The Sunday Salon on a cold wet Sunday

It’s raining and cold here for today’s Sunday Salon post. Summer wasn’t very long this year but then it often isn’t. It wasn’t in England in 1860 according to my reading today in Kate Summerscale’s remarkable book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, when summer was brought to an end on the evening of 19 July by a tremendous downpour over Somersetshire and Wiltshire. Ditto this year.

This book is the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and it is terrific (Ian Rankin also thinks so). I’ve read nearly half the book and I only started it yesterday. It’s compelling reading but I do have a growing feeling of discomfort because I’m beginning to feel a bit of a voyeur. There is so much detail, not just of the brutal murder of Saville Kent, aged three, but of everything in the lives of the Kent family and the investigations of Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard.

It’s the most amazing book with all the suspects of a classic murder mystery – the original country house murder. Kate Summerscale has thoroughly researched the case using the National Archives, Family Records Centre, and many libraries and museums, including the London Metropolitan Archives and the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection.

Her sources include not just books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper articles but also maps, railway timetables, and so on and so forth – even the weather details are accurate being taken from press reports and the dialogue is from testimony given in court. Did you know that a defendant was not allowed to give evidence at his or her own trial until 1898? I didn’t.

Then there are also the fascinating descriptions of how writers like Dickens and Wilkie Collins used real life police detectives as models in their novels – for example Bleak House, The Moonstone, and The Woman in White. It makes me want to rush and read those books again. Interspersed with the story of the investigation into the murder are details of the role and status of detective, the origin of the word clue, the comparison of a detective with a “sleuthhound” by Charlotte Bronte and the conduct of newspaper reporters. The word “detect” stems from the Latin “de-tegere” meaning “unroof” and the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside! That’s exactly what it feels like reading this book, peering right down to the private lives of the Kent family.

It’s just the most wonderful book, no wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

I’m just wondering if all the copies of this book have the small red blob on the head of the pages that is on the one I’m reading? A nice touch I think continuing the splashes of blood on the front and back covers.

10 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon on a cold wet Sunday

  1. This sounds excellent. Thanks for the addition to my TBR pile! (The only time I’m going to worry is if it’s down to less than a dozen books….)


  2. I saw this in Waterstones the other day and almost bought it. I’ll grab it next time I’m in there as it sounds excellent.


  3. Gautami, that’s the drawback with reading blogs and the pleasure too! My TBR list grows each time daily – I just don’t have an answer.

    Cathy it is really good and I hope you get round to reading it sometime soon. I think I wouldn’t feel happy without a TBR list but mine is far too long.

    Cath, I borrowed my copy from the library, but I wish I’d bought it now. I hope you enjoy it.


  4. Margaret, this sounds like a great book. I interviewed Avis of She Reads and Reads for BBAW and she cited this one as one of her faves for 2008. I’ve been curious about it ever since.


  5. I loved this book as well, although I do know what you mean about feeling like a voyeur; there is a subtle difference between reading about a fictional murder and one that you know actually happened. But I really loved the links drawn between this and fiction. As you say, it makes you want to go back to all those great Victorian novels.


  6. I really liked this one too! You’re right about feeling like a voyeur, though. The author brings us right into the intimate details of this family’s life. The literary aspect was one of the highlights for me, too. It’s fascinated to see how some of my favorite books and characters were derived from the real thing.


  7. I have this on my reading pile and I can’t wait to get to it. It is another book I plan on reading this winter (along with Bleak House). Since I’ve read several books by Wilkie Collins, too, it should be especially interesting!


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