Non-fiction makes its first appearance in my pile o’ books this year with a fascinating and accomplished book from Kate Summerscale. (Though I should explain that this work encompasses many of my fiction loves and does indeed read somewhat like the murder mystery genre which was inspired by the events The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details… just in case you suddenly thought we were going to be travelling down some modern history/current affairs/biography path for the rest of the year. We’ll be back to fiction next time)
The murder of a young boy becomes an almost obsessive interest in 1860’s England with the details of the crime and the search for his killer, playing itself out throughout the land in any 2-bit rag that could print a story. For the first time, the reporting on this crime allows the public into the privacy of the middle class family home (previously sacred) and sets off a chain of investigations, hearings, theories and more letters to the editor than you could imagine. The most well-known police detective in London is sent to solve the murder – his name is Jack Whicher – and the case leads both to his prolonged fame and fall from the graces of a fickle society.
What you learn in Summerscale’s fantastic book is that Whicher and the Road Hill House murder were the inspiration for detective fiction to come. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ Bleak House, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and her manor house murders, gosh, I’ll even suggest that Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library, and just about any modern detective story some gruff, unmarried loner can poke a bottle of 12 year single malt at, all have some kind of beginning in Jack Whicher and Victorian society’s fascination with the art of detection. Summerscale blends details and comparisons such as this with the real-life story of Saville Kent’s murder and the quest for his killer.
This is the kind of non-fiction I like: an interesting topic, told from a fresh angle, written in a narrative style and peppered with tidbits, facts and historical suppositions, such as you have never before encountered. The excitement the case roused and the endless appetite the public had for stories of ‘detection’ is fascinating, and you find yourself drawn in to the investigation and lives of the main players in a similar way. Victorian society’s intrigue is contagious and Summerscale entices you to try to work out the culprit for yourself and work out why they would do such a thing (just like you would if you were indulging in some Miss Marple).
Kate Summerscale is coming to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m going to see her speak (she is a former literary editor and has judged the Booker prize, which is interesting in itself). I’m also now keen to add Wilkie Collins to my reading pile and brush off some old Arthur Conan Doyles.
Not a bad review for a book then, if its readers want to see the author and read some of the books her book discusses…