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.