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

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