The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

What did it win?

Samuel Johnson Prize 2008

What’s it all about?

A London detective is called in to investigate a murder at an English country house. He suspects the killer, but she proves to be too many for him. Years later she confesses.

Was it really any good?

It’s kind of hard to go wrong with material this good. Mystery and narrative go hand-in-hand, and the appearance of such an archetypal plot in the wild, “the original country-house murder mystery,” makes for an irresistible read. William Roughead recognized the Road Hill House murder as a classic crime eighty years ago, and his lushly ironic opening is hard to forget:

In the palmy days of the sixties, the memory of which is preserved for us in the evergreen pages of Punch; when skirts were wide, minds were narrow, and whiskers did prodigiously abound; when ladies veiled their graces in chignons and crinolines, and gentlemen, inexpressibly peg-topped, fortified their manly bosoms with barricades of beard; when the cultured delighted in wooden woodcuts of gilt-edged table books, and the vulgar worshipped albums of painfully realistic family photographs; when the outside of cup and platter received much attention, and due regard was had to the whitening of sepulchres, and whatever was “respectable” was right; enfin, about that sincere and engaging period, there resided – to employ the appropriate contemporary term – at Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, one Mr. Samuel Kent, gentleman.

Oh for the palmy days of style – when even non-fiction sounded like this! Today we just want the facts. Economy, economy! Here is how Kate Summerscale begins the story:

In the early hours of Friday, 29 June 1860 Samuel and Mary Kent were asleep on the first floor of their detached three-storey Georgian house above the village of Road, five miles from Trowbridge. They lay in a four-poster bed carved from Spanish mahogany in a bedroom decked out with crimson damask. He was fifty-nine; she was forty, and eight months pregnant. Their eldest daughter, the five-year-old Mary Amelia, shared their room. Through the door to the nursery, a few feet away, were Elizabeth Gough, twenty-two, the nursemaid, in a painted French bed, and her two youngest charges, Saville (three) and Eveline (one), in cane cots.

Oh well. Such is crime writing in the Information Age.

What made the murder into such an excellent mystery was the genius of its author, then sixteen-year-old Constance Kent. In the real world, most criminals are stupid. And they commit stupid crimes. Constance was the exception. Not only did she manage to pull off a daring and complicated murder (of “Saville (three)”), she quite ingeniously manipulated evidence after the fact (destroying a bloody nightdress, then recovering a clean one from the laundry to later claim it had gone missing), and successfully stonewalled the police throughout their investigation. Mr. Whicher may have had his suspicions, but they didn’t hold up in court.

Like everyone else, he appears to have underestimated the girl. After the fact he was prepared to concede “Miss Constance possesses an extraordinary mind.” Extraordinary for its control and discipline, as well as its concealment behind what was, as pictures and contemporary testimony both indicate, a remarkably dull exterior. Here she is appearing at her second trial:

Her face, judged the Daily Telegraph reporter, was ‘broad, full, uninteresting’, with an ‘expression of stupid dulness’. . . . The News of the World described her as ‘dull and heavy, her forehead low, her eyes small and her figure tending to plumpness, and there being an entire absence of anything like vivacity in her air or countenance’.

Those black eyes deeply recessed into a plain, meaty face never gave anything away, and they didn’t miss anything either.

When no more than three years old I began to observe that my mother held quite a secondary place both as a wife and as a mistress of the house. She [Constance’s governess and future step-mother] it was who really ruled. Many conversations on the subject, which I was considered too young to understand, I heard and remembered in after years. . . .

Sadly, we don’t know very much about Constance’s long life after her sensational trial. What it amounted to was prison, followed by residence in Australia with her brother. Even this much was a mystery until her pseudonymous identity was revealed in the 1970s (Roughead says merely that “history knows nothing further of her fate” after her release from prison). From the beginning she seems to have “had a gift for invisibility.” This doesn’t leave Summerscale much to talk about in the final section of the book, which is rather disappointing. The career of William Saville-Kent, marine biologist, seems irrelevant to everything that has gone before, despite Summerscale’s best efforts to rope it in through strained analogies between biology and detective work (“William Kent had a furious curiosity about little things, a conviction that they held the big secrets”). And why the publisher felt the need to include colour plates of William’s illustrations of coral life is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

While I can understand The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher being the most popular book on a non-fiction shortlist, I suspect most of that has to do with the subject matter, the given. I think I would have been more impressed by an author taking a less handy topic and making something of it. While Summerscale does wrap the story in an interesting social and cultural history of detectives and detective fiction, there isn’t a whole lot here that’s new. The most eye-opening moments for me came when using the “note on money” to translate the wages into today’s dollars. Apparently sub-inspectors of factories and marine biologists were very well paid in Victorian England. Oh for the palmy days of such government largesse!

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