Saturday, August 08, 2009

Murder in a foreign country: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

“To solve a crime holistically,” Alan Moore once said, “one would need to solve the entire society in which it occurred.” The statement was made in the context of Moore and Eddie Campbell’s brilliant, multi-layered graphic novel From Hell, which used the Jack the Ripper murders in 1880s London to examine the deep-rooted misogyny and social inequality in Victorian England (and the period itself as a dark portent for the violent excesses of the 20th century). But it extends to many other contexts – real-life crime as well as crime fiction. I thought about it while reading of Moninder Pandher and the Nithari child-murders, especially the frequent reports that one of the reasons the crimes took so long to come to light was the mutual antipathy between the poor people of the area (whose children were mainly the victims) and the local police: the villagers were wary about going to the authorities to register missing-person reports, and when they did the police didn’t take them seriously, or harassed them.

One of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a while is Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or The Murder at Road Hill House, which reconstructs a famous real-life murder that took place in an English country house in June 1860. A three-year-old boy – the youngest son of the large Kent family – was found brutally murdered, his little body stuffed into a makeshift outdoor “privy” (toilet). The killer was almost certainly one of the 12 people staying in the house at the time – three servants and nine family members (including a woman who had once belonged to the servant class but had, somewhat controversially, risen up the ranks to become the second wife of the family patriarch).

Summerscale’s book isn’t quite a whodunit – not because the reader knows the murderer’s identity from the beginning (you don’t, unless you’re already familiar with the Road Hill House case) but because there are far more interesting things going on in it. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a record of a specific murder case all right – and a comprehensive record at that, written in a very accessible style – but it’s also a portrait of a period, complete with its mores, attitudes and idiosyncracies. Summerscale brings a sense of immediacy to a distant time. “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” L P Hartley wrote; for those of us living in India, 1860s England might seem to be a foreign country twice over. But some of the things about the case are chillingly familiar, notably the public reaction to it, which combines moral highhandedness with fascinated voyeurism – and a massive appetite for sleaze.

On the one hand, the society portrayed here is a conservative, private, even repressed one: much importance is attached to the idea that a man’s house is his castle, and there are those who see the violation of a “respectable” family’s privacy (necessitated by the investigation) as a crime equal to the actual murder. There is unease discussing sexual matters or matters of personal hygiene: a woman’s discarded night-shift, which might have been important evidence, remains unmentioned by the police because they believe that the blood stains on it are “natural” – menstrual – and they don’t want to have to deal with the garment or enter it into the official record. But at the same time this is a world that enjoys peeping into others’ private lives, gossiping about them, deriving vicarious thrills from the thought that a child might have caught his father bonking the maid in the nursery. Little wonder that tabloid journalism (or a near-unrecognisable form of it) was in its infancy, holding up a mirror to the hidden prurience of this society.

In other ways too, it was an exciting time. Scotland Yard had come into existence only a couple of decades earlier and the plainclothes detective was a new type of beast whose methods and activities people didn’t always approve of. (In some circles there was a distrust of detectives as lower-class men who had been given
official sanction to pry into the personal affairs of the middle and upper classes.) Sherlock Holmes hadn’t been created yet but fictional detectives – beginning with Poe’s Auguste Dupin – were just beginning to stir the public imagination; Jonathan Whicher, who headed the Road Hill House murder investigation, was the inspiration for the fictional Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ bestselling The Moonstone, possibly the first English detective novel. Charles Dickens (who is a recurring presence in this book) showed a strong interest in the case and used elements from it in his last, unfinished book The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Many of the modern investigative methods we take for granted today weren’t available at the time, but physiognomy – the idea that a person’s inner life could be “read” by studying his features – was popular, as was the theory that madness was genetically passed down from a mother to her female children. On the Origin of Species had just been published, and it’s briefly hinted that the Road Hill House murderer might have been influenced enough by Darwin’s theory of evolution to have abjured religion (thereby becoming an instrument for Satan!).

