The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we’re watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I’m Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix’s strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don’t seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they’re portrayed.

It is in this frame of mind that I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. It was immediately obvious that I was in for something that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. As Summerscale herself acknowledges in the introduction (page XIII):

This book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery, the form that the Road Hill case inspired, and uses some of the devices of detective fiction. The content, though, aims to be factual. The main sources are the government and police files on the murder, which are held in the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, and the books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper pieces published about the case in the 1860s, which can be found in the British Library. Other sources include maps, railway timetables, medical textbooks, social histories and police memoirs. Some descriptions of buildings and landscapes are from personal observation. Accounts of the weather conditions are from press reports, and the dialogue is from testimony given in court.

Even with the acknowledgement, the book is an odd amalgam of embellished factual accounts of a horrific murder, straightforward biographical information of the titular Johnathan Whicher and the family Kent, and a survey of mid-nineteenth century detective fiction. There are times when Summerscale follows one of these three tangential threads too far, but for the most part, she manages to weave them together in a deft and engaging fashion.

The mystery at the center of the book concerns a gruesome murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860. Local police bumbled through the investigation, eventually leading the government to dispatch Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jack Whicher to the small town to investigate. Whicher sized up the situation and quickly came to the shocking conclusion that the murderer must have been a member of the Kent household. Everyone from Saville’s father to his nursemaids came under suspicion, though Whicher favored Saville’s half-sister, Constance Kent. However, Whicher had been brought into the case nearly a week after the murder. The evidence was mostly circumstantial and most leads had gone cold before he even started the case.

And it was a very odd case. It’s easy to see why fiction authors appropriated so much from the story in later novels. Every clue, every piece of new information, every close examination of the evidence at hand seemed to make the case less clear. Summerscale writes (page 75):

The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.

Summerscale delves into the tricks of Whicher’s trade from time to time, and it does make for fascinating reading. I love to read about the devils in the details on which something like this murder mystery hinges. For instance, one of the mini-mysteries the case presents us with is a missing nightdress. This sounds like a minor detail, but Whicher immediately seizes upon the missing clothing as a precious clue. Summerscale takes the opportunity to describe the origins of the word “clue” and why Whicher was so keen on solving the mini-mystery of the missing nightdress (from page 68):

The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew,’ meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The wirters of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word… a plot was a knot, and a story ended in a ‘denouement’, an unknotting.

Then, as now, many clues were literally made of cloth – Criminals could be identified by pieces of fabric.

Summerscale then proceeds to detail several cases where Whicher himself managed to solve a crime due to the fortuitous discovery of unique or identifiable clothing, eventually concluding (from page 70):

The thread that led Theseus out of the maze was true to another principle of Whicher’s investigation: the progress of a detective was backwards. To find his way out of danger and confusion, Theseus had to retrace his steps, return to the origin. The solution to a crime was the beginning as well as the end of a story.

I have a fascination with such details, so of course I wouldn’t have minded if Summerscale indulged in more of such analysis, but it’s clear that she was trying to walk a tight line. I would be easy to stray too far from her focus on the mystery and the man sent to investigate, and she manages to walk that line well enough.

Whicher is an interesting man in himself. Most of what we know about him is in his police reports and correspondence. I would have loved to read more about the man, but from what I can tell, Summerscale has unearthed every conceivable piece of knowledge about the man, and still came up a bit short. As a plain-clothes detective, he obviously avoided attention as much as possible, which probably explains some of the missing information – for instance, there doesn’t appear to be any pictures or paintings of the main available. That being said, he’s certainly a worthy subject for study. He seems to possess keen observational skills as well as a knack for finding holes in a story and clues. He appears quite confident in his perceptions, though as the subhead of the book notes, he is somewhat shaken by the mystery at Road Hill House. His initial investigation yielded no convictions and he returned to London a different man, though I think calling this his “Undoing” is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, after Summerscale establishes the central mystery, I feared that the subhead implied that no solution would really be found.

Fortunately, there is a closure of sorts, though I will not spoil the book by delving too deeply into that here. Suffice to say that by the end of the book, we are a bit closer to what actually happened, though the inherent difficulty of rebuilding a picture of the past is one of the themes of the book. In today’s day and age, with TV shows like CSI showing what you can do with forensics in explicit detail, it’s easy to forget how difficult it would be to figure out what happened in the past (and to be honest, even given the advanced forensic technology available, shows like CSI still gloss over the difficulties of a murder investigation). Mr. Whicher had no such forensic luxuries in his day and had to rely on his cunning and intuition, perhaps moreso than would be comfortable with modern populations. Indeed, one of the undercurrents of the book is how England was reacting to the notion of a “detective” – a concept that was somewhat new to the world. Many felt that detectives were too intrusive and seedy, in it only for the money or glory. Whicher does not seem like that type though. He’s reserved and curious, confident in his prowess, but honorable in his manner.

Of course, I’m basing my opinion of the man on what could be argued is a partially-fictional representation of the man and his actions. This question of what is real and what is fiction is something that kept coming to mind while reading this book. Part of that might be the year in film, as previously mentioned, but I think other readers would find such questions arising when reading the book as well. Of the three main components of the story I mentioned earlier (murder mystery, biography, and survey of detective fiction), it is the latter that calls reality into question the most. There seems to be a general idea that quoting fiction in a formal argument is bad form, and as such I can see some people being taken aback by Summerscale’s book. While impeccably researched and sourced, she does give the book a flare you don’t normally see in non-fiction. As she mentions in her introduction, she uses many devices of detective fiction in her writing. She directly references detective fiction of the day, as well as authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Wilkie Collins (Arthur Conan Doyle is not really referenced until later in the book, as Doyle did not start writing his Sherlock Holmes books until well after Whicher’s heyday). Some of these references are to non-fiction – Dickens interviewed Whicher, for instance, and Summerscale includes many of Dickens’ insights into Whicher and the case at Road Hill House – but some references are directly from detective fiction. Again, some might find that inappropriate, but I’m sympathetic to such techniques, and I think Summerscale does an exceptional job mixing fact and fiction, to the point where I don’t think the book would be as informative or interesting if it didn’t mix those seemingly incompatible components. Ultimately, I think this combination yields some insights that a traditional scholarly effort might have missed, and I quite enjoyed the book for the way it treated both real and fictional detectives (page 304):

Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional – to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story,” observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.

It was a good read, and I would recommend it to any one interested in mysteries or the era. Special thanks to longtime Kaedrin reader and friend, Spencer, for giving me this book.