Book #56

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (or the Murder at Road Hill House) by Kate Summerscale

In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land.

At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there were only eight detectives in all of England and rarely were they called out of London, but this crime was so shocking, as Kate Summerscale relates in her scintillating new book, that Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate, Inspector Jonathan Whicher.

I had been so excited about reading this that I fast-tracked it to the top of my book-queue, which was quite against my normal book-reading rules. I was a wee bit disappointed, though. Don't believe the hype.

It started off wonderfully well, describing the inmates of Road Hill House and the nature of the crime. I hadn't realised it was a true story, so it began to take on a more gruesome edge once I had worked this out. It started off reading as a fictional novel, which I thought was a nice touch. However, everything slowly descended into a, frankly quite boring, research paper. It really felt to me like Summerscale just needed somewhere to dump all of her research, even the tiniest, most inconsequential little details about the case.

Summerscale mostly spent the novel quoting books which had been influenced by the crime and the subsequent investigation. Not only did she do this, but she laid out the plots of these almost in their entirety, particularly The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. When you have these books sitting on your desk waiting for you to read them, getting a simplified plot synopsis of them every few pages can be quite frustrating, not to mention spoilertastic.

Mr. Whicher, as the book's namesake, was barely given a voice. I had been looking forward to reading about this infamous case that brought the famous Scotland Yard detective down, but Summerscale did nothing to bring him to life. She guesses at his personal life, and he's never given any sort of human element.

The book barely mentioned the actual crime in the middle section, rather focusing on what everyone was up to now that they had left Road Hill House. I could have done without hearing about William's wonderful research on sealife creatures, because really, who cares? It was extremely irrelevant to say the least.

In hindsight, it seems that Summerscale aimed to write solely about the Road Hill murder, but instead found her research on that topic alone to be quite insubstantial, so instead she decided to pad out the book with silly little details such as the origin of words like "red herring" and "sleuth". I'd recommend the first third of the book, as finding out about the crime fascinated me, but after that I'd give up. Nothing of the remotest interest is given, and it is an overall flop, in my humble opinion.

56 / 66 books. 85% done!