Hunting for clues and endings
This article is from 2009.
It can be a bit of a hunt to find The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Some bookshops call it history, others true crime, while author Kate Summerscale has consciously used some of the techniques of detective novels to hook in her readers. The book looks at a slice of Victorian society, its new science of detection and the fascination of the general public with grisly murder mysteries, through the bloody killing of a small boy at Road Hill House. Mr Whicher is the archetypal early detective who apparently influenced authors such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and in turn crime fiction today.
‘I read about the case in an old Victorian anthology of celebrated 19th century crimes, and I was astonished that I had never heard about it as it seemed so distinctive,’ Summerscale says. ‘I found it much more creepy and interesting than most Victorian novels I had read, and it also felt strangely modern.’ The investigation and court case attracted scores of newspaper articles, letters, theories and fervid interest, largely because it opened up a normally-sealed space: the middle-class Victorian home. ‘The voyeurism and curiosity are very close to what we do when we watch Big Brother,’ she adds. ‘It’s being able to watch the relationships unfold, spying into other people’s houses when they were closed up.’ The device of the detective allows people to indulge, and then close the lid on this voyeurism: ‘It allows us to get close to dark stuff, but the detective restores order in the world like a priest who can find the truth and distinguish right from wrong. We want endings.’
19 Aug 2009, 11.30am, Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh, £9 (£7).