144 of 150 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great true crime story!
This is a wonderfully done true crime story of a murder in England in 1860. If that were all, we'd have an eminently enjoyable book. But this is also a social commentary and a history of the early detective story: you'll learn how and when the words "clueless" and "sleuth" entered the language, for example. You have a horrible murder of a 3-year-old boy in a manor...
Published on April 20, 2008 by David W. Straight
158 of 178 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Four books in one; and that's not a good thing
The reviewers here, especially the paid ones, do readers a disservice when they praise the mystery aspects of this book without emphasizing the unending details with which the author has bogged down the book. It's hard to believe these newspaper and magazine reviewers read the book in its entirety?
Is this a story of Jonathan Whicher and the creation of the...
Published on August 25, 2008 by Okie Writer
Most Helpful First | Newest First
144 of 150 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great true crime story!,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Hardcover)This is a wonderfully done true crime story of a murder in England in 1860. If that were all, we'd have an eminently enjoyable book. But this is also a social commentary and a history of the early detective story: you'll learn how and when the words "clueless" and "sleuth" entered the language, for example. You have a horrible murder of a 3-year-old boy in a manor house in the country. The outside doors, windows, and gates are all locked--and also, unusual for us nowadays, many of the interior doors were locked as well--preventing access to the larder, cellar, drawing-room, etc. So suspicion perforce falls upon the family and servants. This is before the days of forensic science--so it isn't even clear whether the child was killed by stabbing, throat-cutting, suffocation, or drowning. The local constabulary in this west England area are inadequate to the task in what very quickly becomes a sensationalist case, and so a detective from London is called in to investigate.
Detectives are new, only a couple of decades old, as are detective stories. Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is Scotland Yard's best investigator (at the time, there weren't all that many). The child's family is not very well liked in the area, and the family itself has many unsavory secrets--including insanity. Summerscale relates Whicher's detective work and his growing fixation upon a 16-year-old sister. But what makes all of this particularly enjoyable is how Summerscale relates the sensationalism in the press, the plethora of theories as to the murder, the coming-forth of outsiders to confess, the initial belief in Whicher's abilities (followed by growing disbelief). There are wonderful descriptions of the detective novels of the time--including ones with female detectives--the public appetite for these stories, and the additions to the language (you'll see where clue/clew comes from). The child's nanny slept in the room with the child, who was taken during the night. Charles Dickens was one of the numerous people who put forth the theory that the child had discovered his father in bed with the nanny and had been killed to prevent him telling Mama. Actual solutions, however, were not readily forthcoming.
Whicher fell out of favor in the public eye--but he did pop up again in the other sensational case of the era--the Tichborne Claimant. (Hopefully, Summerscale will turn her prodigious talents to that case next). So what you get here is a fascinating view of the early days of detectivedom (if that's a word), the detective in fact and fiction, and the public's taste in literature. The book reads like a good detective novel, with well-portrayed characters: there are arrests, trials, maps, drawings, and photographs. A great book indeed!
55 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of a forgotten murder,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Hardcover)We always think of detectives and crime-solving as things that have gone on for centuries. In actual fact, Edgar Alan Poe invented the detective story in 1841, and the next year the British set up their first detective police to solve crimes where the criminal wasn't immediately apparent. For much of the 19th century these individuals were essentially making it up as they went along, and dealing with a variety of public prejudices (bobbies originally had to wear their uniforms all the time, to avoid corruption and the possibility of them sneaking up on someone) and strange practices to invent, as they went along, the craft of crime-solving.
In 1860, 18 years after the detective department was founded (they had offices in a square in downtown London known as Scotland Yard, hence the name) a young boy was killed in rural England. His throat was cut rather viciously, and he was thrown into a privy. The house in which he lived with his family was very large, and since the doors were locked, it seemed inevitable that the killer must be either a family member or a servant. After two weeks of inexpert investigation, which solved nothing, the local police petitioned London to send a Scotland Yard detective. The one they got was one of four Detective Inspectors, Jack Whicher, who according to the author was one of the original detectives who essentially invented his craft. His assistant, "Dolly" Williamson, went on to be superintendent of Scotland Yard during the `70s and `80s.
Whicher settled pretty quickly on who he believed was the culprit, but he was unable to obtain a confession and had scant physical evidence. He made an arrest, but the family closed ranks, and ultimately there was no immediate conclusion to the killing. This destroyed Whicher's career. He wound up retiring from the police a few years later, and worked intermittently as a private detective in later years. Eventually he was vindicated, and the case wrapped up, but he was never reinstated.
I enjoyed this book immensely. So much of what the author recounts found its way into detective novels of later years that it's amusing, to say the least. The characters are interesting, and so are their fates. I enjoyed this book immensely, and would recommend it to anyone interested in true crime.
