Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, the real-life inspiration for detective fiction

"Since Whicher was sure that the murderer was an inmate of the house, all his suspects were still at the scene. This was the original country-house murder mystery, a case in which the investigator had to find not a person but a person's hidden self. It was pure whodunnit, a contest of intelligence and nerve between the detective and the killer. Here were the twelve. One was the victim. Which was the traitor?"
~ Quote from The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

For a non-fiction book, Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has many different, but equally interesting layers to it.

Firstly, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher provides detailed insight into the development of the profession of police detective. The book centres around one of the first murder investigations in 19th century Victorian England to significantly capture the public's attention - what is known as the murder at Road Hill House. One morning on a day in 1860, the inhabitants of Road Hill House, the Kent family, awake to find that young Saville Kent, aged 3, had been taken from his nursery during the night only to be found in the outdoor bathroom, brutally murdered.

What follows is an account of the investigation and resolution of that crime by Detective Jack Whicher. Detective Whicher was one of the original 8 Scotland Yard detectives. Whicher used his controversial methods to dig deep into the secrets of the Kent family and in doing so threatened many Victorian values and norms that were held dear by the population.

This is another layer of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - the examination of Victorian society through this singular case study of the murder at Road Hill House. Summerscale explores the roles of things such as family, privacy, gender roles and class distinction in the lives of the people of 19th century England, as they were reflected in the media coverage and popular opinion of this singular murder.

Finally and most most interestingly, in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Summerscale goes so far as to claim that this murder and Jack Whicher's investigation of it had a significant influence upon the development of detective fiction as its own unique genre. Sumerscale claims that prior to this public murder, detective fiction only took the form of short stories but that after the public attention it received, detective fiction began to evolve into longer pieces of fictions. She argues that the case had a profound effect on authors such as Wilkie Collins, Henry James and Charles Dickens and that the influence of Mr Whicher's personal characteristics and investigation methods can be seen in fiction from the 19th century to the present.

So, in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Summerscale sets out to achieve a lot and I would say that she is largely successful. I certainly found for arguments about the effect the murders at Road Hill House had on detective fiction the most interesting aspect of the book. Sadly, the tension surrounding the actual murder itself wasn't maintained throughout the entire book and I found my attention wavering from about two thirds of the way into the book. It may have been more effective in achieving its aims if it has been a little shorter and more directed.

Although it is essentially a book focused on a single murder in Victorian England, by looking at this murder in such depth Summerscale is able to bring so much more of interest to the attention of her reader, and I admire her for that.

5.5 / 8
Enjoyable, and worth reading if you have the opportunity.

I did a brief post about this around a month or two ago and a lot of people had read the book and enjoyed it. I would love to know how people feel about Summerscale's opinion on the role that this single murder played on the development of detective fiction as a genre. If you have read the book, do you think that she has over-estimated the role it played, or were you convinced by her arguments?


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