Friday, August 12, 2011

#56: The Suspicions of Mister Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Walker and Co, New York: 2008 357 pages

If you like Jane Eyre, Jane Austen and the rest of the overwrought Victorian authoresses, you may like this book. I do not like either, but found this text mildly entertaining. Summerscale tells this true crime story as it is an 1860s crime novel, and it works to a point. It is in some ways too busy.

Th action occurs in the Road Hill House neat Bath in 1860. A person is found murdered, and the investigation ensues. During its course, Detective Whicher is dispatched from the newly formed Scotland Yard to investigate the case. The case nearly discredits not only him, but also the emerging science of criminology.The case lends itself to multiple books (Detective Whicher was known to Dickens and several other authors), a few oddball crimes and much swooning over men with names like Thornhurst and Brockington. Well, that's not true. But it should be. There is always swooning, and Heathcliff and whatever other "man with dark secrets" usually turns out to be kind of a dick. In this book, it is William Kent, probably known to the if-I-don't-marry-him-I-will-be-a-spinster women as Mr. Kent. And, there are spinsters. Ohhhhhhhh are there spinsters. Two sisters in their late 20s; old hags!

Of course, "criminology" is a term used loosely, and why I hate most Victorian literature (Thomas Hardy and Dickens get a pass, as they tended to write about people who did not matter one jot, not one tittle, to Jane Austen) is summed up in a quote by a police inspector. At first suspicion falls on Miss Gough, the Nanny, who was thought to have been seduced by (wait for it) Samuel Kent, a factory inspector.Of course, Samuel Kent, a true and honest man, had gone through close to 100 servants in a little over 3 years at the house. That is nearly three a month. Dick! After Kent protests his innocence, suspicion turns to the man who found the body, one William Nutt, a shoemaker. But this cannot be, as "Miss Gough is a superior girl for her station in looks and demeanour, while on the other hand Nutt is a slovenly, dirty man, weakly, asthmatical and lame." (128)

Well, well, Inspector Tallcheese, brilliant detective work! Superior girl for her station in looks; give me a fucking break. Sometimes this proper facade is less than maddening, as when a local magistrate starts his own investigation without talking to The Yard or the local constabulary. He is soaked in brandy and yells at the court "Women, HOLD YOUR TONGUES!" and "Anyone with squirrelous babes should leave." High fucking comedy, that. The poor folks of Road village make fun of him for any number of inane questions and high-handed outbursts. This was the high point of the book for me, and Summerscale treats him as the "drunk Uncle at Thanksgiving" character. Things start out well, but they never end well.

I love true crime stories, and this crime spawned a near craze for true crime in newspapers and books. Summerscale seemingly has a quote from a work of fiction for each of the characters in the text; while this scholarship is admirable and well done, it leaves the book a little more dense than it needs to be. As one of my more-disliked professors told me about a paper I wrote, "there is too much foreplay here and not enough, you know." I think he meant fucking, but I am not sure. This certainly is not the worst book that I have read, but it is sort of like a tasty cupcake. I like it at the time, but begin to have remorse over the fat and sugar.

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