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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize for fiction may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable recipient 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. The case stymied the Wiltshire police, and Scotland Yard sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill House to help with the investigation. Whicher quickly became convinced that he knew who killed young Saville Kent. But in trying to prove it, he faced obstacles that included public scorn for his work, rooted partly Victorian notions of privacy and the sanctity of the family home. Five years later, the killer confessed, vindicating Whicher without answering all of the questions raised by one of the most notorious murders of its day.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/, Britain’s most prestigious nonfiction award. Was it worthy of a prize?

2. In this book, Kate Summerscale tells a true crime story structured like a detective novel that includes a startling twist in the last pages. How well does that technique work? Was the book more or less effective or than the best mysteries you’ve read?

3. Would you have believed the story in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher if the book had been labeled “fiction”? What does your response tell you about the different requirements of fiction and nonfiction?

4. “Like any novelist, Summerscale follows her storytelling instincts in making the detective the hero of her book,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “While her efforts to humanize his sketchy character are limited at best, she does far better at illustrating how he was fictionally transformed, both in the mysteries of his day and in subsequent permutations of the genre.” [“True-Lit-Hist-Myst,” The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2008, page 19.] Do you agree or disagree with Stasio?

5. Good detective novelists avoid the use of obvious red herrings, narrative devices intended to mislead or distract you from more important facts. Many authors try to avoid even subtle red herrings, which some readers see as cheating. Did Summerscale’s book have red herrings, whether blatant or discreet? If so, how did they affect the story?

6. Some of the Amazon.com reviewers fault Summerscale for what they see as a just-the-facts approach, a literary style similar to that of Agatha Christie and other mid-20th-century mystery novelists. What did you think of that style? How appropriate was it?

7. Summerscale quotes the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler as saying: “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” [Pages 303–304] How, if at all, does that comment apply to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? Does the book have a happy ending?

8. Have you read any other nonfiction books about 19th-century crimes, such as the bestselling Manhunt? How did they compare to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher?

9. The publisher of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has revived the practice, little used in the U.S. today, of including floor plans and similar art in a crime story. What did the illustrations add to the book? Would you like to see other publishers revive the practice?

10. After reading the book, what did you think of the use of the small photograph in the oval on the cover of the American edition? Was this fair in book that uses detective-novel techniques? Would this picture have appeared of a work on fiction?

Vital statistics:
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. Published: April 2008 (first American edition) www.mrwhicher.com.

Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

A review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/30. You can find an interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

August 14, 2008

What is Potato Peel Pie? ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 pm
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Not sure how much I’ll be able to say The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 288 pp., $22) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows because I have a slight conflict of interest involving one of its prime movers. But I can tell you that this epistolary novel about the deprivations of ordinary Britons just after World War II (when food rationing meant that some people had to fill up on things like potato peel pie — pie filled with potato peels instead of the desired-but-unavailable items — instead of their usual fare) is already a big hit little more than two weeks its publication. As I’m sorting it out what else I can write, you can read an excerpt here www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90251891.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 16, 2008

Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’: Now in Paperback

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” With such sharp observations, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in The Diana Chronicles (Broadway, 576 pp., $15.95, paperback). Brown tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s character and motivations. And what she says often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is far better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but because Brown finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography. Click here to read a full review of the book oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.Janiceharayda.com

June 12, 2008

New British Library Lets You Check Out a Person Instead of a Book

Filed under: Current Events,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:49 am
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But will you respect yourself in the morning if you take them to bed with you?

A new London “library” called the Living Library lets you check out a person instead of a book. David Baker writes in the Times Online:

“The idea, which comes from Scandinavia, is simple: instead of books, readers can come to the library and borrow a person for a 30-minute chat. The human ‘books’ on offer vary from event to event but always include a healthy cross-section of stereotypes. Last weekend, the small but richly diverse list included Police Officer, Vegan, Male Nanny and Lifelong Activist as well as Person with Mental Health Difficulties and Young Person Excluded from School.”

Read more about it here: women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article3790377.ece

Thanks to The Librarian Edge on del.icio.us del.icio.us/TheLibrarianEdge for this one.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.” Then there’s the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

April 28, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear’s Latest Maisie Dobbs Mystery, ‘An Incomplete Revenge,’ Coming This Week

Filed under: Historical Novels,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm
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Few suspense novelists have won more praise recently than Jaqueline Winspear has earned for her historical mysteries about Maisie Dobbs, a World War I nurse-turned-private investigator in London. Winspear has won Alex, Agatha and Macavity Awards for books in the series, which began with Maisie Dobbs and continues with the just-published fifth installment, An Incomplete Revenge. Should you consider giving one of them as a Mother’s Day gift to someone who loves mysteries or historical novels? Check back later this week for a review. Click here to read or listen to an excerpt or find a reading group guide us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 10, 2008

Winston Churchill’s Writing Secret

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 am
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Did Winston Churchill ever utter a line as bad as George Bush’s, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family”? Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Unlike the many statesmen who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, Churchill won the Nobel Prize in literature nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1953/churchill-bio.html. And even critics of his policies tend to admit that he wrote some of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. What was his secret? Part of it lies this comment, in which he summed up his approach to writing:

“Broadly speaking, short words are the best, and the old words, when short, are the best of all.”

Winston Churchill as quoted in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Writer’s Block Journal (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007).

Comment by Jan:
The best book I’ve read about Churchill is the first volume in William Manchester’s unfinished “Last Lion” series, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874–1932 (Delta, 1984), which has 992 pages in its current American paperback edition. A good, shorter introduction to the life of Britain’s wartime prime minister is Winston Churchill / A Penguin Life: Penguin Lives Series (Viking, 2002) by the distinguished military historian John Keegan.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2008

The Battle of Towton Field, Fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, Takes the Stage in Anne Easter Smith’s Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

Filed under: Historical Novels,Romance Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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Yorkists and Lancastrians drowned in their chain mail at England’s Antietam

The bloodiest battle fought on English soil took place on the snowy Palm Sunday of 1461 and claimed more than 30,000 lives. Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com recalls Battle of Towton Field and other War of the Roses events in her Daughter of York (Touchstone, $19.95, paperback), a historical romance about the marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. In the novel a messenger tells Margaret and her mother of the Palm Sunday rout of the Lancastrians, who fled in the pink snow, by the Yorkists: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.” Click on this link to read a review of the novel www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


March 8, 2008

An Interactive Map of Storybook England for Children — Another Reason Why U.K. Tourist Services Are Better Than Ours

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:30 pm
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An interactive map of storybook England shows places associated with Alice, Black Beauty, Harry Potter and other famous characters

One of the great pleasures of visiting Britain is that the government hires a lot of people who can help you find your way around instead of doing what we do here in the U.S., which is to tell visitors: “You want information about our country? Pray for a taxi driver who speaks English.” Pause. “If that fails, you could always ask the person who mugs you.”

Many of the helpful Brits work for the tourist boards Visit Britain www.visitbritain.com, Visit Scotland www.visitscotland.com and Visit Wales www.visitwales.com. And some of them came up with a great interactive online map of England that lets children learn about places linked to characters in books like Black Beauty, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series.

I learned about this delightful storybook map from Ceri Radford, who wrote in her blog about books in the Telegraph: “You can browse by book title, then click to find out more about the work and its location. Kudos to Enjoy England, the marketing arm of Visit Britain, for coming up with the idea.” You can read more about it here blogs.telegraph.co.uk/arts/ceriradford/dec07/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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