What I liked best about this book is how lightly it wears its erudition. Almost in passing, Summerscale gives us tidbits of information: about the origins of words like “clue”, “sleuth” and “bobbie”, for example, or about the “sensation novels” of the 1860s, widely denounced for corrupting the public and “calling forth brutish sensations in their readers”. There’s a restraint in her own writing, which must have been difficult to achieve give the wealth of material she drew on and strung together (some of the endnotes – more expansive than your regular footnotes – are just as interesting as the main body of the book). And despite all this, she never loses sight of the human side of the case. When I closed the book (feeling a good deal more informed about a place and time than I had been before I opened it), one of the things that stuck with me was the non-sensationalistic account of the body’s discovery, as two people see bloodstains on the floor and realise that they are about to find a dead child, not a living one: “See, William, what we have got to see...Oh William, here it is.”


  1. Jai, you must read Drood by Dan Simmons - a recent 'thriller' about the last days of Charles Dickens told from the point of view of Wilkie Collins. Throws a lot of light on those times, and on the entire origins of the detective genre. Will look for Suspicions of Mr. Whicher soon. It sounds like just the kind of book I would like

  2. Gauri: thanks, will look out for Drood.

  3. Sounds fab. Wil try it. You should read "Arthur and George" by Julian Barnes if you haven't already.

  4. kavitha: yes, read it and loved it. Reviewed it here.

  5. I couldn't read past the first paragraph or two, because the book sounds rather nice, and I wasn't sure if your review was going to give away some parts of the story which might come as a surprise, ie, your review might contain spoilers. Could you please put it on the top, if it does or doesnt contain "spoilers", and exactly how much are the spoilers giving away?

    Thanks much!

  6. Anon: no, there are no spoilers in the review, but (as I mentioned in the first sentence of the third para - I assume you didn't get there!) this isn't a murder mystery. The killer's identity is definitely not the key thing here.

  7. "was found brutally murdered"
    off-topic, but couldn't resist. Why do people always write "brutally murdered" when just "murdered" would suffice ? Is it possible to gently or carefully or subtly murder someone ?
    Sorry, don't mean to nitpick or I said, just couldn't resist...


  8. Sridhar: well, of course a murder is a murder - end result the same etc - but slicing a three-year-old's neck so that the head nearly comes off, and then stabbing it violently in the heart, is different from merely stirring some arsenic into the little darling's Cerelac. In this case the word "brutally" serves to inform the reader that it may have been a crime of extreme passion as opposed to pre-meditated.

  9. Thanks for the gory details, man.
    Lesson learnt: never mess with a journalist ...just kidding !

  10. great post... thx for the gory details

  11. This in fact reminds me of "The French Lieutenant's Woman"(the book).

    In fact, the blurb on its back cover says something about exploring the Victorian sexuality and that has been the undertext of the book throughout.

    To take it to even higher levels, the author has even added several "footnotes" - the first and last I saw in a fiction book.

    I was totally delighted on coming across these for the same reason you stated:
    When I closed the book (feeling a good deal more informed about a place and time than I had been before I opened it)...

    One such footnote (to illustrate my point)... when the hero is described as an "agnostic" (again recalling from memory):

    But he couldn't have described himself so for the simple reason that the word wasn't discovered until 18xx

  12. I too enjoyed reading it!
    @jabberwock: great review!

  13. thanks for posting! that was interesting to read

  14. I recently read this and really liked it. It reminded me at several places of Arthur and George which I thought was better - and I think thats purely because of the writing.
    Loved how many themes and issues Summerscale addresses while still keeping you engrossed in the mystery ( I did not know who the murderer was - and do we really even now - there was no DNA then remember?). Though several parts of the book were quite interesting I did enjoy to learn how "insanity" was used to excuse one from crime and how if one argued correctly " crime committed in a moment of insanity ( really?) " was liable to the same exclusion. But then not much has changed really?

  15. I read it and i think this Book is really good.
    You must read Joy Fielding Run Jane Run.