The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

14 August 2009
Prologue and Part 1
In the Prologue Summerscale mixes careful research and literary history. She’s telling us we’re going to get a kind of documentary but, hey, we’re going to be present at a birth as well: Whicher and his kind came along at the exact moment when fiction writers were discovering how interesting a genre they had recently stumbled on. So we’re going to get a whodunnit, but this one is real. What larks.

In Part 1 she tells us what we need to know. The no-nonsense, no-frills style she goes for is almost a pastiche of factual reportage. Occasionally she’ll remind us that we are at the start of a process that reached a real outcome 150 years ago: this or that omission or guilty look ‘was to lead to’ some kind of outcome or suspicion…. But we know this is all just scene-setting. We’ve met Whicher, tantalisingly, in the Prologue, and we know that the investigation before his arrival is going nowhere.

Summerscale’s technique of dangling Whicher before our expectant eyes early on is one of the things that makes this a literary experience. Ok, we’re learning interesting things about 19th Century attitudes, but all that does is put this book squarely in a decades-old tradition of Victorian-watching. Look how strange they were, said John Fowles in 1969. And J G Farrell in 1973. And A S Byatt in 1990. We’ve not been in precisely this place before, but we know all about how people like the respectable buttoned-up Kent family are as complicated and passion-driven as we are ourselves. It’s just that they don’t know it like we do. At the end of Part 1, as Whicher finally receives the call, we know we’re in for a great time watching this family find out – poor, bare, forked animals – who they really are.

16 August
Chapters 4-9 : first half of Part 2
As the family are forced to look into themselves, Summerscale is keen to tell us how the new taste for reading and writing about crime is letting the world look into their darkest secrets at the same time. The newspapers, being launched at the rate of several per month by the sound of it, were loving this case: it seemed to confirm what other cases had discovered, or uncovered: you can’t be sure of anything or anybody once a crime has been committed. Early on in Part 2 Whicher is homing in on Constance, the murdered boy’s half-sister, and not many chapters later she’s in jail on remand. But that doesn’t stop Summerscale, or the newspapers, or us, speculating about other suspects. Was it an outsider? One of the servant girls? Or, best of all, was it the father and the nursemaid?

This part of the book is full of ologies. We get the sociology/criminology behind the need for a new set-up in policing in London, the psychopathology of crime – Freud’s definition of analysis in the 1890s is compared with detective work in the 50s and 60s – new trends in Darwinian biology undermining old certainties about what was human beings were capable of. They’re all there like rounds in QI – and now I think of it, in Gosford Park Stephen Fry played exactly the kind of amateurish local copper first being outperformed in the public’s eyes by the new London detectives like Whicher. And the public’s eyes really were being opened: I don’t know what ology it comes under, but the rise of what we now call tabloid journalism was taking place at exactly this time and crimes like this one were real sellers.

Summerscale has a lot to say about the relationship between real crime and the new genre of crime fiction. As she lists the details of this murder, and Whicher’s methods, she’s as happy to compare them with fictional cases as with real ones. The newspapers’ exhaustive reports of the investigation, and their constant speculation about the different suspects’ likely guilt or innocence, gave readers the chance to play detective. Everyone could be a sleuth, following leads and clues on the way to the hoped-for denouement. And there’s another ology: Summerscale is keen to unravel for us the etymology of these detective terms, largely based on the twin metaphors of Theseus following his thread out of the labyrinth and of untying knots. In our own decade, the one that spawned QI, she seems to have discovered our need for unexpected facts – and, on cue, we marvel at how words we take for granted all came into the public domain in or around the 1850s. Well, her showmanship works for me anyway.

Cleverest of all, for me, is how Summerscale’s own style exactly matches the genres she is unpacking for us. She tells us about aliases, feints, the false clues left by criminals of the time. She reminds us how clues that seem important might have no significance at all, how the detective – and what fun she has describing for us the new cult of the detective and his powers – has to make decisions about what leads to follow and which ones are false. All the time, of course, she’s using exactly the same writer’s techniques as the ones she describes: she puts us in the same position as the readers of the papers in 1860. So we don’t know whether Constance will eventually prove to be guilty (although we doubt this, so early on in the book), what secrets and lies Mr Whicher has yet to uncover.

But I can’t decide whether this cleverness is just Summerscale playing tricks. Sometimes it seems incredibly sophisticated: if it was a novel I’d be tempted to call it a metafiction. But… but I‘m not completely won over. Penn and Teller, the American debunkers of stage magicians‘ techniques, play tricks on us while showing us how they work. Is Summerscale doing anything more? Sometimes the slow unfolding of the plot, and those informative chapters, complete with footnotes and end-notes, seem like so much fluff. If this is a whodunnit, why doesn’t she just get on with it?

