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07-04-2009

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,

or the Murder at Road Hill House,

 by Kate Summerscale,

(London: Bloomsbury, 2009) ISBN-10: 0747596484, £7.99

 ImagePublished in 2008, Kate Summerscale’s erudite account of the investigation surrounding the murder of a little boy in the village of Road is a tour de force of literary detection. Through scrupulous research and immersion in the case notes and press coverage of the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent at Road Hill House in 1860, Summerscale paints a vivid picture of life in mid-Victorian Britain. As is clear from the book title, Summerscale orientates her narrative to examine the role of Jack Whicher, London policeman and one of the first professional detectives, charged with unravelling the mystery after the failure of the local police. Her portrait of Whicher makes much of how the character and methods of such an early detective were eagerly seized upon by prominent authors of the day, such as Poe, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, for their literary creations and how the murder itself generated literary imitators as authors and the reading public were gripped by ‘detective fever’ in their frenetic desire to learn who had committed such an abominable act. Indeed, one of the many attributes of this text is to weave together the case history of Saville’s brutal murder by one (or more?) of his own family members and a cultural history of detection. Summerscale does an excellent job of charting the emergence of the language and science of detection in these early years of British policing. The reader learns much about the origins of common-place terms, such as word ‘clue’, whilst the hybrid genre status of the text - half literary fiction, half investigative reporting – creates narrative tension but does not succumb to the temptation to provide facile solutions to a complex and never fully explained case history. Yet, like any good crime novel, the value of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher comes as much from its portrait of the preoccupations, fears and anxieties of an era as from its prurient revelations. Having moved from rural England to Australia and back, the book ends where it began, with its detective, Mr Whicher, a real-life figure and an archetype of crime fiction who remains ever present in the Western imagination.   

 

Dernire mise jour : ( 19-01-2010 )
 
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