One-Minute Book Reviews

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

December 18, 2007

Why Does ‘A Christmas Carol’ Work So Well As a Holiday Story? Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a sentimental novella about the redemption of a miser — could easily have turned to drivel. Why didn’t it? Here’s an answer from the novelist Jane Smiley:

A Christmas Carol, like Martin Chuzzlewit, concerns itself with the social ramifications of selfishness, but the characters of young Martin and old Martin are combined in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his moral journey, which takes place in three acts in one night, has the force of a revelation rather than the tedium of a lengthy trek by ox-drawn wagon. Some of the narrative had its origins in one of Dickens’s own vivid dreams, and surely the idea of of using dreams as a structural device had its origins there as well …

“But what makes A Christmas Carol work — what makes it so appealing a novella that William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens’s most self-conscious literary rival, called it ‘a national benefit’ — is the lightness of Dickens’s touch. Instead of hammering his points home, as he does in Martin Chuzzlewit, he is content (or more content) to let his images speak for themselves.”

Jane Smiley in Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life (Viking/Lipper, $19.95) www.penguinputnam.com. Smiley’s novels include A Thousand Acres www.randomhouse.com, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

For more on Dickens, visit the site for the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

The “Christmas Carol” in the title of Dickens’s novella is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which mentioned in the story. To listen to it, click here http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/godrest.htm.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 24, 2007

Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize — Finalist Lloyd Jones Writes at a Third-Grade Level in ‘Mister Pip,’ Microsoft Word Readability Stats Show

[Reading levels of past Man Booker winners appear at the end of this review.]

Bearing the white man’s burden of introducing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to a black teenager as a guerrilla war of secession rages on a Pacific island

Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. Dial, 256 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

No literary prize attracts controversy as regularly as the Man Booker, given annually to a novel by an author from the Commonwealth or Ireland. Even so, you have to wonder if another uproar won’t occur if this year’s award goes to Mister Pip, the finalist by New Zealander Lloyd Jones that is the favorite of London bookies.

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.

A third-grade reading level might be startling in any finalist: Who knew that the Man Booker was a prize for children’s literature? (Did anybody tell J.K. Rowling’s publisher about this?) But there’s a second problem that relates to specifically to Mister Pip. Why does a novel narrated by a university graduate have the reading the level of an 8-year-old? Jones clearly wants to show the world as Matilda saw it while living on Bougainville, but she was a precocious 13-year-old then. He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7. The racial implications of having a black university graduate tell her story at an 8-year-old level beg for comment by scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard www.harvard.edu.

To write forcefully from the point of view of someone looking back on childhood events, you need to show the richness of that child’s perceptions, a fact Dickens understood brilliantly. In Mister Pip we get Mitch Albom-esque pseudoprofundities. There is much talk of “the wisdom of crabs,” “what the lychee can teach us” and “the great shame of trees,” which is apparently that they “have no conscience.” Mister Pip brims with lines that seem to have floated off refrigerator magnets. “It is hard to be a perfect human being, Matilda.” “There are some things you never expect to lose, things you think will forever be part of you, even if it is only a toenail.” “You would never guess that a hairbrush and a toothbrush could be so important and necessary.” What if, actually, you would have guessed that a toothbrush could be necessary?

For anyone who doesn’t need to be reminded such self-evident pieties, the main interest of Mister Pip lies in its resurrection of the details of the little-known war that Bougainville fought for secession from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. Jones offers several memorable glimpses of its forgotten atrocities, such as the tossing of rebels to their deaths from helicopters over the Pacific. But this historical footnote is likely to provide scant – if any — comfort for anyone who expects more than third-grade level prose from a Man Booker finalist.

Mister Pip has been called “a hymn to reading,” as Carole Angier put it in the British magazine the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk. And while that’s true, most adults have read more thoughtful paeans to reading than Jones’s comment that when you hold a book, “you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own.” Many American children encountered one of them when were assigned to read Emily Dickinson’s “There is No Frigate Like a Book,” which begins: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away / Nor any coursers like a page / Of prancing poetry/.”

So may I suggest that anyone looking for a “hymn to reading” skip Jones and go directly to Dickinson? Not only does she express in four lines a theme it takes Jones 256 pages to develop. She also writes at the 12th-grade reading level found in one the best-loved Booker winners, The Remains of the Day.

This review is written at the level of grade 11.7, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

Best line: “We were used to the redskins’ helicopters buzzing in and out of the cloud around the mountain peaks. Now we saw them head out to sea in a straight line. The helicopter would reach a certain point, then turn around and come back as if it had forgotten something. Where they [sic] turned back was just a pinprick in the distance. We could not see the men thrown out. But that’s what we heard. The redskins flung the captured rebels out the open door of the helicopter, their arms and legs kicking in the air.”

Worst line: “A prayer was like a tickle. Sooner or later God would have to look down and see what was tickling his bum.”

How to find the grade level of a text using Microsoft Word: Enter a passage from the text into your computer and run the spell-checker. Read down to the bottom of the window that appears on your screen when the spell-checking is complete. In the last line you’ll see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.” This tells you the American grade level.

U.S. school grades and corresponding ages: American children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8; fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; 9th grade (freshman year high school), 14; 10th grade (sophomore year high school), 15; 11th grade (junior year high school), 16; 12th grade (senior year high school), 17.

How I calculated the Man Booker reading levels: I generally entered 300 words of expository text found between pages 23 and 25. The reason? The first chapter of a novel is often atypical, because many writers need a chapter to find their stride. A chapter usually has about 20 pages, so I started a few pages after page 20. I chose passages containing mainly expository text because lines of dialogue may misrepresent the overall level if, for example, they are spoken by a laconic character who tends to give monosyllabic answers (which can result in a low grade level). For Mister Pip I entered three passages that began on pages 23, 123 and 223 of the American edition.

Grade levels of selected Man Booker winners www.themanbookerprize.com: The Remains of the Day, grade 12; Life of Pi, grade 10.5; The Sea, grade 10.2; Midnight’s Children, grade 10; Schindler’s Ark (the original title of Schindler’s List), grade 8.9; Hotel du Lac, grade 8.8.; Possession, grade 8.7; Offshore, grade 8.1. The level the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss, varied from 5.3 to 12 for an average of 8.1.

For the grade levels of other living and dead writers from Mitch Albom to James Boswell, see the post that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 16 (“Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. For the writing levels of U.S. Presidents, see the post that appeared on Feb. 10 (“Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson”) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/10/.

Published: August 2007 www.dialpress.com

Charles Dickens sites: The many good sites on Dickens include that of the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org when the late Booker winner Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore) won the NBCC fiction prize for The Blue Flower in 1998. Fitzgerald said in an interview after winning the NBCC prize: “I was so unprepared to win the award that I hadn’t even planned a celebration. I certainly shan’t do the ironing today!”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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