The Surprising and Brilliant Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Lockdown reading Detective Non-Fiction

‘When I had heard all the evidence, I leaned back and shut my eyes and began to think.’
Hercule Poirot
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

In the best detective novels, there’s always a dazzling twist at the end—Murder on the Orient Express, Trent’s Last Case,… Arguably paradox is at the heart of many of the best stories. This is as true of non-fiction as it is with fiction. For me, however, I take pleasure in knowing the end before I begin. Unusually, I didn’t do this with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I read to the end; the ending came as a shock.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher still uses fictional techniques to make its non-fiction narrative more exciting. The author takes inspiration from some great writers and experts. In the acknowledgements at the end, she thanks PD James and Detective Inspector Douglas Campbell. John Le Carré has praised the book, as have the Guardian and the Spectator.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is still non-fiction. Lots of background information from contemporary newspapers and books was provided for context. The reader was told about the rise of detectives in England. We were given a history of detective literature. We were informed about other famous cases. Kate Summerscale doesn’t ‘tell’ us how she thinks or how we should feel—she shows us doubts and different contemporary opinions.

Whicher and his colleagues were eulogised by Charles Dickens in several magazine articles: ‘They are, one and all, respectable-looking men,’ Dickens reported, ‘of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence; with nothing lounging or slinking in their manners; with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed; and generally presenting in their faces, traces more or less marked of habitually leading lives of strong mental excitement…. George Augustus Sala, a fellow journalist, found Dickens’ enthusiasm cloying—he disliked the novelist’s ‘curious and almost morbid partiality for communing with and entertaining police officers…. The detectives, like Dickens, were working-class boys made good, thrilled to find themselves with the run of the city.’
Chapter 4: A Man of Mystery

We are presented with different ideas, including that people didn’t have clear answers.

‘The dominant theme in the press was bewilderment. So much was known and yet so little could be concluded: the columns of coverage only amplified the mystery.’

‘The characters in the case had come to have double selves: Constance Kent and Elizabeth Gough were angels in the house, or she-devils; Samuel was the loving father, overwhelmed with grief and insult, or a ruthless, sex-crazed tyrant; Whicher was a visionary, or a vulgar fool.'

‘An editorial in the Morning Post showed how suspicion still fell on just about everyone in the house, and several beyond it.’
Chapter 12: Detective Fever

Reading the different theories was almost like reading M. Bouc’s changing thoughts in Murder on the Orient Express. By presenting different opinions without comment, the author built up trust with the reader.

Constance Kent’s barrister, Peter Edlin said in his summation:

’And where was the evidence? The one fact—and I am ashamed in this land of liberty and justice to refer to it—is the suspicion of Mr Whicher, a man eager in the pursuit of the murderer, and anxious for the reward that has been offered.’

‘By any standards, Whicher’s case had been weak. There were several practical reasons for his failure… What finally swung things against Whicher that day was Edlin’s speech, his depiction of the detective as vulgar, greedy, rapacious in his destruction of a young woman’s life.’

‘In Bleak House, Dickens imagines the feelings of Sir Leicester Dedlock when his house is searched: ‘the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him’. While crime fiction of the 1830s and 1840s had inhabited the rookeries of London, sensational crime in the 1850s had begun to invade the middle-class house, in fiction and in fact. ‘Very strange things comes to our knowledge in families,’ says Bucket. ‘Aye, and even in gen-teel families, in high families, in great families…you have no idea…what games goes on.’
Chapter 11: What Games Goes On

Like the preoccupation with authority of Middle English poets, by naming sources Summerscale gained credibility. Summerscale notes that the author of an article in the Times:

“worried about the lack of method in detective work—it’s reliance on imagination, intuition, guesswork—and yearned for a more dispassionate procedure: ‘it is well known that detectives begin by assuming the guilt of some one, and then try how far their hypothesis will fit the circumstances. There is still room for the application of a more scientific process, and it may be that the facts, more calmly and impartially interrogated, will tell their own story.’ The Saturday Review echoed this, calling for a ‘more severe Baconian process’ of deduction from empirical facts: rather than start with a theory, the detective should simply make ‘a rigid, impartial, and unimpassioned registration of phenomena.’ The perfect detective, it seemed, was not so much a scientist as a machine.”
Chapter 14: Women! Hold Your Tongues!

Perhaps journalists should face the same criticism today that detectives faced then. However, today, the police have robotics and AI to assist with detection, although even robots face criticism for having biased algorithms (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/artificial-intelligence-is-now-used-predict-crime-is-it-biased-180968337/).

Summerscale did not seem to suffer from having a narrative line she wanted to present to the reader, or she disguised it better than most non-fiction writers. Summerscale presented the information and let it speak for itself. This was arguably more compelling than manufacturing feelings and creating a narrative. Summerscale's way of showing the information and artfully revealing the facts let me in Poirot’s words: shut my eyes, lean back, and enjoy thinking about the evidence for myself. 

I’m not going to spoil the end of the book because the ending, at least for me, was genuinely unexpected.

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