I’m not often a fan of true crime, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale, hooked me from page 1. Jonathan Whicher was one of the first detectives in London’s Metropolitan Police in 19th Century London. The detectives were sent all over England to solve thorny crimes; Summerscale builds Mr. Whicher around the murder of a toddler at Road Hill House, in England’s west country. It was a “locked-room” mystery—the family and servants locked into the house for the night, and no possibility of a stranger breaking in. Suspicion fell on everyone in the family and on most of the servants, without an arrest.
Whicher was called in by the local authorities some two weeks after the crime was discovered, by which time the perpetrator had been able to dispose of the evidence. Nonetheless, Whicher quickly sorted out the matter based on years of experience, and his astute powers of observation and analysis. He couldn't prove the case, though, and his career was almost destroyed by the calumny he underwent.
The murder gripped England for over a year. Just as today’s blogs relentlessly push conspiracy theories as facts and keep unearthing evidence supposedly concealed by authorities, dozens of Victorian newspapers kept the story alive with their own conspiracy theories. Armchair detectives wrote books “proving” the guilt of one or another member of a household they’d never seen. Reading the book, all I could think of was Glenn Beck and the Birthers, or Natalee Holloway—the white teenager whose disappearance in Aruba dominated the Net a few years ago.
More than a true-crime account, though, and more than the account of Jonathan Whicher’s amazing career, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher tells the story of the intertwining of the detective novel and real-life detectives. We learn how 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 himself took a keen interest in the Road Hill murder; he had his own theory about the murder, which he published, and used it not just as he thought about Inspsector Buckett in Bleak House, but in his uncompleted Murder of Edwin Drood.
Summerscale 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 skill.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is riveting, and a must-read for mystery writers and readers who care about the origins of their genre.
See Sara Paretsky's website at: http://www.saraparetsky.com/