Monday, 11 August 2008

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has been one of the most successful books to have appeared during the past twelve months and I have finally caught up with it. Amongst other successes, the novel was short-listed for the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction, and I can’t think of any other ‘true crime’ book of recent years that has earned comparable sales and critical acclaim.

The eponymous Jonathan Whicher was one of the first Scotland Yard detectives, much admired by Dickens and Collins; he (and his colleague Inspector Field) inspired the creation of Inspector Bucket and Sergeant Cuff, the memorable sleuths in Bleak House and The Moonstone respectively. Whicher’s most celebrated and controversial case is the subject of Summerscale’s book – ‘the murder at Road Hill House’ of 1860, aka the case of Constance Kent.

Various writers have tackled the Constance Kent case, and the merit of Summerscale’s book is not so much original research and theorising (though her researches have been wide-ranging) as the quality of the writing and her account of Whicher’s role in forming our view of the nature of the detective.

A knowledgeable friend and true crime enthusiast had told me that there was nothing much that was new about the book, but I was very far from sharing his disappointment – and not merely because I wasn’t familiar with the details of the case. For me, Summerscale’s accessible style and her ability to tell a true story with a novelistic flair deserve high praise. They make this book one of the most compelling reads around.


Shuku said...

Goodness it -has- been a while since I caught up with all the blogs I needed to read. It's good to be back, Martin! I have to play catch-up since May but it's all good. I must get hold of this book now, it sounds fascinating.

Question! Are there any good rules to tell a batch of aspiring writers as far as research for a piece of writing goes?

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Shuku. Good to hear from you again. As for research, there's a big difference between fact and fiction. With fiction, I think you need to avoid the research overwhelming the story. With fact books, of course, painstaking research is crucial. Summerscale's book is good because she manages to make the story fascination while cramming in a huge amount of information. No mean feat.