Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008)

I feel compelled to apologize for blogging so little these days. It’s not blog-fatigue, it’s just that real life takes the precedence, and god does it keep me busy! Blogging and real life luckily sometimes converge too: I met Cam from Cam’s Commentary while she came on vacation to Paris. I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did, but funnily enough, we didn’t speak about blogs at all. It was the first time I met a blog-friend – and not the last, I hope! And she brought me a book: March, by Geraldine Brooks. I’d quite enjoyed an earlier novel of hers, A Year of Wonder, so I look forward to reading that one.

Now, without any transition that I can think of, I try to gather my feelings on Kate Summerscale’s true crime book, and it’s no clearer now than a month ago when I finished it. Make no mistake, I did enjoy it a lot, I was fascinated by a lot of information, but I closed the book without being sure of what I read.

In 1860, in the Somerset home of a middle-class family, a toddler was found murdered in the privy. The way he was smuggled out of his bed in the middle of the night, while the nanny was asleep in the same room, indicated that the murderer was within the walls. Victorian society got carried away by this gruesome murder. Newly-created police investigators were clueless; the public was divided between fascination and repulsion; Dickens and Wilkie Collins were influenced; trials and earth-shattering developments, even years later, kept everyone spellbound.

For me, this book is a literary UFO: is it a novel? A biography of a rather dysfunctional Victorian family? A sociological analysis of Victorian society and how it was obsessed with crime and order? The history of budding police investigation? The biography of a particular inspector, Mr. Whicher, who embodies the rise of detectives both in Victorian society and in its collective imagination? A history of the emergence of mysteries in literature? A real-life thriller where the writer offers new leads? Perhaps there’s no need to categorize so much, for to me it was really distracting while I read, because the book often seemed to veer off course to follow those different perspectives.

Unless these are the rules of a genre I never tried before. I don’t recall ever reading true crime literature before Summerscale. And I’m not sure I find it as comfortable as fiction. Life is so much messier (I’m sure Victorians would agree). Consider the body that doctors have examined without being sure of what caused the death. Consider the hesitations and the back and forth in speculations. Consider the lack of satisfying resolution and of proper comeuppance that a case like this invariably brings. A dashing fictional inspector would have done it so much more brilliantly. Instead of that Mr. Whicher was left with his suspicions and retired from Scotland Yard. And what I missed most was a psychological explanation of all those people, something a novel could really do.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher seem to me like the dark counterpart of Judith Flanders’ investigation on the Victorian house. A must-read for people interested, like me, in Victorian times.

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8 thoughts on “Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008)

  1. It’s interesting you found this distracting because of its different facets. I think there’s a big trend in contemporary non-fiction to write these sorts of hybrid books, to mix up genres or have them collide. I do think it can be a very interesting thing to do, but I can also see why it wouldn’t always appeal.

  2. How great that you and Cam could meet! I got to meet Cam in NYC, and now I’m hoping to get to meet you in Paris! It’s so wondering knowing people all over the world through blogging.

    I like books that defy genre boundaries and that do something new, but still a book needs a sense of direction and organization to work well. I’m reminded of John Brewer’s book A Sentimental Murder, which is about an 18C scandal, and I think he does a good job of telling the story and also exploring its cultural ramifications and the psychology of the people involved. In that book, he makes it clear just what it is he’s doing.

  3. Yes, I enjoyed meeting you — and Mr. & Baby Smithers too! And I’ve been remiss in mentioning it to you now that I have returned home.

    I find it jarring to read a book that I can’t quite figure out what genre it is. I don’t like not having the framework of a certain genre or convention to help shape my reading. I understand why an author would choose to defy the convention, but I usually don’t like it. As a child first starting to read books other than primers, I frequently was baffled if I couldn’t figure out if a book was fiction or non-ficiton. I would scour the book cover for clues. The books I liked best were the paperbacks that were clearly marked ‘fiction’ or ‘non-fiction’. Although more sophisticated in my reading and understanding of genre, I guess I still haven’t moved very far from wanting to have a basic adherence to a convention for type of genre.

  4. Pingback: Mary Hooper, Fallen Grace (2010) « Smithereens

  5. Pingback: Kate Summerscale, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) | Smithereens

  6. Pingback: The one that starts in Dickens and ends in the bush | Smithereens

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