304 p. 2008
It seems that after reading Curthoy and McGrath’s How to Write Histories that People Want to Read, I have picked up, one after the other, two books that would qualify- Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania and now this one, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. This book won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008, and also bears the designation “New York Times Bestseller” on the front cover.
The book describes the true-life murder of a three year child in 1860, taken from his bed in the nursery outside the bedroom of his parents Samuel and Mary Kent, and found with his neck slashed and body wrapped in a blanket in the outside privy. The family that lived in this three-storey Georgian house was not a happy one. It was a second marriage for Samuel Kent; the older children of the first marriage had been relegated for the second family; the new Mrs Kent was not all she seemed at first. Suspicions mounted about the relationship between Mr Kent and the nursemaid who slept in the bed beside the murdered child, the sanity of the daughters of the house, the probity of the servants: the case opened the lid on the fug of family relationships amongst what otherwise appeared to be a respectable, prosperous middle class Victorian family.
The book takes a careful chronological approach with only what I marked as one example of foreshadowing that suggested that the outcome was known to the narrator. Instead, events and evidence unfold bit by bit, complete with the false-starts and false-leads of any investigation, and the narrative closely follows the newspaper articles and legal documentation generated by such a notorious case. I hadn’t heard of the case at all but I assume, given that the murderer ended up depicted in Mdme Tussuad’s waxworks, that the case has more notoriety in England even today. For someone completely unfamiliar with it, I wasn’t sure right to the end- and even then….?
But this is more than just a country-house murder story: instead it is a closely-grained and grounded study of domestic Victorian life and sexuality, the development of “the detective” as a profession and the relationship between the press and Victorian fiction. The detective, Mr Whicher, is a lower-class employee in a newly-developing profession, and class sensitivities emerge over what is perceived as his puerile probing of domestic relationships and middle-class respectability, and the derisive sneering of the popular periodical press. Summerscale embeds this true-crime story within a broader study of the detective-novel as a literary phenomenon, both at the time in the work of Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and later as a literary genre much loved of BBC Friday night dramas.
The book is carefully footnoted and researched; there are maps and photographs, and an extensive bibliography. Its chronological structure makes you feel as if it is unfolding before your eyes and it’s quite a page-turner. And surely that qualifies it as “History That People Want to Read”.