Monday, 25 April 2011

The Suspicons of Mr Whicher - review

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, starring Paddy Considine and based on the best-selling true crime book by Kate Summerscale, has just been screened on ITV. I enjoyed the book enormously - it read like a novel, and the light cast on the evolution of the detective in fiction was at the heart of its appeal.

I wasn't sure whether the TV version would live up to my expectations, but on the whole it was perfectly watchable, if a bit slow in places. Considine wore a pained, long-suffering expression for most of the time, but gave a decent performance as a decent man and a fine detective. However, the literary impact of the real life story was predictably sacrificed because of the needs of the television medium.

The Road House mystery is fascinating - Agatha Christie referred to it in her fiction, and Dorothy L. Sayers also had her theories about it. One of the intriguing points is that Constance Kent, following her belated confession to murder and eventual release from custody, lived to be 100 years old.

John Rhode, Sayers' friend, wrote up the case in a little-known Detection Club book called The Anatomy of Murder, and I think it's fair to say that the influence of true crime on Golden Age detective fiction, as well as on Victorian such as Wilkie Collins, was enormous, although it's not a point that Summerscale really emphasised.


J F Norris said...

Yet another British TV show I will have to wait for a DVD release. My list of these shows is getting longer every week.

I thought the book was utterly fascinating. You are right that it read like a novel. I thought the author's analogy of the investigative techniques used by Whicher and how they later showed up in Victorian sensation fiction was rather brilliant. I knew nothing of the true crime aspect though the case is continually referred to in many Golden Age detective novels. I think Carr mentions Constance Kent a few times in his books. Curt Evans would know the exact titles!

Fiona said...

Thank you for solving a minor mystery of my own, Martin: I read the book and knew I'd come across the story before...I went throught the two Dornford Yates semi-autobiographical books, feeling sure that must have been the source, but to no avail (so I went through them again!) Now I know it must have been a Christie novel I was remembering - do I have to read the entire canon to find the source, or will you pout me out of my misery please?

I didn't enjoy the book very much; I found Kate's style irritating as it veered from thriller to dry statement of fact and back. It was quite some time before I could decide whether it should be classed as fact or fiction, even though I knew it was a true story, and having read it once I decided that was quite sufficient and gave the book away.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I remember enjoying "Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," although I remember it was different than I'd somehow expected. I'm curious to see how they'd adapt it for TV.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Francis Kent turns up in the creepy 40s ghost-story compilation film Dead of Night.

Deb said...

I read Summerscale's book last year and found it a very interesting "true crime" story.

IMHO, the facts prove that Constance Kent could not have carried out the murder all by herself. I believe she was assisted by her brother but "took the fall" as it were to allow her brother to continue his studies. And, yes, she did live to be 100--that she was still alive into the 1940s is surprising.

The Passing Tramp said...

John Street must have received quite a frisson when he got that Australian letter from Constance Kent in 1928 (Constance not so convincingly pretended merely to be someone who knew her), even though he was a phlegmatic individual--as someone who had to climb trees and church towers to observe enemy positions during WW1 would have had to have been.

Street donated the letter to the Detection Club, but it was lost during WW2. Fortunately his typed personal copy survived and it has been hugely useful to researchers since.

The Passing Tramp said...

Fiona, I share your view of the Summerscale book, though I think the author's theory about the brother is quite convincing. Street experimented with the murder as Constance described it (using a razor and a potato to represent the baby) and concluded that the crime could not have been done as she claimed and that someone else participated in it, though he never speculated as to a specific person. Later writers latched on to the father as the culprit, quite implausibly, I think.

Dorte H said...

A bit slow? Well, I found the book very slow now and then (too much repetition because we see things from more than one point of view) even though I liked learning about the case.

I have just read Lady Audley´s Secret which is said to be inspired by the Constance Kent murder, but if I hadn´t known, I don´t think I would have thought about it. Nice Victorian mystery though not in the very best league. (According to Wikipedia she wrote large parts of it in two weeks which probably explains a lot).

The Passing Tramp said...

Dorte, Braddon wrote a huge number of books, so I would not be surprised!

Summerscale tends to think most everything was based on the Kent case, I think! Some reviews were suggesting the Golden Age detective novel would never have come into being without the Kent murder case, which is an exaggeration. That's a dangerous tendency in writers I think (speaking personally as well): to magnify one's subject. One naturally becomes enthralled with it.

Of course, the Kent case is one of England's most notorious murders, no question. Yet it's not the Rosetta stone of English detective fiction. the public was interested in crime investigation before the Kent case (see Bleak House, for example).

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, The Invention of Murder is very interesting on this topic.