on 11 April 2008
This book is as much a history of Victorian social values and the emerging field of detective fiction in the nineteenth century as it is a book about a hideous country house murder in 1860. Researched using original police papers from the National Archives, books on the crime and many more sources, the book tells the story of the Road Hill House murder of 1860, when a three year old boy was brutally slain by another occupant of his home. The book sets out to detail the case, from the original event to the investigation by Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher, to the aftermath suffered by the entire family.
It's extremely well written and well researched, and even though there is little to add suspense considering anyone with an Internet connection can discover the identity of the murderer, Summerscale still manages to inject a certain air of tension into proceedings, drawing things out as they must have unfolded at the time. With a peculiar ability to grab your attention and hold it firmly, the book is difficult to put down, and a thoroughly fascinating read for anyone with an interest in detective fiction, real life crime or a historical period that throws up as many questions as it answers.
The murder of a young child which took place at Road Hill House, Wiltshire in 1860 captured the imagination of the public and turned everyone into amateur detectives. The perfect example of a country house murder with a finite amount of suspects also inspired writers of the time such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher' is structured so that first, we learn the details of the crime, then we learn about the investigation which leads on to what happened next and the author's own theory based on the evidence. To say this book is well-researched in something of an understatement; if someone goes through a toll road, we know how much they pay; if someone moves to London we find out who they lived next door to; if someone left a will, we find out exactly what they left and to whom. I'm sure this level of detail would be irritating to some, but I found it absolutely incredible!
The book is also interesting in giving us a taste of the time, the attitudes of the people, the ways in which the Police force was growing and how events were shaping literature.
This is an extraordinary achievement and engrossing throughout. I can't wait to see what she will come up with next!
on 11 June 2014
I think I must be the only person on the planet who doesn't like this book. Its subject is very interesting and the murder is very sad but the majority of the book is just dull police procedure and it drones on and on without keeping you interested.
I gave up in the end and quit half way through which is unheard of for me as i will read anything!
The book covers the true, rather nasty and sad events of a 1850/60 murder in a English country house and provides a chronological revealing of the facts as they are discovered. There's a lot of information available on this case to give details of events from newspaper clippings, police reports and other sources. It also puts it into context of the time with other such crimes.
It's ghoulishly interesting to find out what happened and the ending is particularly interesting. Perhaps my own presumptions made me a bit disappointed overall as the title suggested to me an almost Poirot esqu solving of the case. This is added weight to by the initial, constant and rather annoying reference to detective fiction of the time * and how it was influence by this event and the detective. That and how popular the book was made me expect a bit more.
It is a fascinating case and the history of the parties involved is particularly interesting especially the later parts of the book but if you're expecting a Poriot or a Sherlock Holmes reveal leave this till you're lower on reading material.
* Be warned as the fiction referenced in this book often has its mysteries revealed without thought. If I remember correctly, the murderer in Bleak House is state with no warning. Other fiction is referenced and could have been spoiled too but I learnt to skip the bits discussing other stories. Moonstone, The Women in White, Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Alan Poe are referenced. This was doubly annoying as I read this so I could watch a BBC 4 Program that was reckless giving spoilers on fiction/fact I'd not read; including this book.
on 18 August 2013
"The Suspicions of Mr Whicher" details an investigation into a child murder which took place in 1860 at Road Hill House in Wiltshire. As the author Kate Summerscale makes clear from the start this was the first highly publicised 'who dunnit' style murder mystery to fascinate the press and the British public. This true life case became the original inspiration for every fictional detective novel written since.
Where this book is strongest is describing the details of the murder itself, the people involved and the investigation carried out by the detective Jack Whicher. It is an interesting case in itself, being a classic locked door mystery where you know that at least one member of the household committed the crime.
The background detail on the foundation of the Metropolitan Police detective service is fascinating. I especially liked the conflict of Victorian morality that objected to police officers being dressed in plain clothes and poking their noses into the affairs of respectable folk.