18 August
Chapters 10-14: second half of Part 2
Of course, it isn’t really a whodunnit. So these five chapters are allowed to be highly inconclusive, lacking in direction, and dull. And – gasp! – what if Whicher’s first suspicion – the one he’s sticking to – is right after all? Not much of a plot, is it? Crime is committed, copper works out who the perpetrator is, he gets her convicted in the end. It would mean that about 80% of the book is concerned with the delay between the second and third parts of that scenario. It’s social history, and if the whodunnit style is simply a trick to keep us reading, well, that‘s fair enough. For this particular brand of social history to work, Summerscale needs us to feel the detective fever – and the frustration – of those living through it.

So, even now I‘m thinking… maybe the father did murder the child after all. But that would put Whicher in the position of the Stephen Fry incompetent cop – he’s suffering badly in the press already – and confirmation of a failure like that would finish him. It would make all that hagiography in the early part of the book look a bit silly. But listen to me, doing exactly what Summerscale wants us to do.

What have we found out in these chapters? Er…. The best bit is about the class prejudice against the police. When things weren’t going well in the case, particularly after a toff of a barrister made fun of the lack of firm evidence, Whicher suffered a kind of backlash. The media was uneasy about the way a working-class man had turned over a middle-class household, and there was a widespread sense of him somehow having dirtied his hands, as though he‘d been caught in some sort of perversion. (There’s a lot of dirty linen involved, literally.) But we all know how odd the Victorians were.

Maybe more interesting than the class thing is the way prurient investigatory journalism, alive and kicking in our century, began so long ago. And the fact that once somebody – anybody – was in the public eye, reporters said whatever they liked about them. Samuel Kent, by the end of the year, couldn’t go out without a press pack around him, and he had to take half a year’s leave from work. Plus ça change.

Chapters 15-17: first half of Part 3
What a difference a few chapters make. To start with, Chapter 15 has Summerscale returning to her neatest technique: matching real events to what was happening in the world of literature. The case goes cold and, four years after the murder, Whicher retires under a cloud, apparently a burnt-out case – and Summerscale is quite brazen about quoting the innermost thoughts of several detectives from the newly fashionable sensation novels to take us, by a kind of proxy, inside the real copper’s head.

And then… Whicher is proved right. As Summerscale is keen to remind us, though not straight away, he’d always predicted that the case would remain unsolved until Constance confessed. Which is exactly what she does, five years after the event. Two chapters later she’s been tried, convicted and sentenced to life. (Never mind for now how public opinion made a commutation of the death penalty inevitable, despite the horror of the child’s murder.) Case closed.

As if. There are still three chapters to go, and I’m betting William had something to do with it. Questions have been raised about whether Constance could really have gone through all the steps of the murder on her own as she somewhat ‘coldly’ outlines in her description. And she states that one of her main motives for confessing is to lift suspicion from everybody else…. But I’m never right. And to be honest, I’m not that bothered. The murder is only the McGuffin in this book: despite my earlier complaints it’s the light Summerscale throws on Victorian values that’s most interesting.

19 August
Chapter 18 to the end: second half of Part 3 and Afterword
The Afterword is one of Summerscale’s clever touches. She reminds us that this isn’t a whodunnit, is no ‘ tragedy with a happy ending’ (to use Raymond Chandler’s phrase, as Summerscale does). A child really did die, a fact the author claims to have almost forgotten during the writing of most of the book – and in saying so she suddenly reverses what she has been doing for 300 pages: she undercuts her favourite method of talking up the similarities to help us inside the heads of those involved in this not-fictional story.

In the chapter before this, she’s piled on details of circumstantial evidence – you know, the sort that didn’t work for Whicher in his efforts to bring Constance to trial – to uncover secrets of the Kent family that the confession and 20-minute trial left hidden. It’s as if she knows that she can’t write a whodunnit-style account and leave us poor readers so unsatisfied….

The first is to do with the premature deaths and apparent madness in the family. These fit with the possibility that Samuel Kent, respectable paterfamilias was – wait for it – syphilitic. And while we’re pausing to let that one sink in (actually, I can’t remember if this is the order Summerscale presents them in), guess who helped Constance. Probably. For reasons we don’t fathom until near the end, we get a tedious chapter on William’s successful life as a naturalist. In the final chapter Summerscale points out that it would never have happened if Constance hadn’t, basically, cleared him of all suspicion. But he almost certainly helped her to kill the little boy. So, good. We’ve got our final chapter revelations – there‘s also a long letter almost certainly written by Constance in her old age – and we’re happy.

I liked it, especially what Summerscale has to say about ‘detective fever’, the rise of the popular media (and the way fiction and reality became very blurred at this time), the public’s appetite for scandal and muck. And I liked the way she steeps the book in thriller techniques to make it a page-turner. Ok, she gives too many details and extras – I suppose she’d done the research and wanted to show it – and I’d be happy to delete most of the second half of Part 2. And the long mini-biographies of the family members after the trial. And Whicher’s life after the case that nearly did for him. Ok, Victorian novelists used to do this, but they tied up their loose ends in a few paragraphs, not whole chapters.

It’s the QI sections I like best. Nice to keep learning something new.


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