The Suspicions Of Mr.
Kate Summerscale, 2008
“If every room of a house were seen into by a secret watcher, it would be a showbox even more wonderful than a travelling
exhibition.” James McLevy, Edinborough, 1861
Kate Summerscale tells the story of
a startling disappearance-by-night of an infant child, the son of an affluent English middle-manager, in the year 1860. Along the way she finds means and oppurtunity to mix in several continuous tracks
worth of complimentary but distinctly separate material. The marvel of The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher is that the author is so nimbly able to balance her central story with a number
of other interwoven themes without slackening the pace.
As the tale of the disappeared child
takes on its own complications, the author develops, along another track, a description of the
social structure of the Victorian country manor house. With up- and downstair
servants, laundresses, stablemen, etc., all somehow fitting into a set alignment, this was an ecosystem of it’s own,
labor and class neatly divided and kept in line with varying degrees of benevolence or contempt...
Another full layer is the biography
of Detective Inspector Jonathon Whicher, noteworthy as one of the first of his kind; not just a Police Inspector in a supervisory
position, but one trained for the new ‘detective’ branch of the force, granted ample resources and latitude in
his work as a kind of all-purpose fixer for the trickiest cases.
The disappearance is soon revealed
to be homicide, if at first only by stark circumstantial evidence. And of course
the murder sets all the wheels in motion-- clues are unearthed, suspects are
developed, witnesses questioned, premises examined, and theories are advanced. The
plot thickens, in the finest time-honored fashion.
The residents of manor house, village,
and, courtesy of the popular news broadsheets of the day, the region and Britain
at large-- are soon thrown into a frenzy of suspicion.
So far, reasonably well done, but
not a step outside of the ordinary framework for the genre, whether novel or non-fiction.
It’s going to be up to other active lines of inquiry employed by Summerscale to arrange this in something of
a more innovative setting; and so she does :
As one of the earliest practitioners
of the detective profession, Whicher’s investigation is a formative chapter in the evolution of the newly founded Scotland
Yard, and of detective police work as we know it. Establishing set procedures was as important as a willingness to make imaginative
leaps in tracking the mystery; every new case was unmapped territory. The early
applied sciences of forensics and photography expand to produce concrete advances, and a claim can be made that a whole uninvestigated
sector of Crime—the carefully plotted & camouflaged deceptions of clever villains –were now being taken up
by the professionals, working only with willpower and a magnifying glass.
At the time, author Wilkie Collins
wrote “Nothing in the world is hidden forever. Sand turns traitor, and
betrays the footstep that has passed over it; water gives back to the tell-tale surface the body that has been drowned ...
Hate breaks its prison—secrecy in the thoughts, through the doorway of the eyes ... Look where we will, the inevitable
law of revelation is one of the laws of nature: the lasting preservation of a
secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen.” 
In this romantic construction, the
Master Criminal was now an auteur of the dark arts, and for readers, a cult of the demimonde emerged; truly serious crime was now seen to hold a diabolical signature—legible only to the detective.. The game was afoot, as in the famous,
quasi-surrealist expression of Conan-Doyle.
The year 1860 was right at the epicenter
of the Fictional Mystery as well, a time when readers already knew the frisson of what were called the ‘sensation’
or ‘enigma’ novels of the day; Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolfo
had been popular, combining psychological intrigue with gothic elements, and Poe’s
early detection tale The Murders In The Rue Morgue a bestseller. The decade would soon see Collins’ The Moonstone and Zola’s Therese Raquin -- a wave of harrowing psychological crime thrillers that would establish the way for the clarity of Holmes
& Watson, still to come at the turn of the century...
Another intriguing track explored
here is the Victorian preoccupation with privacy and propriety. A man’s
house was his castle, presuming he was a man of reasonable wealth, anyway, and the position was that any question or suspicion
from the outside was a breach of the social contract. Anything amiss in a properly
administered house was naturally presumed to be a failing of some servant or
other, someone below stairs. An unexplained murder within the house completely
broke open the boundaries. Strangers intrude to investigate, secrets are spoken,
and hitherto private ‘eccentricities’, so beloved of the age, are exhibited to public scrutiny. Murder may have been the ultimate transgression, but the invisible borderlines of the illicit and the taboo were even more fascinating.