158 of 178 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Four books in one; and that's not a good thing,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Hardcover)The reviewers here, especially the paid ones, do readers a disservice when they praise the mystery aspects of this book without emphasizing the unending details with which the author has bogged down the book. It's hard to believe these newspaper and magazine reviewers read the book in its entirety?
Is this a story of Jonathan Whicher and the creation of the police detective? Or a lesson in Victorian families? Maybe it's a general history of the origins of the detective in mystery novels? What it is not, is a well-edited, real-life mystery with historical details peppered in to add context. Someone give this book a real editor and reign in the ramblings of a research-happy writer.
It is obvious that the writer spent years compiling data and scouring diaries and other sources to include personal information to enhance the narrative. But the way they are used only serve to stall the flow of the story, not to enrich it. The writer interrupts herself so often, you could be excused for thinking there were multiple authors. There is so much repetition that you can begin to feel you've already read this or that paragraph.
This book is not a narrative, but a museum. Every detail, however mundane, is included. Everything the writer found in her research is in the book, many repeated several times. I applaud the author on her diligence and thoroughness in gathering every possible piece of data. In fact, I place some of the blame on the editor for not doing his/her job. A great researcher cannot necessarily be expected to be a great condenser. That's where the publishing company is supposed to come in.
There are a couple of good stories in this book. You will just have to wade through a lot of unnecessary facts to find them.
If someone had warned me, I'd have checked it out of the library instead of spending money to own this book.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Verbosity of Ms. Summerscale: A Rambling Text and the Near-Undoing of a Great Biography,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Paperback)Summerscale had some great ideas for this book, but the execution left something to be desired. While the facts of the Road Hill murder case, the Kent family background, and the history of Jack Whicher, all made for interesting reading, the story was bogged down, as others have noted, by an overabundance of minute detail on EVERY topic. The author used such a dry, bland, scholarly tone, it was hard to tell if she was writing for the general public, aficionados of true crime and/or detective fiction, or a college psychology class. Her somewhat rambling, scattershot approach, digressing at the drop of a hat, ensured that this would not be a 'quick' read, but didn't exactly make me savor every word, either. I felt I did get some good insights into the major players, and perhaps more than I really needed toknow about societal mores of the Victorian era, and tie-ins(relevant or not) to psychological practices, especially Freudian theory.
As an earlier review noted, this book read like four books in one, yet, everything was put in wherever Summerscale felt like putting it. IMO, this diminished the intended 'true crime told in the style of a detective novel' narrative approach.
The final few chapters, summing up the rest of the principal figures' lives, helped make up for the seemingly endless, extraneous middle sections, and, if nothing else, gave me some leads for further reading in the 'vintage detective story' genre.
I can totally understand why some reviewers would be frustrated and give up before finishing this book. However, it was ultimately worth finishing. If you are truly interested in the broad panorama of 19th-century social life, in addition to the gist of the story,especially if you are a college student, give it a try. If you are looking for a straightforward 'true crime' book, and a break from studying, you'll find that here, too, but be prepared to do a lot of skimming.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The original English manor house murder mystery,
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,
Whicher is the ultimate detective. Able to accurately pinpoint suspects using scant information and relying heavily on his own hunches, he rises through the ranks of law enforcement rapidly, eventually leading the first group of detectives in history. He is the model upon which the first fictional detectives are based, and his prowess and skill are fully highlighted in this book. Throughout the story, Whicher isn't afraid to pose unpopular speculations, and though the public denounces his hypothesis, he steadfastly works to bring the killer to justice. I found him to be a remarkable man whose abilities were far beyond the time in which he lived, far beyond what we even now expect a detective to be.
One of the most intriguing things about this book was the public involvement and mania regarding this case. From the adulation of the detective prototype by the likes of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to the involvement of the public in their mass attendance of the trial, the community's hunger for this case was arresting in it's detail. Many of the townspeople wrote letters speculating who the killer might be; one man even falsely confessed to the crime. It was very ironic that the public at that time was so negatively disposed to the idea of surveillance and detection. The idea that people could be spied upon and that their private homes and their proclivities could be brought into the open was extremely uncomfortable for them to imagine. Many looked upon the detective and his colleagues as unsavory operatives waiting to invade the sanctity of their private lives and abodes. It seemed as though they were eager to find out the secrets of the Kent family while shunning the detection that brought these facts to light. It must have been a fine line to walk for Detective Whicher, whose successes only compounded the community's distrust.
The book was meticulously researched and heavily laden with facts. Not only was I privy to the social customs of the time, but also to other murder investigations, detective literature of the time, and facts about the principal characters' private lives. The book was at once enveloping and confidential, while still being surprising and unconventional. The suspense of the story was meted out in an atypical way, and although it ended in a conundrum that couldn't be solved, it was still very satisfying. The one quibble I had with the book was the tremendous quantity of facts throughout. At times it was a little overwhelming. Later chapters seemed to be balanced better and I began to see that the story may have sacrificed some of its urgency by displacing its factual density. The inclusion of photographs and maps was also an illuminating and welcome touch.