However, the actual substance of the murder and investigation only accounts for perhaps half of this book. The other half seemed to me to be no better than padding. False leads, eccentric amateur detectives and unnecessary background about those involved makes the narrative drag in places. The last few chapters of the book are especially tiresome as it describes the lives of the surviving family members far beyond any relevance to the murder case.
Although Kate Summerscale has obviously painstakingly reseached Victorian detective literature and does a good job of referring to this throughout, I would have preferred to have seen more detail about how the case had such an impact on the birth of sensationalist journalism. No reference is made to the later Ripper murders which had a similar handling by a press hungry to sell newspapers by dramatising and revelling in the details of particularly gruesome crimes.
"The Suspicions of Mr Whicher" is well worth reading, but it does have its flaws. It's front cover proclaims it "the Richard and Judy number one bestseller" as though that was the equivalent of the Pulitzer. If you want to know more about early Victorian policing and the birth of detective literature though you should find this an interesting and intriguing book which is also easy and enjoyable to read.
on 4 February 2012
Winner of The Galaxy Book Of The Year, British Book Awards 2009, Winner of the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize and Shortlisted for The Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, this book has considerable pedigree. It was also A Richard and Judy Number One Bestseller, but never mind.
In a nice, middle class family, with a nice middle class home in June 1860, a toddler vanishes from his bed in the middle of the night. His bloodied, brutalised corpse is discovered the following day, but who did it? And why?
The Murder At Road Hill House isn't just A Locked Room Mystery, of the sort you see in many Agatha Christie novels or the sort you compete to solve when you play a game of Cluedo. It is THE Locked Room Mystery. The original real-life crime, which inspired popular detective fiction of the era, and the impact of which is still felt in crime fiction today. For those who don't know what is meant by Locked Room Mystery, it is now the fodder of Murder Mystery Weekends. A murder occurs in a country house, the doors were locked for the night, the only possible culprit has to have resided in the house that evening. It's been seen in Poirot, Marple, Doctor Who and even most recently in Steig Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo albeit on a grander scale. In the case of Road Hill House, there was no elaborate dinner party involving a vicar, a disgruntled nephew, and a wealthy American socialite; just the Kent family, a husband and wife, seven children and a few servants.
Jack Whicher was among a new breed of plain clothes detectives recently established by Scotland Yard sent to Wiltshire to help solve the crime, but the locals and the nation at large reject his findings. What emerges is an astonishing picture of just how fallible and frankly rubbish the early judiciary system was in Britain. To question someone of good social standing or class, or of an age or gender that would be unseemly, is considered an affront to decency regardless of grounds, but it is the class system that truly is an over-riding factor. In addition, public speculation was apparently encouraged with any Tom Dick or Harry across the nation as a whole believing they had the right to have a say on the case. Juror meetings were held in public, cross examination was ridiculously biased, and the press were allowed a veritable free-for-all on editorial comment.
The utter lack of respect for the legal process is breathtaking, and Summerscale comments at length at the way in which though Mr Whicher had his suspicions, the nation had its suspicions of Whicher. The very existence of a plain clothes force was again considered an affront to decency, the privacy of the Englishman and his home were at stake. These values apparently worth more than the advantages of modern progress in crime solving. Following the Road Hill House case Whicher finds himself a laughing stock and his career is ruined. Whilst fictional detectives of the type written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens surged in popularity their real-life counterparts were considered 'vile' and 'grubby'.
Where this non fiction book succeeds is in the way in which it brings the story of The Kent Family in the earlier half of the book to life, almost but not quite in the manner of a Victorian novel. Where it slightly falters are the moments in which it begins to read like a PhD thesis, and becomes a bit dry and academic. What is certain though is the phenomenal amount of research and background work Summerscale has put into this book, and the respect it deserves for breathing new life into an old but highly influential tale. 9/10
on 5 October 2011
I'd been looking at this text for a while, having recently discovered a fascination for true crime.
