Monday, September 22, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

It's not often I read a book in a weekend, but it does happen from time to time that something catches me and won't let go until it's done.

This weekend, vast chunks of time were devoted to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, a book that started off crammed with dull, extraneous details and overlong descriptions, then swiftly turned into the gripping story of the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent and Mr. Whicher's ill-fated attempts to unravel the family's dark secrets . Summerscale's book is marvelous not only as historical biography but as a history of the genre, revealing interesting little tidbits about the detective story in popular culture (such as the origin of the word "clue" and the first appearance of the term "sleuth" in common usage). The only downside to melding literary and social history is that there are some major spoilers if you haven't read The Moonstone yet. (Alternatively, if you happen to lean toward the baser of the literary arts, the isolated brother/sister pair will remind you less of The Turn of the Screw or the Mystery of Edwin Drood or even Les Enfants Terribles, and more of Flowers in the Attic. Not me, of course, but you know, someone very lowbrow who is not me.)

Aside from that, it's hard not to find yourself compelled to learn more about the strange Constance Kent and her family -- it's even hard to not like her, the girl who'd once donned boy's clothes, shorn her hair, and ran away to sea with her brother to become a sailor. I admire Summerscale's ability to weave the various threads together, somehow making it seem as if the whole world was caught up in the affair, from the press and novelists, to the government and police, to the individual Englishman of every class -- even the very weather, stormy and freakish in 1860, seemed implicated in it somehow. And even, possibly, tiny microbes (trust me).

It's hard to be sure exactly what happened on June 29, 1860, the year Saville Kent was murdered, because even the final conclusion leaves room to surmise and wonder. The final chapter, which contains something rather beautiful and poignant, will remind you that, after all the thrill and sensation of (possibly) solving a murder, after everything, there were some very sad little children playing this game, and an utterly innocent victim.

Update: Silly me, I was so excited that I totally forgot to mention something. There is a wonderful set of minor characters in this book, the older sisters Elizabeth and Mary Ann, who are two eerily circumspect spinsters who keep to their own quarters and to themselves. So this book gets double extra spinster points! It has everything!


Campaspe said...

Wow, I had been seeing this book touted but had not read enough to realize it was the Constant Kent case! Sold. I love this sort of thing, though I never did read Flowers in the Attic ...

Andrea Janes said...

Oh, it's so good! You'll be haunted by the strange pairs of siblings -- not only the brother and sister but also the weird, neglected spinster sisters who kept to themselves. The first chapter is super slow, but once you get past that you won't put it down, honestly. I'd love to know what you think if you do read it.