between a book’s initial hype before I deign to read it myself. I’m not called Book Snob for nothing! So, this weekend, while in Highgate with Bloomsbury Bell (more on this later in the week), when I spotted this book for just £1 in an amazing tat filled charity shop opposite Archway tube station, I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home with me. I started it immediately and was absolutely riveted from page one; the murder this book depicts had Victorian England mesmerised in the 1860s, and happened just when sensation fiction was really taking off. Dickens and Wilkie Collins were two famous faces obsessed with it; plots in their novels can be traced back to this case.

The book is about the murder of three year old Francis Saville Kent, taken from his cot in the middle of the night and found the following morning, his little body shoved down the servant’s privy, his throat savagely slit from ear to ear. It was a cruel and seemingly motiveless crime, and yet it soon emerges that it must have been committed by someone in the house. The inhabitants of the large Georgian villa, Road Hill House, deep in the Somerset countryside, in which the crime was committed, contained his parents, his three half sisters and half brother, the children of his father’s previous marriage, his two sisters, his nursemaid, in whose room he slept, and two servant girls. Who, out of this group, could have wanted to kill Saville? And how could they have removed him from his cot without waking his nurse, or his baby sister, who was also in the room?

After the local police force have failed to come up with any leads, they send for the celebrated London Detective, Inspector Whicher, one of the eight founding detectives of Scotland Yard, and who hasn’t failed to solve a case yet. He soon thinks he’s solved the case, but because of who he suspects the criminal to be, his findings are ridiculed, his reputation is ruined, and it is beginning to look like this is a mystery that will never be solved…

Obviously I can’t go into too much detail because it will give it all away, but this really was such a fascinating and engrossing read, as much for the social history the book contains as the central mystery itself. This isn’t really a ‘whodunnit’, because it’s based on real life and Summerscale can’t hide the obvious clues as to the identity of the criminal; I had figured it out after the first few pages. However, it is a wonderful exploration of the rise of the detective in the 19th century; of the vogue for sensation and mystery novels, of the sanctity of the Victorian home, of the reverence of femininity, of the strange irony of the Victorian cult of privacy and domesticity, undermined by the presence of a silent army of ever watchful servants living within most homes; of the fear of surveillance, of the secrets hidden within ordinary looking homes, and of the obsession with madness that meant those who couldn’t live within the ‘normal’ bounds of society were locked up, shunned by a world that couldn’t handle any deviance from their perceived notion of normality. These undercurrents emerging in Victorian society made murders like the one at Road Hill House both shocking and mesmerising to the public. To think that the idealised, private, secure sphere of the home, an Englishman’s Castle, could be penetrated by evil; to think that, of all people, a woman, that gentle, docile, saintly, domesticated figure of Victorian literature, could be the perpetrator…well, it shook the foundations of society. It also provided a terrific basis for a sensation novel plot; the country house mystery started at Road Hill House.

When I looked this up on Amazon, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews. It seems that many people were misled into thinking The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was an Agatha Christie style thriller; it isn’t. If that is what you want, don’t read this. It’s far more a social history of the detective story, of Victorian values, and of the popularity of sensation novels than it is a whodunnit, and personally, the blend of mystery story and history really worked for me. It does get bogged down with a fair bit of unnecessary detail in places, but all in all, this is a must read for anyone interested in the Victorian period and the origins of the detective story. I have found it a fascinating piece of background reading to complement my season of sensational reading. Highly recommended!

18 comments

  1. I agree with you. It was a riveting read but it did have a bit too much details in some places. However, yes, it's definitely a good read if you are into sensational fiction.

  2. Ack! Thanks for the reminder! My library copy of this is going to expire in not too long and I have to finish it quickly or I never will be able to!(I think I know who dun it though. I think I figured it out. So good thing it's not a proper mystery. :P)

  3. I didn't enjoy the book at all, predominantly as I thought it was going to be a proper whodunnit, and the gist did nothing to claim otherwise! Here's my review – unfortunately, it's the polar opposite of yours.🙂

  4. This sounds interesting; I do agree that it is the time of year, not only for reading more, but for reading spooky/thriller type books.

