My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 5#: Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

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In the early morning hours of 30th June 1860 a terrible murder occurred at the Kent estate. Three-year old Saville Kent was taken from his cot, brutally murdered, and tossed into the servants’ privy.  The nursemaid had woken up in the night to find his cot empty and had presumed he had gone to sleep in his mother’s room, but panic ensued when the nursemaid and the mother arose and the boy was with neither.  The house and grounds were searched until his body was discovered by a neighbour. Saville’s body had several stab wounds and his neck showed signs of strangulation. Everyone in the house professed their ignorance to the murder. The police searched the house for any signs of an intrusion but none were found. The perpetrator of the heinous crime had to be one of the residents of the house…  

Thus began a national obsession with the intricacies of the case. Newspapers, writers and citizens discussed their opinions on the case from the clues found, to the motive of the murder.  Everyone knew the ins and outs of the case, and there was a general consensus that until the crime was solved nobody was safe- the murder came to represent not only a singular act of violence but proof that crime could be an internal danger, and not just an external threat, to every home.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an eerie reconstruction of the Road Hill House murder case, including newspaper articles, photographs of the family members and floor plans of the house- which makes it disturbingly real and relatable. It shows an ordinary family in an ordinary house, yet a murderer lives there and goes undiscovered. Kate Summerscale’s work cleverly shows her modern reader the very threat the case held for Victorian society by using these details- the notions of Victorian traditional values and respectabilities were unveiled to show secrecy and horror that could affect anyone and everyone. Although our modern fears are slightly different from that of the Victorians (heavens knows we’re used to the idea of surveillance in our homes) we share an instinctive human fear of danger- the security/insecurity of the home is still as disturbing and uncanny for modern readers as it was for the Victorians. Indeed I found myself slightly ill at ease turning out the lights after reading…

And these are all signs, not just of an informer, but a story teller. Kate Summerscale creates a detective story without compromising the real-life events or the culture the case was embedded in. It slips between fiction and reality intermittently, cleverly omitting facts and accentuating certain details to create suspense for the reader and mask the identity of the murderer. Indeed several years after the murder a member of the Kent family confessed to it and was convicted. However Kate Summerscale provides alternative versions of the tale, suggesting the implication of other family members alongside the confessions of the ‘murderer’- this elusiveness is the key to creating fear in the reader for the case is never resolved.

What I loved most about the book was Kate Summerscale’s ability to look at the case as a catalyst for fictional forms. She discusses authors’ interpretations of the case- showing passages of letters from Dickens to Collins about their ideas on motive, and the ways detective and sensational fiction were influenced by the case, for example there are links between Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which  was being serialised in All the Year Round during the time of the case) and the case when Constance is in custody under suspicion so is the heroine of Collin’s sensational novel- confined to a mental asylum under false accusations. Kate Summerscale also shows how the Road Hill murder case changed public views on the role of the detective through Mr Whicher’s involvement in the case- influencing the creations of literary detective heroes known for their superhuman ability to discover clues and read human behaviour such as the omnipotent Inspector Bucket of Dickens’ Bleak House, or Sir Conan Doyle’s  exceptionally brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

Kate Summerscale’s ability to engage in the cultural forms of the time shows her sensitivity and creativity whilst looking at the facts of the case. Literature, and other cultural forms shape our understandings of history both collectively and individually, and without it I think her book would have been incomplete- just another non-fictional emotionless piece for the bookshelves.

 

 

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