Shades Of Words

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher


Call me stupid but I had no clue that this was non-fiction. I had sort of browsed through its review on Danielle’s blog and it seemed intriguing enough. It was only when I was some 20 odd pages into the books I realized that it was based on true events. Written by Kate Summerscale of the Daily Telegraph, this is the second book to chronicle, analyze and report the events that led to and followed the gruesome murder of Saville Kent, a four year old at Road Hill House in England. Written in a way that is comparable to murder mysteries, this book presents the evidence and sequence of events as they took place so that you are pushed to wear a detective’s hat and figure out for yourself what really happened.
Really the ingredients are all there – an old victorian house, pointless and motiveless murder of an innocent boy on the premises, appearances of an inside job, conflicting witness accounts, incompetent local police and the detective from Scotland Yard. Almost sounds like a British mystery novel, right? That brings me to the second key aspect of the book – the growth of detective literature and the influences of the Road Hill Murder on it. Who would have thought that a chronicle of an English murder would also be about literature ? I should have gotten the hint when the opening page states a quotation from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Summerscale, very knowledgably, ties the themes of the murder to what made the first of mystery/murder novels in England. Dickens, Collins, Braddon – the pioneers of the first detective novels were very active commentators in the Kent case and their stories and characters were heavily inspired from this one incident.
Summerscale often talks about how this murder forces one to look at the dark undercurrents of a “gentlemen’s” home. Victorian households by demands of society and etiquette could be repressive where gender inequality existed, social circle was strictly restricted to maintain class distinction and servants played an important part in the dynamics of the household. Take the scenario of the Kent house, Samuel Kent, re-married his governmess, soon after the death of his first wife, who was deemed mentally ill. Samuel and the new Mrs. Kent then proceeded to have children of their own to which they showed increasing partiality. All the four children of the first marriage felt the discrimination – but was it enough to incite them to murder their step-brother?
Now to Mr. Whicher – who is he?  He was one of the first and finest detective of Scotland Yard. He was called to solve the murder at Road Hill. Summerscale points out that a “detective” was a new concept then and people did not appreciate anyone invading the privacey of an Englishman’s home to ask vulgar questions. By the role of their job, they were disliked. Though Whicher was no doubt a brilliant man, and proceeded in a systematic way, his solution to the case did not hold its weight in court. Whicher was disreputed and did not take up another case for quite some time till he was proven right.
As Summerscale chronicles the murder, she also talks about how “detecting” came into being, and its effect on popular culture. Whicher was apparently used as an inspiration for many a fictional detective.
As I read this book, at times reminded of Arther and George by Julian Barnes – there is no particular reason for it except that both these books are about true, apparently unsolvable cases and dealt with crimes of insanity. I was mostly impressed with Summerscale’s research and her ability to tie in the themes of those times. However, there was something about the writing or maybe the editing that wasn’t quite right. The flow of the chapters and even the flow of the paras on a page was not smooth – Summerscale jumped time, characters and locations and sometimes it would just break your train of thought as you read along.

I have intentionally avoided all details to the  mystery with suspects and theories because I dont want to take the intrigue of the book if you chose to read. Which I would recommened highly.


Author: Vipula

Before talking about who we are, we’d like to tell you a bit about how and why Shades of Words came into being. It all started with the idea of “A place where we could share with likeminded people about things we enjoy. From books to music to movies to travel; Shades of Words was to be a place about the best of our experiences” We thought about why should anyone read us? The answer was that whatever we review would be a mix of our experience of the thing along with interesting and useful information about it. So in case you are reading us regularly or even checking us out once in a while then we have succeeded in our efforts someway somewhere. Who are we? Known as Kapil Sood and Vipula Gupta, we thought of Shades of Words on one fine Sunday afternoon. Tired of writing interesting RFP’s and project documentation; we decided to give this a shot. Yes! We work in Indian IT industry. Cupid struck us while were innocently slogging together on the highly intricate job of formatting and beautifying documents! And since then, we have been working together to establish Shades of Words as a place that we can claim as ours. (Because buying a house is still years away!) What else? Kapil also writes some blogs which you can read here and here.

2 thoughts on “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

  1. I studied this with a Summer School I ran last year, alongside ‘The Moonstone’. When you read them in close proximity like that it is fascinating to see the extent to which Collins was influenced by the real life case. Non-fiction that helps us to contextualise novels from another time or culture is wonderful. Have you come across Judith Flander’s new book, ‘The Invention of Murder’, which is about trials in the same period? I haven’t read it yet, but heard part of it serialised and know her from her earlier excellent work. I’m looking forward to that very much when the library eventually tosses it my way.

  2. @Annie – thanks for dropping by. Its quite cool that a professor in english literature would want to even read and then comment on my post. I am quite kicked abt it!
    I read Moonstone almost 2 years ago so its not very clear as to how well they connect but maybe I should go back and re-read it. I still have to read the Woman in White though!
    I am reading Lady Audley’s Secret and that is incredibly similar too. I will also try to spot your recommendation in the library.

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