  5. Mrs B – Yes, there are places where there is a lot of, frankly unnecessary, detail, but on the whole I thought it was great and an interesting take on the detective story.Jenny – Yes, finish it now! I figured it out straightaway but it didn't ruin it for me, because I kept waiting for a twist…that didn't come in the end anyway! But it kept me second guessing myself which is always good!Anothercookie – Hello! Thanks for coming over to my blog! I read your review and I totally agree – it was wrongly marketed. It's a shame that you didn't get what you wanted from it!Verity – I think you would probably like this, but it is definitely a non fiction book and not a novel at all, just to warn you! The blurb does imply that it is a novel, and I think that's why a lot of people were disappointed by it. So you'd have to be in a non fiction mood to really enjoy it.

  6. I bought a pristine hardcover copy at the library sale this summer for just $3. Not sure if I'll be able to fit it in during this 'sensation season' or not, but I am looking forward to it. Thanks for your review.

  7. I actually thought this was a fiction also, I didn't realise what it was about till reading your review. I will seek this one out, it sounds quite interesting and the case rings a bell, I seem to recall seeing a documentary about it, I cannot remember the name though.

  8. I really looked forward to this book arriving at the library and it didn't disappoint. For me it was a riveting read, I was also surprised to discover that Charles Dickens pops up in the story as well. It definitely is slightly frustrating to write about books such as this without being able to say too much isn't it.

  9. I loved this book! I found the detail about the history of the police detective fascinating. It wasn't a book you could read quickly, but I enjoyed dipping into it over a few weeks. I never found that there was too much detail, as long as I took my time with it. I'm pleased that you enjoyed reading it.

  10. I adored this book, I think its one of my favourite non fiction books ever and I am quite tempted to re-read it after reading so many sensation novels that the actual case itself inspired. Great review Rachel!

  11. I actually have this on the wish list because Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot really liked it. I think I'll love it, too, especially now knowing that you did (and Jackie, and Simon..)🙂

  12. Nymeth read this one and really liked it as well, so it's on my list of books to look for. It sounds really good, and I like historical crime books🙂 Well, the few I've read, I've liked, anyway.

  13. JoAnn – Thank you for reading my review! I'm glad you have a copy to hand and I hope that when you do get around to reading it, you'll enjoy it as much as I did.Bookpusher – Thanks for coming by my blog! I definitely think this has been mismarketed as a lot of people seem to be disappointed that it's not the thriller they expected it to be. I hope you manage to get hold of it soon!Darlene – I'm so glad you loved this too! It is frustrating…I had to be so careful not to ruin anything!Jackie – Glad you loved it too! I was rushing to find out whodunnit and I think that's why I got annoyed in places with the detail…taking more time over it would probably make me less bothered by that.Simon – Thanks! High praise indeed for this from you – I'm glad you loved it so much. It has definitely been one of the most interesting reads I've enjoyed lately.Claire – I think you will love it – it's brilliant and definitely one for those who are interested in the Victorian period.Aarti – If you ever come across this, definitely pick it up – it's such a fascinating read and a very interesting and refreshing take on the period.

  14. I thought this a great book – a shame people were misled into thinking it was fiction because that would be annoying. I read quite a bit of non-fiction and this one is right up there. I was lucky enough to see/hear Summerscale in the flesh earlier this year at the Sydney Writer's Festival.

  15. I think I remember seeing this at the used bookstore the last time I was there. I'm going to have to snatch it up if it's still there. It sounds wonderful, and as you say, perfect for this time of year.

  16. What a great reviewer! I read the book about a month ago and, like so many others, was surprised to find it wasn't 'faction' but straight forward non-fiction. And that was fine, because I love all things Victorian, and if there is some murder or intrigue thrown in that's even better. I hope that Kate Summerscale is working on her next book and look forward to reading and following more of your blog!

  17. Samantha – sorry, must have missed your comment! I'm so jealous that you met Kate Summerscale! I wonder what her next project will be as I can't wait to read more of her.Makedo- Yes do pick this up if you can – makes for great Victorian period background reading.Alison – Hello! Thank you for visiting and for your kind compliments! Glad you liked the book despite not getting what you had originally bargained for!

  18. I read this recently and though the murder itself was horrifying yet engrossing ( weird huh?) I really enjoyed the exploration of the sense of the times – which you have so nicely summed up here.

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