The book starts off well, and for the time it focusses on the story of the Road Hill House murder, it is extremely interesting. It's meticulously researched, I'll say that for it. What I didn't enjoy was how often Ms. Summerscale goes off on a tangent. The tangents aren't entirely obscure but I often felt I was forcing myself to read the analysis of Poe (and I absolutely love Poe's work), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. This text is as much a study of the development of detective fiction as it is an account of a murder.
Having said that, I understand why Summerscale puts so much emphasis on how the fictional detective evolved and it's because Mr Whicher and his proteges inspired so many of these authors. I still didn't find the frequent quotes from the aforementioned authors' texts to be of particular interest to me.... I wanted to details of the murder, how the culprit was caught, what happened at the trail and what was the impact?
Summerscale does cover these areas very well though and in impeccible detail, which is why I persevered with the tangents she frequently went off on. This text, like other reviewes have noted, is as much a social commentary of the Victorian era than anything else. We are shown how the attitude of "it couldn't possibly have been a middle class person who did this!" prevailed, and are also shown how the assumption was that the murder must have been committed by one of the hired help, even when the evidence spoke to the contrary. We're given detail of clashes of religious belief, a distaste and fascination for the concept of the detective and how Victorian society adhered to the notion of an Englishman's home is most definitely his castle.
All in all, I can say this text did grab me but it didn't hold my interest, and at times I was forcing myself to continue reading. That said, when the story moved back to the murder I read it with relish.
on 1 June 2009
This book is the true story of an intriguing murder of a young child which took place at Road Hill House, in 1860. The author collated a vast amount of reports, national archives, official records, letters, interview notes, etc together to provide an incredibly comprehensive description of the case. I found it interesting to read about how the detective - Jonathan Whicher investigated the case and felt quite aggrieved for him that it reached an inconclusive end, until a shocking confession in 1865. The murder provoked a lot of unrest at the time and the finger was pointed at most of the family and staff. I found it interesting to read about the Victorian ideas of privacy compared to the current day and how the female suspects were treated by the police, public and the press, it made me think about how different the case would be handled today.
For me personally it was disappointing. Albeit interesting, it was very much a book about the history of Victorian social values and I found it read very much like a university thesis, encompassing as many quotes from other `detective' novels as it could. In my opinion, some of these extracts were superfluous and didn't `add' to the book. It must have been fascinating and extremely hard work for Kate Summerscale to put together the content for the book.
Some critics have criticised Kate for not adding any additional padding to make it feel more like a novel but this was obviously her intention and she was very careful not to make assumptions about how anyone, particularly the parents, were feeling when the murder of Saville happened.
on 8 February 2009
I began this book with high expectations - the reviews I had read were almost all very positive - but by the end was left feeling disappointed. While I found it a fascinating - if disturbing - story, and the details of the investigation were well described, in my opinion the author did not do her material justice. We were told very little, for example, about the backgrounds of the family members and servants in the house. Records available to any amateur genealogist (censuses, parish records etc.) would have provided a wealth of information that could have been used to bring these people to life. Also, I was led to believe that the book went into all the little details of the life of a Victorian household - this was not the case. The details that were included were really interesting, but they were few and far between.
I feel that far too much time was spent trying to force the murder case into some sort of literary framework. But these were real people, and I wanted to know about them and their lives, not about the tenuous connections the author has contrived to make between the case and the development of detective fiction. It was almost as if the author felt apologetic about the fact that she was writing what is, let's face it, a true crime story, and felt obliged to 'high-brow' it up with allusions to literature.
The people involved, and their motivations, were central to this story but I felt that they were not as central to the book as they should have been.
on 27 October 2010
I picked this book up at the hotel on my holidays. Having read the back I was looking forward to reading it. After 50 pages I was glad I'd picked it up and was starting to get into the who, what, where and whys. Unfortunately not long after my opinion changed drastically. As other reviewers have mentioned, the author keeps 'going off on one'. Yes, some of the facts are interesting but some of them are completeley irrelevant. Wilkie Collins is mentioned more than some of the main charachters in the book! With regard to the main story, I found it frustrating that the same facts were repeated over and over again. If I wasn't on holiday I don't think I would have finished this book and I'm glad that I didn't pay anything for it.