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.