Summerscale writes that “the
family story that Whicher pieced together suggested that ... [the] death .. was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered,
starting with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic muder 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... The danger, in a real murder case, was that the detective might fail to solve the
crime he had been sent to investigate. He might instead get lost in the tangle
of the past, mired in the mess he had dug up...”
A comprehensive way to sum the grander
significance of the mystery as genre -- the issue isn’t so much who is
guilty, but that the very process of detection nearly ensures unforeseen consequences.
Secrets are revealed that were never meant for others to see. A kind of
multi-dimensionality ensues, new pasages leading to plausible new narratives. The mystery story itself travels along on a narrow track, but is enlarged in scope
by an overlay of wider issues, unavoidable and uncontrollable. Pandora’s
awkward box is methodically delved into, with tactful questions raised by the constable, over a nice cup of tea.
The trick on which Detective Fiction
turns, writes Summerscale, is simply that "everyone has something to hide", and that precisely is what makes a competent
Mystery compelling from every angle. And most other fiction, too, come to think
of it. The investigator is by trade a secret watcher, and, per the author, “...the
detective hero might at any moment turn to reveal his grinning double, the voyeur..”
This peculiar sensibility is echoed
in Scottish detective James McLevy’s memoirs, where he notes “It is scarcely possible to imagine a detective’s
feelings on pulling out of a mysterious bag the very things he wants,”...he is drawn to danger, to mystery, to “places
where secret things have been done” . Themes that would later find an ardent student in our old favorite, Mr. Hitchcock, of moving-picture fame.
Summerscale’s account begins
by gradually giving us the necessities of pure plot— the bloodstained nightdress, and the watchdog that only barks once. But as it unravels, in a whirlwind of clues and distractions, The Suspicions Of
Mr.Whicher gives us everything—the facts, the period, the background, the sources, the alternate takes, the secret
tracks, and eventually, the modern remix... Coincidentally very much like Whicher’s reflective and ‘roundabout
way of working’, here meant as making deductions on the fly, although grounded in hard-won evidence.
A strangely unnatural array of character
names begins with the lead character— evidence here is wheedled out of the woodwork by Mr Whicher, the watcher. In an uncanny roster of Clue style names, all of them true, the Physician is named Parsons, the Parson is named Peacock, and the
housemaid and cook are both named Sarah. Which lends a layer of slight unreality to the documentary facts of the case, courtesy
coincidence, that old fellow traveller in the genre. But there are more.
solicitor is named Slack, the washerwoman Hester Holley. Reluctant to be interrogated
is Emma Moody, a dithersome local policeman is Constable Dallimore; the shoemaker
with the cast in one eye is the ‘bumble-footed Mr Nutt'. A false confession
is forwarded, then recanted, by one John Edmund Gagg. And we all thought that sort of thing was invented by Dickens...
But maybe things are the other way
around -- Dickens himself became interested in Whicher’s case and is documented here with comments from time to time;
Henry James calibrated the mood in Turn Of The Screw along the lines
of this case. Wilkie Collins, another contemporary, incorporated extensive material
from the facts here in his groundbreaking Moonstone novel.
In her analysis of Collins, Summerscale
notes that his detective is “after unconscious secrets as well as facts that are not deliberately witheld. He acts as a foil to the novel’s sensation, a thinking machine to interpret the palpitations and
pulsings of the other characters. By identifying with [the detective], ...readers
could shield themselves from the thrills they sought—the story’s untrammelled emotion, the tremble of danger. The fever of feeling was transmuted into the ‘detective-fever’ that burnt
the novel’s characters and its readers, a compulsion to solve the riddle. In
this way the dectective novel tamed the sensation novel, caging the emotional wildness in an elegant, formulaic structure. There was madness, but it was mastered by method.”
Worth noting is the careful inclusion
of maps, diagrams, floorplans, family-tree and archival photographs, which prove invaluable in a multi-facetted narrative
One that belongs on the required list
for every serious mystery reader or armchair detective.