Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or The Murder at Road Hill House The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a lover of detective stories I was intrigued to hear a review of this book which tracks the Road Hill House murder which occurred in 1860. It happened at the time when Detectives as we now know them did not exist, so we see the budding of an embryonic enterprise which went on to blossom into the globally-interlinked agencies we have today. We bear in mind that there were no telephones, no motor cars and no media as we know them today; however the new medium of the Newspaper was causing great excitement. These were the sheets which everyone eagerly went out to buy, in order to find out what was going on in the wider world out there.

Ms Summerscale has included many intriguing events that were going on at the time the murder occurred, and I involved myself by scanning plans of the house, from the plans of the house and grounds provided in the book, which I then printed and folded up into a separate booklet which I read along with the main volume. I'd read a section and then cogitate the scenario, mapping out the rooms and trying to calculate who had the motive and the opportunity to commit the murder, and most importantly, why. Everything you need to know is included in the volume, although if you want to explore further, websites are provided which enable the reader to dig as deep as he desires.

As my reading continued I became sucked into the web of intrigue and frequently found myself scribbling on pieces of paper trying to puzzle out what had really happened, much as people must have done in 1860 when the murder occurred. All round the country folks were eagerly scanning through the broadsheets to see if new maps or clues had been discovered as to the perpetrator of this shocking murder. Small details such as what our detective hero Mr Whicher would typically eat for his breakfast (a chop, a potato and a cup of coffee), the moods of the servants and the spats which flew around in the family brought the story out of the book and into my sitting room. Background details such as the passing of the Factories Act 1933 explained the standing which the head of the household, Mr Kent, would have held in the local community: child labour in factories had become banned, and as Factories Inspector Kent had efficiently seen to compliance of the Law. However this had resulted in the loss of about £400 per annum to the village, so in real terms this increased the poverty of the villagers. This fermenting resentment against Kent adds spice for those who speculate which persons might harbour a motive to commit this horrible crime against a 12-year old boy.

I tended to give this book short readings which were interspersed with periods of cogitation and musing. I lived the story as if at first hand and sometimes when I woke up in the night I felt a tingle of fear in my spine; for although the episode had occurred in 1860, the tale reverberated in my ears with a curiously modern tone. I was fascinated to read which characters in the story had survived well into the twentieth century, one of them even dying within shouting distance of my birth. My mind was thick with intrigue and speculation when I tried to figure out 'who dun it', I marvelled at the secrets which siblings share with one another and hide from the world, and when I drew my own conclusions, my hand went to my mouth to prevent it shouting in alarm.

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