This book was a very rich and intricate look at a crime that may not be familiar to many, but whose implications and originality have forever shaped the way crimes are handled today. An interesting approach to the crime novel and an enlightening picture of times past.
37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Painful - A disorganized memory dump,
As other reviews here have stated, the book hammers you with a mass of details, many of them irrelevant or tangential. The writing is very poor for this type of book - It is a dry "just the facts" rendering, what you might expect from a bureaucratic report meant to be filed away unread. An analogy is that the chapters are a collection of research notes that the author intended to come back to to write the book. Even at the level of individual paragraphs, the writing often does not flow smoothly.
Especially frustrating was jarring jumping between threads of the story: I would struggle through the blizzard of facts to construct a mental image only to have to start over on a different thread. I have read multiple other histories that managed to handle similar multi-threaded stories by disciplined presentation of the facts and connections between the threads.
After a couple of exhausting chapters, I jumped forward several times, found the same deadly dull writing and gave up.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I really, really wanted to be enthralled,
Unfortunately, except for a neat twist two-thirds of the way through the book, that's about all we ever really learn about this case. The author didn't reveal enough about the detective or the murdered boy's family to stir my interest. Although she hints at lots of salacious behavior within the family - namely incest and adultery - she provides few details and then only towards the end of the book.
Instead we read about the birth of detective fiction, other child murders of the age, the work of early English detectives, the scientific career of one of the victim's older brothers, and a myriad of other things only tangentially related to the crime at the heart of the book. My overall impression is that, for whatever reason, the author didn't have enough information about either the crime itself or the folks surrounding it, so she created lots and lots of filler to make up a book.
It's not awful, but I didn't find it really compelling, either.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars There's a grain of a good book here but this isn't it,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Kindle Edition)There's a grain of a good book here but this isn't it. The true crime story underlying this book is classic crime. It has love, hate, lust, twists and turns. Everything you want from a mystery, real or fiction. But the book is neither fish nor fowl. The author has done a lot of interesting research and knows the details of everyday life and police work at the time of the murder. But she hasn't written a story. She's just assembled lists of facts and organized them into chapters.
While there's some attempt at chronology, just when the story gets interesting the author goes off into pages of quotes from newspapers on the sanctity of the British home or the time schedule and ticket cost for a train ride. These are good for color if they were the background but clearly the author loved her details and made them the centerpiece of the book. For example, in one chapter on Detective Whicher she lists that he might have had a chop, potato and coffee for breakfast. I know she doesn't have documentation of exactly what he ate on any particular day but a better storytelling device would have just to have had him sit down and eat it. Not talk about it in the abstract.
I'm a historian too and bought this book in spite of being forewarned about it in reviews because I thought with an interest in 19th century domestic life I'd find it interesting. Unfortunately, this is more like a compilation of research notes and citations to authority than a work of authorship. I hope that if the author decides to try her hand at writing for a popular audience again she has a strong editor who can help turn her notes into a book. This is a C- first draft but by no means a final product.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read, but know what you're going to get before you buy it.,
This review is from: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Paperback)I have to feel at least a little bit sorry for Kate Summerscale. She's written a book which is nearly guaranteed not to appeal to many likely to read it. She's written a true crime novel which relentlessly puts in lots of historical detail about the nature of the detective in Victorian culture. The reviews are full of baffled blood & gore and whodunnit aficionados.
Well, I for one liked it. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher fits very well into my sweet spot between loving mysteries and loving historical analysis.
The murder at road hill house is an interesting case. Enough documentation exists about the people involved so that there is some real meat on the bones for the reader. I like detail. Summerscale obviously likes detail. If you're a potential reader who thinks detail gets in the way of the plot, this will probably not be the book for you. (Note: I don't mean gory details. There aren't actually all that many of those.)
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the image of the detective in the consciousness of the time. I actually felt the detective thread was lost a little too much as the book went on-- I would have liked to see it strengthened, possibly with examples from other famous murder cases.
It isn't a perfect book. It started dragging a bit somewhere in the last few chapters. Not sure quite why. Pacing?
Anyhow. Some good things to know if you're contemplating buying The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher:
This isn't True Crime in its most popular sense. Think of this as an exploration of the perception of crime in the 19th century which happens to use a single crime as its focus.
Don't page through the photographs ahead of time if you want to be suprised about the bad guy! I always look through the photographs immediately, can't help myself. I didn't care that I was able to figure out the killer from the pictures, but you might.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale (Hardcover - April 15, 2008)
Used & New from: $0.01