The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, Kate Summerscale, Walker, $24.95.
From the very beginning real and fictive crime have had an inseparable relationship. Novels have influenced the way people think about crime almost as much as actual crimes have influenced novels. Obviously detective fiction couldn’t have started before there were detectives, but once it did, the public perception of what detectives are and what they do was very much determined by mystery books.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fascinating work, not only for its vivid portrayal of an intriguing true crime in 1860’s England, but also for its deft examination of the parallels between the emerging real life detectives of the time and their literary doppelgangers. When three year old Saville Kent, the son of a prominent local functionary, is taken from his nursery and later found brutally murdered, it seems like the perfect set up for a classic English country house mystery.
Though there are several inconclusive clues, the local police are baffled and, just like in the books, are forced to appeal to a famous detective from Scotland Yard. Soon Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher, a well respected sleuth with powers of detection and observation bordering on the miraculous, arrives, and, after a meticulous examination of the scene of the crime and the various suspects, renders his unshakable opinion as to the identity of the guilty party.
But here’s where reality and fiction part ways – although the Victorians glorified the concept of the brilliant detective, in practice their rigid social codes and maniacal demand for the appearance of propriety wouldn’t allow them to accept the sordid facts revealed when the streetwise Whicher peeled back the facade of the Kent household. The press and public simply couldn’t handle the truth, especially when, given the primitive state of forensic science and the fact that the suspect was spared rigorous interrogation, there was no conclusive proof.
But just when the reader becomes apprehensive that Summerscale’s narrative will limp to a rather deflating conclusion, further twists and turns emerge, including a denouement that any fiction writer would envy. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is an absorbing, expertly written and constructed book, one which provides not only an exciting real life murder mystery, but also a heady immersion into the Victorian milieu and a unique portrayal of the emergence of the modern detective in both fact and fiction.