Sara Paretsky’s Blog

Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
July 22, 2009, 10:58 pm
Filed under: reading

This book, by Kate Summerscale, is quite a tour de force.  Jonathan Whicher was one of the first detectives in the Metropolitan Police in 19th Century London, and Summerscale tells the story of the murder at Road Hill House, which Whicher was called to investigate.  The murder of a 3-year-old child in a house where all the family and servants had been locked in for the night gripped England for a year.  Whicher solved the case, but couldn’t prove it, and his career was almost destroyed by the calumny he underwent.

More than a true-crime account, though, it’s the story of the intertwining of the detective novel and real-life detectives, and the story of the way in which criminal investigation, Darwinian science, and Freudian analysis all evolved in tandem, with a shared belief in searching the past for clues.

Dickens and Wilkie Collins both interviewed Whicher and his colleagues at length and based their own fictional detectives on the new breed of professionals.  Dickens took a keen interest in the Road Hill murder.  He had his own theory, which he published in letters, but he wasn’t alone: dozens of newspapers covered every aspect of the case, from detailing the secrets of the family, to offering their own theories of the murder.

Summerscale also describes the secrecy of the Victorian middle-class household.  Her book explains why “locked-room” mysteries became popular–early crime writers were obsessed with the Road Hill locked house mystery.  Wilkie Collins based the Moonstone on Whicher and Road Hill.  When Sherlock Holmes arrived, the perfect detective, he was in a way the embodiment of all of Whicher’s craft.

A must-read for anyone who cares about the mystery genre.

Now–I need something new to read–so tell me what has really gripped your imagination lately.


9 Comments so far
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I love Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s a book for people who love books.

Comment by Kelly

I only read Mr Whicher myself earlier this month and I agree it’s excellent. My two other great reads of late have been MISSING by Karen Alvtegen (a Swedish novel about a homeless woman wrongly accused of a murder) and THE SALADIN MURDERS by Matt Beynon Rees (the 2nd book in a series about a Palestinian teacher turned detective). Very different books but both have wonderful characters, really credible settings and that wonderful lingering feeling that great books give you.

Comment by bernadetteinoz

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and I second Shadow of the Wind, as well as Zafón’s newest book, The Angel’s Game.

Iain Pears’ latest, Stone’s Fall, is also excellent.

Comment by Joan P.

I liked Shadow of the Wind, too. Zafon has a new book out which I haven’t seen yet. Bernadette, thanks for the Rees and Alvtegen suggestions–I don’t know either writer and both sound interesting.

Comment by saraparetsky

Can’t wait to read this one!

Comment by Rachel Benoit

I saw the photograph of your lovely grand-daughter and noted her interest in elephants. I have just read a really interesting book called The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. He runs a nature reserve in South Africa and writes about the challenges and joys of saving a herd of wild /’rouge’ elephants. Its a great read. Its published in England by Sidgwick & Jackson.
This is my first ever attempt to send a comment to a blog … so I hope it works!

Comment by Norma Spark

The elephant whisperer doesn’t seem available yet in the US but I’ll be in the UK in February and will look for it there

Comment by saraparetsky

I picked up and read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher after reading a review of it in The New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed it quite a bit. As for possible recommendations, I am currently reading Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo. It’s about the eugenics movement in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s leading up to the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell. I’ve read a third of it so far and it’s quite interesting. Lombardo is focusing specifically on the case and its consequences. There have been a couple of other books on the eugenics movement and its eventual tragic aftermath in Germany, most notably War Against the Weak by Edwin Black, which is the basis for a moving documentary of the same title that is being shown at various film festivals around the country. As for novels, I just finished Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story about his involvement in the Jack the Ripper case. It was quite good.

Comment by Doug Clark

Thanks for these new suggestions. I’ve started Mark Beynon’s Collaborator of Bethlehem, based on Bernadette’s suggestion, and Doug Clark’s suggestions also sound enticing. There’s an interesting essay in this week’s New Yorker about the eugenics movement, and how it actually was used to dismiss rape charges against a number of black men in the thirties & forties–the white women who were allegedly victims were of low moral character and therefore not considered credible.

Comment by saraparetsky

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